Bucs Lose One They Shouldn't Have
Antonio Bryant had nearly reached the losing locker room at the Georgia Dome when he turned around and headed back toward the field where the Bucs lost in overtime to the Falcons for no good reason. He paced back and forth. Teammate Michael Clayton ran him down. Bryant slapped at a box.

It was more than the fact that Bryant caught seven balls for 106 yards in the first half and just one for two yards after that. "Why do we have to play scared?" Bryant said. "There ain't nothing to be afraid of."

Now there is. Two weeks ago, the Bucs were thinking division title and first-round bye. Now the playoffs themselves are in doubt. And what kind of team would they be if they got there?

The undisciplined lot that lost Sunday, lost a game it shouldn't have lost, with bad penalties, bad field position, horrific red-zone play, with knees knocking on offense? Aren't mounting injuries enough, including Jeff Garcia on the sideline and Brian Griese taking sacks no veteran quarterback should? Isn't Atlanta good enough without helping them? "We had chances to win this game," Jon Gruden said.

Ya think? "The opportunities were there," Bryant said. "They were there. There were a lot of things were there. We just got to play better football than that."

They should have won this game. They forced three turnovers and blocked a punt. You should win a game when you do that. You should win when the right hand of God intervenes. OK, it wasn't the right hand of God, but the right hand of Brian Clark, who blocked an Atlanta punt late in the game with the Bucs down 10-7.

Destiny seemed to be calling. When someone comes from nowhere to put your team back on the road to somewhere, you have to come through. This was the gift for the holiday season.

The Bucs offense left its own gift under the tree. Anybody got a carpet cleaner?

Having blown chances all day, the offense had the ball at the Falcons' 22-yard line with 2:29 left in regulation. Two plays later, the ball was at the 9. You have to win this game. You have to score a touchdown right there, and end nagging worries about the postseason.

Griese was sacked for an 11-yard loss, then lineman Arron Sears' 10-yard penalty for holding. It was third and 28. On fourth and 18, Matt Bryant kicked a field goal for the tie. The Bucs never took a shot at the end zone. They ran five plays after the blocked punt, and when all the back and forths were added up they'd moved two yards - two yards.

Of course, they won the overtime coin toss, got another penalty for more awful field position and Griese then took a horrible 13-yard sack on third down. I don't think Garcia takes that sack. In fairness, Griese hadn't played in two months and (thanks, Jon!) had fewer practice reps during the week than Luke McCown, who is going to have his age legally changed to 34 in the hopes of catching Gruden's eye. Think Falcons QB phenom Matt Ryan would be holding a clipboard if he was a Buc?

Oh, yes, the Falcons drove downfield for the game-winning field goal on a worn Bucs defense, which rallied nicely from that embarrassment in Carolina, but between injuries (Chris Hovan, Javon Haye, Jermaine Phillips), had nothing left at the end for Ryan and Falcons RB Michael Turner. "We had a lot of shots," Ronde Barber said. "I don't know what to say, man. We could have won, we had a chance to win. I don't know. We didn't finish well enough - period."

He added, "2008 isn't over yet. The season's not over. We have two more opportunities to prove what this team is going to be."

Now come two home games against duckpins San Diego and Oakland. The Bucs have to win both games. It's about finishing. Funny, so was Sunday. So was last Monday, as a matter of fact.

We thought the Carolina and Atlanta week would tell us a lot about this team. Uh, it did. The Bucs' knees buckled. They were handed the game Sunday, Brian Clark's hand and all, and they handed it right back. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Martin Fennelly, The Tampa Tribune 15 December 2008