They can breathe now. Even better, they can play the way they did in the first half Sunday, play that way all game long, lose a game and still not lose command of the NFC South. That's what the Bucs did by slowly, sometimes painfully, annihilating the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. They gave themselves a cushion and created a margin for error. They may need it.
As lopsided as it was at the end, this 31-7 victory was not the cleanest of Bucs triumphs. Though the score may indicate otherwise, the Bucs proved Sunday they are still not a polished product. When the outcome was still in doubt, for instance, their receivers dropped several catchable balls, their quarterback called a timeout he didn't have and their strongside linebacker gave away a takeaway.
It didn't matter. On a day when no one else in their division could find a way to win, the Bucs overcame some admittedly sloppy first-half play and returned to Tampa holding a two-game lead. "I feel good about where we're at right now," said Jeff Garcia, the quarterback who needed and called a timeout he didn't have. "I feel good because we're winning football games, yet we're not playing our best football."
It's been that way all year for the Bucs, who are 6-4 and 3-0 in their division. Somehow, someway they have won most of the games that objective observers said they should have won. This was another in that line. The matter in which they won it, though, clearly left many in their locker room encouraged about their ability to eventually win even the games they're not expected to win.
Sure, they made mistakes, most of them early on offense during a first half that Garcia called "sluggish." But as they have done so often this year, they found a way to overcome their mistakes.
The best example may have been when linebacker Cato June fumbled away the fumble that cornerback Brian Kelly picked up after June knocked the ball loose from receiver Roddy White early in the second quarter. Given a second chance - a third if you count the apparent fumble by Falcons running back Warrick Dunn that replay officials erased one play earlier - Atlanta still couldn't move the ball.
The Falcons produced a first down, but with the Bucs consistently harassing quarterback Byron Leftwich and stuffing Dunn, the Falcons never moved the ball any farther than the Tampa 46-yard line and wound up punting.
That punt was one of five the Falcons were forced to settle for in the first half, but that doesn't even begin to tell the tale of how the Bucs dismantled the Falcons' offense. The Bucs also forced the Falcons to turn the ball over four times, twice on interceptions and twice on fumbles. Barrett Ruud and Chris Hovan got credit for the picks (Hovan's was the first of his career), but a lot of the credit had to go to linemen Jovan Haye and Gaines Adams. Each got through the line and got a hand on Leftwich's throwing arm as he was releasing the ball, thereby forcing Leftwich to lose control of the ball, which popped up into the air on both occasions.
The Bucs turned both takeaways into touchdowns. They also got a touchdown off a pressure from end Greg White, whose sack-fumble of Leftwich set up Ronde Barber's 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown. "That was the turning point in the game," said Gruden, whose team was leading 7-0 at the time but struggling to find a rhythm and move the ball consistently on offense.
Dropped balls, penalties and miscommunication were the primary reasons for the first-half struggles. After the first second-half possession, the Bucs' offense was back in sync again. Though it continued to be aided by a defense that stopped Dunn for a loss on a fourth-and-inches play and then got the pick from Hovan, the offense scored on each of its next three possessions.
"The defense was awesome today," said Garcia, who threw two touchdown passes but completed just 10 of 20 throws for 159 yards. "They were very opportunistic today. They were doing things the Falcons have been doing."
The Falcons had won two in a row, mostly as a result of a defense that led the NFC in turnover ratio. They were also getting solid play from quarterback Joey Harrington, but Leftwich got the start. Barber said that threw the Bucs a bit because they had spent the week preparing for Harrington. The way they played, though, it didn't appear as though the Bucs were fooled. They allowed the Falcons to convert 31 percent of their third-down tries and limited them to 275 total yards, including 49 rushing.
"We did a good job of covering up in the secondary," said Barber, who was often one of eight players left back in coverage as the Bucs rushed three linemen. "They have some talent, but we made the tough plays today."
They've been making them all season. Now, with a two-game lead in the division, it's looking more and more now like there will be a big payoff. "This is two weeks in a row now that we've gained ground on the other teams in our division," Barber said. "We gained ground last week without even playing and we gained more ground this week. And with our next game at home and two more games in the division at home, we really have a chance now to put a stranglehold on this thing. You've gotta like that."
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 19 November 2007