Firmly In Contention
It's late November, or that time in the NFL season when every team not already considered league chaff begins to identify itself as either a postseason contender or pretender. Based on what happened at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, you'd have to say the Bucs are the former category.

When they woke up this morning, fresh off their latest thriller -- a 30-27 victory against the Falcons -- their 7-3 record was tied for second best in the NFC, and they were locked in a tie with Carolina for the NFC South lead. Not only that, but some who still remember what it was like are starting to feel like contenders again. "This is starting to remind me a little bit of 2002," linebacker Shelton Quarles said, referring to the season the Bucs went on to win the Super Bowl. "That team started to come around late in the year and so is this one."

What's coming around is the offense. For the second consecutive week, it engineered a late comeback to win, this time on 45-yard Matt Bryant field goal with 42 seconds remaining. That field goal capped a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives and helped bail out a defensive unit that has suddenly fallen on hard times, though it did come up with a big play when it absolutely had to Sunday.

With the score tied, the clock winding down and the ball in the hands of the Falcons at their 39-yard line, Derrick Brooks pressured quarterback Michael Vick into a fumble that was recovered by Quarles. Bryant's kick came four plays later, and it completed the latest chapter in a season that looks right now as if it will end with the Bucs rewriting their definition for "Buc Ball." "It used to be that when we talked about Buc Ball we were talking about a game we won 10-7, or 13-10," Brooks said. "Now it's 30-27 or 36-35 like it was last week [against Washington]. Doesn't matter; as long as we win."

Actually it does matter. It has been proven contenders become champions by playing sound defense. Lately, the Bucs have fallen shy in that regard. The 27 points they allowed Sunday were the least they've given up in three weeks, but it still brought to 96 the total the Bucs have given up during that span. That's the worst three-game stretch the Bucs defense has had since Monte Kiffin took over as their defensive coordinator 10 years ago. "We're playing well in spurts, but overall we're not playing to our standards," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "There were plays [Sunday] that we just shouldn't have given up."

A lot of them came on third down. The Falcons (6-4) converted 65 percent of their third down chances overall, and during one stretch that began with the start of the second quarter they converted seven of nine. It was during that stretch that Atlanta erased a 13-point deficit and built a 17-13 lead, with the go-ahead touchdown coming on a 4-yard Vick pass to tight end Alge Crumpler on a third-and-goal play.

Unlike a lot of Bucs teams of the past, this one bounced right back. In five plays, the biggest of which was a 27-yard pass from Chris Simms to Michael Clayton, the Bucs traveled 69 yards to regain the lead. Mike Alstott, who last week leapt in for two touchdowns against the Redskins, leapt over a pile of Falcons to score the go-ahead touchdown, making it 20-17.

The Falcons responded with a field goal and then by turning a Keith Brooking interception into a touchdown that gave them a 27-20 lead with 7:36 to play. That's when Simms turned his game up a notch. While facing pressure from the Falcons blitz, he completed a 14-yard pass to Clayton, a 12-yard pass to Anthony Becht and finally an 8-yard pass to Cadillac Williams that got the Bucs to the 9.

One play later, Williams took care of the rest, running for a touchdown that tied the score at 27 and set the stage for Vick's game-deciding fumble. "That's two weeks in a row now that the defense had to kind of rely on us," right tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "That's good for us. We need that. I mean, we took another step forward, as an offensive line, as an offense, as a team."

Williams, meanwhile, took a step back in time -- to the beginning of the season. He was a big playmaker back then, and he was that way again Sunday, running for 116 yards and accruing another 13 on three receptions. "It just feels good to contribute a little bit again," said Williams, who had gained just 69 yards in three games since returning from a left foot sprain.

Williams was part of a rushing attack that gained 5.2 yards per carry and bailed out the Bucs defense and a passing attack that was all but shut down by the Falcons. Joey Galloway, who came into the game leading the Bucs with 51 catches and third in the league in receiving yards with 862, left with those numbers unchanged. "They had [cornerback] DeAngelo Hall on him and had a safety over the top against him all day," Simms said. "We noticed that from the first play and kind of knew they were trying to take him away. But that kind of helped open up our running game a bit, because that took that eighth guy, that safety, out of the box and that helped us run the ball a little better."

The Bucs next run up against the Bears, like the Bucs 7-3 and one of the league's surprise teams. That's where the Bucs' focus is now -- on the next opponent. "It's going to be a big fight for us," Walker said. "In fact, we've still got a lot of big fights ahead of us. But right now, at 7-3, we're feeling pretty good. We're feeling like, we're a pretty good team."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 21 November 2005