Bucs 27 Falcons 0
For a good portion of Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were whitewashing the Atlanta Falcons, 27-0, it felt like 2002 all over again. Derrick Brooks was making Michael Vick’s life miserable. A hot kicker was banging in three-pointers from all over the field. Simeon Rice was driving the Falcons’ offensive line batty, Mike Alstott was providing the end-of-the-game hammer and a remarkably accurate quarterback was driving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers up and down the field.

Some of the names have changed – the kicker was not Martin Gramatica but Jay Taylor making good his first NFL game, to the delight of a nervous but appreciative crowd. The quarterback was not Brad Johnson but Brian Griese, riding his seemingly endless hot streak towards a third month. Moreover, the pecking order has changed, with Atlanta coming in with a chance to clinch the NFC South and the Bucs merely trying to stay alive in the playoff race.

But for three hours on Sunday, the Bucs validated what they have not so secretly felt all season: Despite the disparate records, they believe they are fully capable of competing with the Falcons and the rest of the league’s playoff-bound teams. The Bucs are two years and three days removed from the ’02 matchup that separated the Super Bowl-bound Bucs from the Falcons in the NFC South, but they don’t seem at all ready to cede division dominance to their heated rivals from Atlanta. “We’re very happy with the win,” said Jon Gruden. “We’re very respectful of the fans, they helped us out a lot. It was a great win by our team. We’ve got a lot of new guys playing. We got a good game and put it together today. It’s a credit to Simeon Rice. It’s a credit to our defense. I think you saw a complete Buccaneer defense today.”

No one seemed more inspired for today’s game than Brooks and Rice, a twin wrecking crew that combined for 15 tackles, four sacks, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Rice toyed with left tackle Kevin Shaffer for most of the day, to the point where he was routinely double-teamed in the second half. His two sacks didn’t even tell the full story, as he routinely put Vick on his heels or sent him scrambling for room. Brooks set a career high with two sacks, forced a fumble and nearly missed putting a thrilling cap on his performance when he broke up a fourth-down pass in the fourth quarter. The ball bounced off his hands with nothing but open field in front of him, eliciting a furious doffing of his helmet. Brooks rued the missed opportunity, but there was very little else to regret on a day completely dominated by the Buccaneer defense.

Atlanta gained just 254 yards, 120 of which came in the fourth quarter, with the Bucs laying back on defense with a big lead and sticking to the ground on offense. In fact, the Bucs didn’t throw a single pass in the fourth quarter. Vick completed just 13 of 27 passes for 115 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, and he was sacked five times. He did rush eight times for a game-high 81 yards, most of it on one fourth-quarter drive, but he also missed one play after a hard tackle by Brooks and was forced to fumble twice. The Bucs coverage downfield was almost as good as its pass rush; tellingly, TE Alge Crumpler, who hurt the Buccaneers with three big catches in the Falcons win at Atlanta three weeks ago, had just one catch, a five-yarder in the fourth quarter. The end result was Tampa Bay’s first shutout since October 26, 2003, a 16-0 blanking of the Dallas Cowboys, another playoff-bound team that proved unable to crack the Buccaneers.

The Buccaneers got the fast start they badly needed, taking an early lead and getting the packed Raymond James Stadium crowd into the game right away. The first eight minutes of the game, in fact, could hardly have been better: A quick three-and-out forced by the defense and a 63-yard touchdown drive on the Bucs’ first offensive possession. QB Brian Griese completed five of six passes on the drive, finding five different receivers and converting two third downs. On first-and-goal from the four, RB Michael Pittman bounced a run outside and beat the Atlanta defense to the pylon to give the Bucs a 7-0 lead.

Griese wasn’t needed much in the second half, but he still completed 13 of 21 passes for 131 yards, one touchdown and one interception. WR Joey Galloway led all players with four receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons threatened to tie the game early in the second quarter, driving to the Bucs’ one-yard line in large part due to an impressive 16-yard scramble by Vick down to the 12. However, Atlanta tried a play-action fake on first-and-goal and the Bucs guessed right, keeping several defenders in coverage, including Brooks. Brooks tipped a pass intended for WR Dez White and S Dwight Smith intercepted the deflection for a touchback.

Brooks, who has been one of the Bucs’ most effective defenders against Vick for the past three years, ended Atlanta’s next drive, too. Blitzing on third-and-eight near midfield, Brooks ran right over a blocker and swatted the ball out of the quarterback’s hand, with DE Greg Spires recovering at the Bucs’ 47. Even better , the Bucs scored after each of those turnovers. An eight-play, 48-yard drive followed Smith’s pick and concluded in perhaps the most appreciated play of the day by the Raymond James Stadium crowd. With the Bucs facing a fourth down at the Atlanta 32 – that no-man’s land between punting, kicking and going for it – Head Coach Jon Gruden sent new kicker Jay Taylor out to try a 50-yard field goal. Taylor got enough leg on his first NFL kick to slide it over the crossbar and just inside the right upright, giving Tampa Bay a 10-0 lead.

Taylor made it 13-0 with a minute left in the half by knocking through a more pedestrian 30-yarder at the end of an 11-play, 41-yard drive. The Bucs got the ball down to the five but missed the end zone when DT Rod Coleman dropped Griese for losses on second and third down. Rice was nearly lying on the ground when he recorded the 100th sack of his illustrious NFL career. He was fighting through a block by Shaffer when he pushed Shaffer towards Vick and started to fall to the ground. Rice was able to reach up with one arm and pull Vick to the ground for a loss of four early in the second quarter, thus becoming just the 22nd player in NFL history to record 100 sacks.

Rice later got number 101 in important fashion, knocking the ball out of Vick’s grasp early in the third quarter. Spires recovered again for the Bucs at Atlanta’s 36 and on the very next play Griese hit Galloway on a 36-yard touchdown pass up the right sideline. That gave Rice his 16th multi-sack game as a Buccaneer and his 29th overall. For Galloway, who has battled groin and ankle injuries all season, the touchdown was his first score as a Buccaneer. That was just one addition to the Bucs’ efforts to move the ball and put points on the board. RB Ian Smart played for the first time and went 25 yards on his first NFL carry, helping to set up a field goal. G Matt O’Dwyer, an offseason free agent pickup expected to start, played for the first time this season, subbing briefly at right guard. And, of course, there was Taylor.

Taylor could have hardly had a better debut in his highly-publicized replacement of Gramatica, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. A veteran of the XFL, the Arena League and several NFL training camps, Taylor turned his first regular-season opportunity into a nine-point performance, hitting on both of his field goal tries and all three of his extra points. The Bucs preserved the shutout in the fourth quarter thanks to their fourth and fifth turnovers. Atlanta reached Tampa Bay’s one-yard line again but Vick tried to hit WR Peerless Price on a rollout pass to the left and CB Brian Kelly cut in front of the play for the interception, returning it 75 yards to the Falcons’ 26. Alstott then carried the ball on four straight plays, each time eliciting memories from his tackle-breaking hey-day. Runs of 14, six and five yards set up his one-yard plunge to cap the scoring.

Atlanta brought in backup QB Matt Schaub to relieve Vick for the final drive, and the Bucs brought in a host of second-team defenders. LB Ryan Nece intercepted Schaub’s second pass to seal the shutout.