Bucs Look Part Of A Contender
You can laugh about the NFC South - certainly, lots of people do. You can even find plenty of flaws in the Bucs' 31-7 win Sunday against the gosh-awful Atlanta Falcons. The Bucs agree with you, by the way. The score suggests otherwise, but they could have played better. Should have played better. More on that later.

But here we are at defrost-the-turkey time and your Tampa Bay Buccaneers lead their division by two games. Every other team in the division lost Sunday and, flawed or not, the Bucs tossed Atlanta around all afternoon. They looked the part of a contender.

"It's November. It's time to start playing your best ball. It's when your players have to step up and make plays, start your push. Teams that dominate into the playoffs are dominating this part of the season," cornerback Ronde Barber said.

"We'll take losses by the other teams. Obviously you want to control what you can control and we did that today. We did that last week by sitting on the couch and watching them lose again. At this point in the year, it's important what the other teams in your division are doing but we're also helping ourselves out by getting a road win in the division."

Barber returned a fumble 41 yards for a touchdown at a time when Atlanta trailed by a touchdown. Three of the Bucs' four TDs were set up by turnovers. They had four sacks. Atlanta didn't score until 1:14 was left in the game and all but a few souls of the gathering announced at 69,480 had abandoned the Georgia Dome in search of more interesting pursuits.

At this point, anything less than a division championship basically will be a disaster. New Orleans and Carolina can't stand up straight any more and the Falcons, at 3-7, were booed off their own field Sunday. Man, that's a bad team. The Bucs made 'em look worse.

The pass rush everyone has been waiting to see swarmed over Falcons quarterback Byron Leftwich all afternoon. Rookie Gaines Adams was everywhere. Greg White forced two turnovers. Jovan Haye crushed Leftwich on a pass attempt midway through the first quarter, resulting in an interception for Barrett Ruud.

"They played great up front today," Barber said. "When a team is willing to go three or four wide [receivers] and eliminate the threat of the run, they should pin their ears back - which they did. We go as they go."

But there were mistakes. Enough of them to keep things in perspective. "We have to get a lot better," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.

There were two wasted timeouts in the first half on replay challenges that didn't work. They wasted another timeout early in the game when Alex Smith was late coming on. Garcia later tried to call a timeout he didn't have. Brian Kelly recovered a fumble, only to make an ill-fated lateral to Cato June that wound up in another fumble with Atlanta recovering. Keystone Kops stuff.

But there was more than enough to balance that. Gaffes aside, this has been a work in progress and you can see things coming together. Earnest Graham runs a little better every week. They got Michael Pittman back in the lineup, which helped. Joey Galloway made another big play, leaving Atlanta corner DeAngelo Hall looking like someone waving goodbye at the airport as Galloway flew past him and completed a 44-yard touchdown.

And Monte Kiffin finally got what he wanted from the pass rush. He has been waiting all year for a day like this. "Some of those rushes were three-man rushes," he said. "We dropped eight people into coverage, made Leftwich hold the ball. Three people got great pressure."

Kiffin paused. Point of emphasis. Three people got great pressure. "It starts up front and it always has," he said.

And although Gruden swears "I'm not even going to pay attention" to the division race, well, he is paying attention. Everyone is. It's November. It's time. "We have an opportunity to stay in the race, that's all I'm going to say," he said. "I don't think anybody expected us to be here and probably no one expects us to hang around, but we are 6-4 and we're very pleased with the progress that we're making and we respect what we have to do now."

Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 19 November 2007