Bucs 30 Falcons 27
These aren’t your daddy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 10-9 shootouts? Winning with defense alone? Struggling to come back at the end of games? Hardly.
The Buccaneers used to get involved in a shootout about once every two years. Remember Minnesota in 2002 or St. Louis in 2000? Now they’ve won two in a row, having impressively rallied for a 30-27 win at Atlanta on Sunday on the heels of their inspiring, 36-35 win over Washington a week ago. No daring two-point gambles or Mike Alstott second efforts were needed this time, just a forced fumble by Derrick Brooks and a clutch 45-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, the Bucs’ icewater-in-the-veins kicker.
The Bucs had trouble all day stopping electric Falcons QB Michael Vick all afternoon, surrendering 443 overall yards, their worst total of the season. However, Brooks dove over former teammate and fellow FSU Seminole Warrick Dunn to strip Vick of the ball in the game’s final minute, producing the game’s most important turnover. After an eight-yard run by RB Cadillac Williams gave him some breathing room, K Matt Bryant calmly nailed a 45-yard field goal for the game’s winning points.
The Bucs still had to hold off one more Falcon rally, which fell short when P Michael Koenen missed on a 55-yard field goal as time expired. Koenen, who earlier in the season had hit a 58-yarder against New England, got plenty of distance but pushed it right. The emotional win improved the Bucs to 7-3 on the season and moved them back into a tie for first place in the NFC South, thanks to the Carolina Panthers’ 13-3 loss at Chicago. The Bucs play the Bears and their top-ranked defense next Sunday in Tampa. The Falcons dropped to 6-4 and into third place with the loss, their second in a row at home.
Williams appeared to be back after nearly two months of struggles caused by an injured left foot. Williams ran for 116 yards on 19 carries, giving him his first 100-yard game since September. The rookie had memorably set an NFL record by rushing for 434 yards in his first three games. Chris Simms was coldly efficient behind that improved rushing attack, completing 11 of 19 passes for 118 yards and one interception. His pick led to the Falcons’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, but he then drove the team 71 yards on 11 plays for the game-tying score. Williams finished that drive with a nine-yard touchdown run, shooting untouched over left tackle, where Todd Steussie was filling in for an injured Anthony Davis.
For much of the second half, before Brooks’ diving play, it appeared that the Bucs had no answer for Vick, who completed 21 of 38 passes for 306 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He repeatedly escaped near-sacks and made big plays downfield, and he frustrated the Bucs’ defense all day on third downs. Even when the Bucs got a sack-forced-fumble and touchdown in the end zone in the first quarter, it was against backup Matt Schaub, not Vick, who missed one play after getting hurt.
Tampa Bay allowed 443 yards of offense after surrendering 389 to Washington the week before, and the reason was painfully clear: Third down misery.
Before Atlanta’s first score of the day, a 31-yard Todd Peterson field goal in the second quarter, TE Alge Crumpler dropped a third-down pass near the Bucs’ goal line. From that point until early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons converted six straight third downs, often with long completions downfield. Even on the one third down the Bucs stopped, late in the third quarter, a defensive holding penalty moved the chains. That drive finally ended in a goal-line stand by the Buccaneer defense and a game-tying, 20-yard Peterson field goal.
At that point, with less than a quarter remaining, the game was bound to be lost by the first big mistake, and the Bucs made it. QB Chris Simms was intercepted by LB Keith Brooking near midfield on the Bucs’ first drive after the game was tied. Vick then converted three more third downs with sharp completions, including a 10-yard scoring pass to WR Michael Jenkins on third-and-five.
It was an intensely frustrating afternoon for the Buccaneers’ defense, which allowed 11 of 17 of third down conversions overall. After each of its first three drives ended in three-and-outs, the Falcons then put together six straight possessions of 10 plays or more, amazingly. In the end, the Buccaneers’ proud D had been tagged for 400 yards for the first time since a loss at San Diego last December.
There were obviously many good developments, too, in a game the Bucs swiped from a strong division opponent on the road. In addition to creating room for Williams to run, the offensive line kept Simms from being sacked for the second straight week. Simms, in turn, found a way to get WR Michael Clayton more involved in the offense than he had been in awhile. Clayton caught three passes for a team-high 48 yards, though that did serve to underscore the fact that offensive MVP Joey Galloway did not have a catch.
