One Play Sparked Falcons
The game was slipping away early in the fourth quarter and the Falcons needed a spark. Clinging to a 17-14 lead, Atlanta hadn't registered a first down on six consecutive possessions. With the Bucs facing third-and-1 from the Falcons' 28, linebacker Chris Draft energized a Georgia Dome crowd of 70,810, which thought he had returned a Michael Pittman fumble for a touchdown.
But officials ruled Pittman's forward progress was stopped before he lost possession, triggering a tantrum by Falcons coach Jim Mora against line judge Tom Barnes. ``I hadn't scored since high school,'' Draft said after Atlanta's 24-14 triumph. ``Seven years in this league and they're trying to take my touchdown away. I guess I didn't look pretty enough.''
With the ball still on the 28, the Bucs declined a field goal attempt and ran Pittman on a fourth-down toss sweep to the right, but he was stuffed for a 2-yard loss by a group of Falcons led by linebacker Matt Stewart. ``The [previous] call didn't really hurt us because we stopped them on fourth down,'' Stewart said. ``We thought we had been hosed out of a touchdown, but then we made the big stop.''
The momentum clearly had shifted Atlanta's way, and running back T.J. Duckett felt it on the sideline. ``That fourth-down stop was huge,'' said Duckett, who burst 21 yards up the middle two plays later. ``We knew we were next up on the field and we knew as an offense, we had to do our part.''
After Duckett's big gain, Michael Vick provided the final margin by hitting tight end Alge Crumpler with a 49-yard scoring pass. None of the Falcons said they were surprised Bucs coach Jon Gruden bypassed a potential game-tying field goal. ``Gruden's an aggressive coach, and he might have sensed a little blood in the water at that point,'' defensive end Patrick Kerney said.
Mora appeared slightly guilt-ridden for berating an official, especially after replays convinced him that they got the call right. ``The officials did make a good call, but we came up with the big stop and I'm so proud of our guys for being able to refocus so quickly,'' Mora said. ``Then our offense comes on and we go 70 yards in three plays. What a momentum swing. You have to capitalize on momentum in this league ... and we did that.''
Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL Competition Committee, agreed Pittman was stopped before losing possession. ``What bothered me was that at the time, no one blew the whistle,'' McKay said, ``but 70 yards later, there was a huddle and they called forward progress. Credit our guys for staying focused in a big game. I have always felt division games at home count for a game and a half.''
A week after averaging 7.6 yards a play against the Chiefs, the best mark in Gruden's 45- game Tampa Bay tenure, the Bucs were limited to an average of 3.4 yards on 56 snaps. And everyone in the Atlanta locker room knew which snap counted the most. ``That was a critical point of the game,'' linebacker Keith Brooking said of Pittman's failure on fourth down. ``The play before that, we thought we had the turnover for the score, but you can't let something like that get you. It's exactly like I said before - we find a way to make the plays.''
Ira Kaufman The Tampa Tribune 15 November 2004