When the NFL threw the NASCAR division together a few years ago, everyone figured the Bucs would own it. And for a year, they did. It belongs to the Falcons now, and from the looks of things at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, it's going to be theirs for some time.
After beating the Bucs 24-14 in McKay Bowl II, the Falcons (7-2) have forced Tampa Bay (3-6) to start chasing other dreams. A wild-card playoff berth tops that list of new pursuits, but the Bucs' performance Sunday left questions about whether that is within reach. Though they came in knowing a loss would all but erase their chances of winning the division, the Bucs stumbled out of the blocks and spotted Atlanta a 17-0 edge.
Then, after a brief rally put the outcome of the game back in question, the Bucs admittedly broke down. After getting stopped on a fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter, a communication breakdown by the defense allowed Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler to run free down the middle of the field and haul in a 49-yard touchdown pass that sealed the Bucs' fate. ``Somebody just messed up,'' Ronde Barber said. ``I mean, to let the best receiver on their team run down the middle of the field untouched like that, that's just not smart football. Like I said, somebody messed up.''
That somebody was safety Jermaine Phillips. He said he didn't hear the call to close in on Crumpler and took full responsibility for the blown play. But while Phillips took the blame for that play, the blame for the loss had to be spread around the locker room. Phillips' mates on defense said they played far below the standards they've set for themselves, and his teammates on offense did the same. That unit produced just 193 total yards, converted just two of 11 third downs, gave up a season-high seven sacks and was penalized seven times.
But the offense's most crucial failure came with the Bucs trailing 17-14 early in the fourth quarter. Michael Pittman was stopped and appeared to fumble on a third-and-1 carry at the Falcons' 28. While officials explained their decision to call back Falcons linebacker Chris Draft's apparent recovery and ensuing touchdown run because Pittman's progress had been stopped, Martin Gramatica began to take the field for an apparent 46-yard, game-tying field goal attempt.
But after a measurement, Jon Gruden decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 by running Pittman on a toss sweep to the right. The Falcons read the play and stuffed Pittman, dropping him 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage and setting the stage for Michael Vick's touchdown pass to Crumpler that clinched Atlanta's victory. ``It was a 46-yard field goal [attempt] and there are no guarantees [you're going to make it,'' Gruden said. ``If I had it to do again, there's no question I'd run the same play and go for it.''
Gruden's decision may have been influenced by the fact Gramatica has missed 15 field goal tries in the past two years, nine from the 40-49 yard range. And Gruden said Gramatica was kicking Sunday after spending part of the week on the sideline with a sore hip flexor. Still, the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 and the toss sweep to Pittman left a few eyebrows raised. ``He's the coach, and he calls the plays,'' Pittman said, echoing a response by many in the Bucs locker room. ``If he says it was perfect call, then it was the perfect call. The offensive unit just didn't get the first down.''
It wasn't the only time. The Bucs recorded just 14 first downs Sunday, only six during a first half in which they fell into the hole they never escaped. ``They came out and did some things, and we just weren't able to get the momentum going the way we did last week, and that kind of hurt us the first few drives,'' Michael Clayton said.
Penalties were among the problems. A pair of false starts killed the Bucs' first drive, and while Vick ran off a couple of big plays, personal fouls helped the Falcons score their first two touchdowns. ``We just didn't play smart football and it killed us,'' Barber said. ``It wasn't really so much that they played real well and did things to us. It was more us messing up. That's what killed us [Sunday], and if we want to do something [with this season] we've got to play smarter and play harder. I mean, 13 penalties, that's ridiculous. That's death to a football team.''
Roy Cummings The Tampa Tribune 15 November 2004