The Bucs raced to a 13-0 lead in the first half, thanks largely to that defensive touchdown, and appeared to be in control until Vick led a 10-point rally in the final six minutes before the intermiission. The Bucs appeared bound and determined to run the ball against Atlanta’s struggling rush defense. The visitors came out in a power set – three tight ends, one back and one receiver – and sent Williams up the middle on the first play of the game. The rookie broke free for a 30-yard gain, the big play in an eight-play, 66-yard field goal drive. K Matt Bryant got the game’s first three points on a 31-yard kick.
Though it wouldn’t last thanks to Vick’s scrambling, Tampa Bay’s defensive line was nothing short of dominant in the early going. That was evident on the first series, when DE Greg Spires, playing with an injured shoulder, barreled down the line for two hard tackles of Dunn. It became painfully obvious (for the Falcons) on Atlanta’s second possession, when a series of events led to DT Anthony McFarland’s first career touchdown.
McFarland started the events when he simply steamrolled G Kynan Forney into Vick’s legs, dropping the quarterback for a seven-yard sack at Atlanta’s one. Vick had to come out of the game briefly and relieved, facing a third-and-22. Schaub surprisingly stood stock still at the back of the end zone on a deep drop, and DE Simeon Rice made him pay with a sack-forced fumble from behind. McFarland fell on the ball eight yards deep for the game’s first touchdown, giving the Bucs a 10-0 lead just eight minutes into the game.
This game obvious had a lot of attached emotion, and it boiled over early for the Falcons. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on CB DeAngelo Hall helped the Bucs’ first scoring drive on a personal foul on KR Allen Rossum on the Tampa Bay’s first punt forced Atlanta to start a drive at its own 13. Several more penalties preceded McFarland’s touchdown and another personal foul by DT Darrell Shropshire aided the Bucs’ second-quarter field goal drive. The Falcons committed 11 penalties for 87 yards, though the Bucs countered with eight infractions of their own. The last was a roughing-the-passer penalty on DT Ellis Wyms that helped Atlanta get in position for that final field goal drive.
Bryant had already hit from 45 yards out earlier in the game before he came out in the final minute. That kick gave the Bucs a 13-0 lead, but Atlanta’s offense got untracked on the next drive and produced a 66-yard field goal drive. White caught a 35-yard pass into Buccaneer territory and the Falcons kicked a 31-yard field goal to make it 13-3 late in the first half.
Unfortunately, the Falcons weren’t done. Though forced quickly into a third-and-10, Vick created a scoring opportunity when he completed a 54-yard bomb to White over two Buccaneer defenders. Vick was three-for-three on third downs on the drive, twice hitting TE Alge Crumpler on big completions in the red zone. RB T.J. Duckett scored from one yard out with 20 seconds to play to cut the Bucs lead to 13-10 at the half.
The Falcons momentum carried right into the second half. Vick directed another precise, 73-yard touchdown drive, converting two more third downs, including a four-yard touchdown pass to Crumpler. That gave Atlanta their first lead of the game, six minutes into the third quarter. The Bucs took it right back, however, and also regained a modicum of that momentum. The Bucs drove 69 yards for a touchdown, keyed by WR Michael Clayton’s 27-yard grab on third-and-one. Williams ran 16 yards down to the seven, and Alstott leapt over the pile from the one for his fourth touchdown in the last three games. That put the Bucs up 20-17 with five minutes left in the third quarter.
Atlanta scored the next 10 points, driving 69 yards for Peterson’s chip shot before Brooking’s interception. Vick converted three more third downs and put the Falcons back on top, 27-20, with a 10-yard scoring strike to WR Michael Jenkins. The Bucs’ 71-yard touchdown drive followed on the very next possession and didn’t end until the first play after the two-minute warning. Before his touchdown run, Williams converted a third-and-six with a great catch-and-run for eight yards.
Though the final numbers weren’t pretty, the Bucs’ defense had some strong performances. Quarles led the team with nine tackles to go with his fumble recovery at the end. Brooks had eight tackles a sack and that forced fumble. Ronde Barber had four tackles and broke up a pass downfield with a diving bat that nearly led to a pick for Jermaine Phillips. Rice had a sack for the fifth time in his last six games.