For Bucs, close simply doesn't count
They lost by one point, by a couple of plays, against the best team in the National Football Conference, if there really is such a thing this season. But it's getting late. It's no longer about how far the Bucs have come under coach Greg Schiano in 2012, but where they plan on going.

Sunday, they hit a snag. And it stung. They let one get away, losing 24-23. "It's tough when you know you should have won," offensive lineman Donald Penn said. "We should have won that game, plain and simple. …The fact of the matter is we're a better team than them and we lost. We know that."

The Falcons are better than the Bucs. There's no shame in that – simply reality. The Falcons are 10-1. And when it came time to make plays, they made more than Schiano's Bucs, plain and simple.

But this was a tough loss. The Bucs seemed poised to make a big splash at home against the top team in the NFC, all set to go to 7-4, a serious player in a very real playoff race.

They still are in it, even at 6-5. But tell me things wouldn't have a different feel right about now if the Bucs were 7-4 heading to Denver and Peyton Manning, who you just know is wearing a surgical mask if only to avoid letting us see his lips smacking as he ponders Bucs cornerbacks in man coverage.

They've come a long way, these Bucs, but close doesn't matter right now. Close just hurts. You finish the deal in a game like Sunday or you have no one to blame but yourself. It's a lesson. This is the game the Bucs might look back on if this season veers off track.

It went well beyond the 56-yard field goal Connor Barth didn't come close to making. I have no problems with the thinking behind that kick – when you have less than 4 minutes left and you invariably can't stop the other team's passing plays on third down, and you have a chance to take the lead on a team like Atlanta, you go for it.

But if we were to second guess, I have no idea why Schiano and his staff didn't go Full Belichick and try to let the Falcons score a touchdown to go up by eight points so the Bucs could get the ball back with some real time on the clock.

I mean, didn't they just score eight points in the last minute last week at Carolina? What would you rather be, down eight with 1:20 left or down one point, but 62 yards away with only 8 seconds left? Think about it.

But that didn't lose this game, either, not truly. Try the Bucs turning a Ronde Barber interception and then a Gerald McCoy fumble recovery into only two field goals, not two touchdowns. Or that drive to begin the second half that came up short, too, after some truly errant Josh Freeman throws, leading to another three points.

The Bucs let the Falcons off the hook. They didn't even make Atlanta coach Mike Smith pay for his clock butchery at the end of the first half. In many ways, the Falcons were primed for defeat. The Bucs led three different times, and they couldn't get shut the door.

The key moment came with the Bucs up 20-17. E.J. Biggers came on a blitz and smacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and McCoy recovered the Ryan fumble. There was 11:23 left in the game, the stadium was loud and getting louder. The Bucs had momentum at the Atlanta 36-yard line with a chance to go up by two scores. They came up with three incomplete passes before settling for a field goal and a 23-17 lead.

The Bucs secondary tried to hang in there, but gave up its usual yardage, 80 of them on one play as Ryan and Julio Jones burned Leonard Johnson for a score. Atlanta receivers kept getting open as the Falcons marched for the winning score. Ryan threw 32 passes; only six that weren't caught. And when the Falcons needed a crucial late third down, they got it, plain and simple.

That means they're better. The Bucs have come a long way. But this was their shot. And they weren't good enough. And it stung.

About the writer
Martin Fennelly has been The Tampa Tribune's leading sports columnist for many years and is always on hand with a topical and witty opinion on any Florida sporting event. He was named the Bucs UK's Writer of the Year four consecutive years from 2001 to 2004.