Monte Kiffin walked out of the changing room at the Georgia Dome with Sunday's gamebook in hand, shaking his head slowly from side to side. The only numbers that pleased Tampa Bay's humbled defensive coordinator could be found on the bottom of the cover sheet: Bucs 30, Falcons 27.
For the second consecutive week, the Bucs emerged victorious in a shootout that defied Tampa Bay's traditional winning formula of fierce defense and advantageous field position. "Our offense deserves all the props today," Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber said after Atlanta rolled up 26 first downs and 443 yards. "These last two weeks, this offense has lived up to its end of the bargain more than at any point in franchise history."
Kiffin walked to the team bus amid swirling emotions. Last week, the Bucs edged Washington 36-35, despite yielding 23 first downs and 389 yards. Although the line of scrimmage has been dicey for Kiffin's defenders, the bottom line is Tampa Bay and Carolina are tied for the NFC South lead at 7-3. "They had 77 snaps against us today and that's way too many," Kiffin said. "But for two weeks, we've started fast and ended fast on defense. We certainly want to be better, but we did made some plays at the end."
The Falcons had reeled off six consecutive long drives and the score was tied at 27 when they took possession at their 20 with 1:55 remaining. A crowd of 70,794 anticipated a game-winning march, but on the third snap quarterback Michael Vick fumbled when the ball hit the helmet of running back Warrick Dunn. Bucs middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, who registered a game-high nine tackles, recovered to set up Matt Bryant's decisive field goal. "This is starting to remind me of our 2002 team," Quarles said. "Each week, somebody else steps up and contributes."
Vick's critical fumble was one of several highlights for a Tampa Bay defense that was shredded on third down. The Bucs dropped Atlanta quarterbacks three times and posted a pair of takeaways, including Simeon Rice's sack-and-strip of backup Matt Schaub in the opening quarter that resulted in an Anthony McFarland touchdown. "That's a team win right there," cornerback Brian Kelly said after Vick posted only the second 300-yard passing game of his career. "It wasn't pretty on defense and we've got a lot of things to correct, but this club is not looking back -- we're looking forward. We knew Vick is a little loose with the ball and we had to make a play on defense to close this one out."
After stalking Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell last week, Rice was disruptive once again. The Chicago native gave props to the Bears for ending Carolina's six-game winning streak and helping the Bucs to a piece of the division lead. "We got something special cracking right here," he said. "We were ready today, and I'd like to thank the Bears; that's why I love my city. This win speaks volumes for us. We're climbing that hill."
Now it's Chicago with the six-game winning streak, heading into Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. "Let me be the first to say it … we accept the challenge of the Bears," said Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks, whose blitz up the middle triggered Vick's late miscue. "Our offense stepped up big again today. It's still Buc ball, just a different style."
Ira Kaufman, The Tampa Tribune 21 November 2005