Bucs 37 Falcons 3 - the game report
One minute. That's how long it took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to take control of their 37-3 division-clinching win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Thirty-two years. That's how long it took the Buccaneers to erase the most infamous zero in franchise history.
Three plays into the game, Atlanta QB Chris Redman tried to hit WR Roddy White on a short pass in the right flat, but touchdown machine Ronde Barber cut underneath the route. Barber plucked Redman's pass in front of a falling White and easily loped 29 yards into the end zone for the game's opening score, exactly 60 seconds into the action.
Seven minutes later, after an Atlanta field goal, WR Micheal Spurlock returned the Falcons' first kickoff of the day 90 yards for a touchdown. Incredibly, it was the first kickoff return touchdown in Buccaneer history, a fact not lost on the delirious Raymond James Stadium crowd. The play was challenged by the Falcons and upheld, though referee Jeff Triplette's confirmation was thoroughly drowned out by the still howling fans.
And the rout was on. The Bucs turned in their highest point total and widest margin of victory this season, in the process grabbing the division-title prize that had been dangling in front of them for 13 days. After beating the Saints in New Orleans in Week 13, the Bucs simply had to win one of their last four games to clinch the NFC South; their first attempt failed with last Sunday's loss at Houston but now they are champs for the third time in the division's six-year existence.
"Guys have been stepping up all season, and today was no different," said Jon Gruden. "Micheal Spurlock will get an expensive watch for being the first guy in team history to return a kickoff for a touchdown. Ronde Barber starts us off with an impact play. Byron Storer went wire-to-wire in his first game at fullback. I'm really proud of our players and I'm happy for ownership. That's another division championship to add to our collection."
Barber's play was a shocker, of course, though not in terms of his NFL career. Barber is the all-time leader in defensive touchdowns in Buccaneer history, and he is tied with Minnesota S Darren Sharper for the most fumble/interception touchdowns among active players. Barber's theft of Redman was the 10th defensive TD of his career; he also has an 11th regular-season score on a punt return and an additional defensive touchdown in the playoffs.
Spurlock's play was a shock, period. Through thousands of kickoffs and dozens of close calls, the Bucs had somehow failed to break one the distance. The team ended its punt return drought in 1995 and has since scored a total of nine punt-return TDs. Spurlock's return, however, was the 1,865th kickoff return in team history, and the first one that found the end zone. It gave the Bucs a 14-3 lead just a bit past the midway point of the first quarter, which they expanded to 27-3 with three second-quarter scores. Tampa Bay has still not lost this season (8-0) when leading at the half.
Ten of those second-quarter points came courtesy of two more takeaways by the Bucs' swarming defense. Rookie DE Gaines Adams, recording his sixth sack of the season, swatted the ball from Redman's hand inside the Falcons' 10-yard line, with DT Jovan Haye recovering at the six. Three plays later, RB Earnest Graham dived over the pile for a one-yard touchdown and a 24-3 Bucs lead.
The ill feelings of the always contentious Bucs-Falcons series bubbled to the surface just before Graham's touchdown. DE Jamaal Anderson and CB DeAngelo Hall were both flagged for personal fouls following a second-down Graham run, making it first-and-goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Matt Bryant blasted the ball off the front line of Falcon blockers, with S Kalvin Pearson recovering the apparently unintentional onside kick for Tampa Bay. That set off another round of fisticuffs, with the players along the Atlanta sideline wading into the fray. The result this time was offsetting penalties, but the Bucs kept the ball.
Hall got a bit of redemption on the ensuing drive when he intercepted a Garcia pass at the Atlanta 11, but it was short-lived, as RB Warrick Dunn fumbled on the ensuing play and the Bucs recovered. DE Greg White, continuing his second-half rampage, forced and recovered the fumble, and the Bucs tacked on three points with Bryant's 28-yard field goal as time expired in the half. White's forced fumble was his seventh of the season, tying the team record set by Wally Chambers way back in 1979.
The Bucs blew out the Falcons without one of their better offensive afternoons. Starting for the first time since November 25 after recovering from a back injury, Garcia completed 15 of 25 passes for 109 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Only one of those completions, for seven yards, went to WR Joey Galloway, who is just eight yards shy of his third straight 1,000-yard season. The offense produced 285 yards, though an impresive190 of it came on the ground. Graham gained 79 yards on 22 carries and got a lot of help from the rest of the team's tailback stable. RB Michael Pittman, playing meaningful minutes for the first time, essentially, in two months, ran 12 times for 48 yards and RB Michael Bennett picked up another 65 yards on just 10 totes.
