Road Woes Continue For Bucs In 13-10 Loss To Falcons
It was only a few days ago, really, that the Bucs seemingly had everything right there in the palm of their hands. They couldn't lose, no matter what their opponents or fate threw at them, and the talk all around them was not about just reaching the playoffs but earning a first-round bye and hosting a game or two.

Now, after losing 13-10 to the Falcons in overtime, just reaching the playoffs would be an achievement in itself. The setback here at the Georgia Dome greatly weakened the Bucs' hold on the NFC wild-card berth they were holding when they got here and it wasn't just their place in the standings that took a beating.

The Bucs (9-5) lost starting safety Jermaine Phillips, arguably their best player on Sunday, to a right forearm injury and no one seems to know when or if quarterback Jeff Garcia will be back this year. That has the potential to become a real issue because the Bucs continued to struggle offensively Sunday, most notably in the waning moments of regulation, after Brian Clark's blocked punt gave the unit a chance to win the game.

Given the ball at the Atlanta 22 and with 2:29 to play the Bucs gained 15 yards before a sack, a penalty on third-and-18 and a running play on third-and-28 forced them to settle for a game-tying field goal. The Bucs lone possession in overtime ended in much the same way, with fill-in quarterback Brian Griese taking a 13-yard sack on a third-and-8 play that forced the Bucs to give the ball and the game - to Atlanta.

"We have to score in the red zone," a frustrated Ronde Barber said afterward. "Why we didn't I don't know; I'm not an offensive guy. I don't know how to do it but we have to score."

Scoring more isn't the only thing the Bucs have to do. They also have to start eliminating penalties, especially on third down, and they need to find a way to start faster on both sides of the ball. The Falcons jumped out to a 10-0 lead, making this the eighth time this year the Bucs have allowed the first score, and it wasn't until Matt Bryant kicked that overtime-forcing field goal that they caught up.

"We looked great at times but we're just not together," running back Warrick Dunn said. "We have to take care of that. We have to figure out a way to be sharper on offense, to start faster and finish better."

Starting fast has been a problem for the Bucs since the season started, and it was a problem for them again Sunday as they allowed the Falcons to take a 3-0 lead on Jason Elam's 26-yard first-quarter field goal. The score was set up in large part by the Bucs offense, which finished its first possession with a net loss of 2 yards after two penalties and a run stuff forced them to punt from their own 8-yard line.

After a 39-yard punt and a return of 13 yards the Falcons took over at their 34 and eventually moved the ball to the 11 by completing a 23-yard pass to Mike Jenkins on a third-and-10 play. The Falcons came into the game converting nearly 40 percent of their third-and-long plays and 45 percent of their third down plays overall and they kept the pace up against the Bucs.

Going 2-for-2 in that area on their next drive, the Falcons moved the ball 72 yards in nine plays to improve their lead to 10-0, the score coming on Michael Turner's 1-yard plunge. Turner's touchdown run came in the wake of his 18-yard run three players earlier and six plays after the Falcons started the drive by hitting Roddy White for a 33-yard completion down the right sideline.

The Bucs, meanwhile, were penalized three times on third down (all for false starts) during their first four possessions. They were also penalized three times in the return game and once for a personal foul to that point. The personal foul came during a post-play scrum but just before rookie Aqib Talib intercepted a pass for Roddy White to end a Falcons scoring threat that had reached the Bucs 34.

The pick was the first of two in a row for the Bucs, who got one from Ronde Barber a series later. That one set up a last-ditch scoring effort for the Bucs, who tightened the game on 20-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Bryant. The catch gave Bryant more than 100 receiving yards in a game for the fifth time this season. It was also his sixth touchdown catch of the year, matching a previous single-season high.

Earlier in the first half Bryant made his 70th reception of the season, establishing another career single-season high. Neither Bryant nor the Bucs could start the second half the they finished the first, though. The Bucs went three and out on their first offensive series and then exchanged turnovers, Griese throwing an interception on a first-and-10 play from his 49 and Falcons tight end Jason Rader fumbling the ball away at the goal line.

Clark's blocked punt came a few failed drives later and set the stage for the thrilling finish. Now of course it's all about the finish, especially for the Bucs. They have two games left, both at home against teams (San Diego and Oakland) with losing records, to salvage a season that was looking very promising just two weeks ago.

"We've been great at home this year and our heads are high," receiver Michael Clayton said. "I feel real confident about our chances going back to Raymond James Stadium these last two weeks."

The Tampa Tribune/The St.Petersburg Times December 2008