The defense, however, was at its swarming best, allowing just 133 yards and causing four turnovers. The Falcons did not convert one of their nine third-down tries, marking just the second time in team history (also at Chicago, Jan. 2, 2000) that the defense had held an opponent to zero third-down conversions.
Redman, who also had the misfortune of starting for the Baltimore Ravens in a 25-0 Buccaneer rout in 2002, was held to four completions in 15 attempts and the Falcons produced just 27 net passing yards. The quartet of completions also tied a Buccaneer defensive record, one that hadn't been touched in almost 30 years. New England completed just four passes against Tampa Bay on Dec. 12, 1976, and Chicago did the same on Nov. 26, 1978. Notably, those were lopsided losses by the Buccaneers in which the opponent likely didn't feel the need to throw the ball.
Tampa Bay's turnover-happy ways on offense and grinding running attack led to a 42:59-17:01 edge in time of possession. That 42:59 total fell just eight seconds short of what the Bucs did to Arizona earlier this season in a game that established a franchise record for time of possession in a non-overtime game.
After Barber's touchdown, the Falcons struck back quickly by keeping the ball on the ground. Speedy back Jerious Norwood put together back-to-back runs of nine and 29 yards to put the ball at the Bucs' 36, though he was slow to get up after Derrick Brooks' tackle, limping noticeably on his right leg as he left the field. The Falcons picked up a blitz on the next snap, giving Redman time to hit WR Laurent Robinson over the middle at the Bucs' 18. The Bucs held at that point and the Falcons settled for Morten Andersen's 33-yard field goal.
Spurlock's touchdown followed, and the Bucs' defense tacked on a quick stop to get the ball back for Garcia and company. A pass-interference flag on S Chris Crocker got the ball down to the Atlanta 39, but Chauncey Davis' five-yard sack put the Bucs in a second-and-15 hole. A seven-yard strike to Galloway made it fourth-and-three at the 33 and the Bucs elected to go for it. Garcia converted the fourth down with a scrambling nine-yard strike to WR Ike Hilliard. That was the final play of the first quarter; three plays later Garcia converted a third-and-six with a pass over the middle to RB Michael Pittman. However, DE John Abraham's sack on a third-and-two at the six forced the Bucs to settle for Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal and a 17-3 lead.
Several more slashing runs by Norwood helped the Falcosn get the ball out to their own 39 on the ensuing drive, but a third-down pass intended for White was off target. Michael Koenen's 41-yard punt and Ike Hilliard's eight-yard return put the ball at the Bucs' 28. A quick slant for 11-yards to Michael Clayton against a blitz converted a third-and-six but Atlanta's next third-down blitz worked – barely – as Garcia got off a lob over the middle to Galloway but CB DeAngelo Hall crossed the field just in time to break it up.
Fortunately, the defense took the ball right back. After a punt pinned the Falcons at their own 12, Adams shot around RT Tyson Clabo and chopped the ball out of Redman's hands, forcing a fumble that Haye recovered at the Falcons' six-yard line. Three plays later – after Hall's penalty – Graham dived over the pile for his 10th touchdown of the season and a 24-3 Bucs lead with four minutes left in the half.
Bryant's second field goal, after White's takeaway, gave the Bucs a 27-3 lead heading into halftime. Bryant tacked on another three points 11 minutes into the second half when the defense took the ball away yet again. The Bucs' took the opening drive down to the Altanta 33 but had to punt, with Bidwell dropping his kick at the Falcons' eight. Three plays later, S Jermaine Phillips read a play-action pass and stepped in front of Norwood for an interception at the Atlanta 23. The Bucs' offense failed to produce a first down but Bryant hit from 34 yards to make it 30-3.
Bidwell pinned Atlanta at their own seven to start the fourth quarter and the Bucs' defense produced another three-and-out, giving the ball back to Tampa Bay's offense just shy of midfield. RB Michael Bennett popped free to the outside for a 27-yard gain on the first play of the drive, then powered up the middle for 11 more on the next snap. Seven of the eight plays on the drive, in fact, were runs; the last was a one-yard play-action pass to TE Anthony Becht for a touchdown.
The Bucs brought in their second-team defense after that score but the Falcons didn't risk putting the ball in the air again. Three runs by Dunn and Jason Snelling left Atlanta in a fourth-and-three at their own 37 and they punted again. Bruce Gradkowski came in to direct the Buccaneers' final drive but, obviously, only handed off. The Bucs powered for two more first downs and never gave the ball back. The victory improved Tampa Bay's record to 9-5 and sent the Falcons to a 3-11 mark on the season. The Bucs also remain undefeated in division play, with their sixth and final NFC South game to take place in Week 17, at home against Carolina. The Bucs play their final regular-season road game next Sunday at San Francisco.