Bucs 27 Falcons 24 - the game report
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons almost took this spirit-of-giving thing too far. Both teams seemed unwilling to accept the victory on Christmas Eve at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. Each team missed a short field goal in overtime, and even the extra period was in danger of running out without either team scoring. However, the Bucs’ finally unwrapped Atlanta’s last gift and the resulting 27-24 victory put Tampa Bay into first place in the NFC South with one week to play. Happy Holidays indeed!

K Matt Bryant averted the second tie in franchise history by nailing a 41-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in overtime. It was a stunning victory for the Buccaneers, who had appeared to give the game away when WR Edell Shepherd fumbled the kickoff to open overtime. However, DE Dewayne White leaped to block Todd Peterson’s 28-yard attempt and keep the Bucs’ hopes alive. “Dewayne White made a great play,” said Head Coach Jon Gruden. “He’s been close throughout the season. We’ve been telling him that, but he was saving his best for last.”

The Bucs took the ensuing possession the length of the field to set up K Matt Bryant’s 27-yard attempt, but Bryant hooked it wide to the left. Later in the period, the Bucs had to punt from close to midfield at the two-minute warning, but the Bucs’ defense forced a quick three-and-out and WR Mark Jones returned the ensuing punt 28 yards to midfield.

QB Chris Simms, in the midst of the most prolific day of his career, completed passes of 15 yards to TE Alex Smith and 10 yards to Anthony Becht, and the Bucs brought on Bryant with the ball at the 24-yard line. Simms completed 29 of 42 passes for a career-high 285 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. His 30-yard pass to Galloway on third down set up Bryant’s first attempt in overtime, and his only two incompletions in eight attempts in sudden death were spikes to stop the clock.

The holidays can be an emotional time, but this was ridiculous. Following Carolina’s last-minute loss to Dallas, the Bucs had a chance to regain first place in the NFC South with a win, but nearly let the opportunity slip away. There were palpable changes of momentum throughout the game, not to mention four lead changes and two ties, and a series of enormous plays in overtime. “I’m very proud of our team,” said Gruden. “I’ve just to keep reminding myself that the game is officially over. That was real gut-check. Things didn’t look good for us for awhile, but coming off a real tough loss last week I thought our team really hung in there today.”

Said Simms: "You don't think you'll ever go through a game as exciting as the Redskins game, and this one tops it."

After Bryant’s miss gave Atlanta possession at their own 20, QB Michael Vick made one of his patented scramble plays and found favorite target TE Alge Crumpler at midfield. However, DE Simeon Rice sacked Vick for a loss of 10 and LB Derrick Brooks, the Falcon passer’s long-time nemesis, caught him short of the first down on a third-and-18 scramble. The Falcons had to punt and the Bucs drove from their own nine to midfield on a collection of hard runs by Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman.

The Bucs’ running game made the difference, particularly in overtime. Tampa Bay ran for 63 of their 174 yards in the extra period, with Cadillac gaining 45 yards on seven carries. Williams finished the game with 150 yards on 31 carries, breaking a team record with his sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season. That drive stalled, however, when a third-down catch by WR Joey Galloway at the Atlanta 38 was erased by an offensive pass interference penalty on Becht. The Bucs had to punt, but were able to get the ball back one more time.

Galloway was Simms’ favorite target on the day, as usual, but he had company in Smith, the prolific rookie tight end. Each player caught eight passes, with Galloway’s resulting in 97 yards gained and Smith’s in a career-high 75. Galloway now has a team-leading 79 receptions for 1,249 yards, both career highs, and the third-highest single-season yardage total in Buccaneer history.

In all, Tampa Bay gained a season-high 444 yards on offense, to Atlanta’s 281. That represents a fine performance by the Buccaneer defense in a five-quarter game, and that unit was clearly stronger than Atlanta’s defense in overtime. The Bucs, in fact, were able to gain 134 yards of offense in overtime to Atlanta’s 42.

Vick made several huge plays, including a 37-yard completion to WR Michael Jenkins that set up Atlanta’s go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter, and several third-down scrambles to move the chains. He threw two touchdown passes and was not intercepted. However, in the end he was just 16 of 26 for 161 yards, and he was sacked four times, twice by Rice. Vick’s team-high 63 rushing yards helped Atlanta gain 154 yards on the ground.

The Bucs trailed 17-14 at halftime. Duplicating their biggest problem from the previous game in New England, the Bucs ran into a series of trouble just before halftime, turning a reasonably good situation into a halftime problem. This time the Bucs led 14-7 and were driving to pad their lead when two interceptions turned into 10 Falcon points and a 17-14 Atlanta lead. The Bucs couldn’t regain their offensive rhythm for much of the first half but pulled it together in the fourth quarter to twice tie the score. The second came on Williams’ six-yard touchdown scamper on fourth-and-inches with 25 seconds left in the game. Williams’ run, which he bounced outside the left tackle after initially starting inside, concluded yet another clutch drive led by Simms.

That came after Vick and the Falcons drove 79 yards on 10 plays for the go-ahead score. It was a drive of inches. Vick’s third-and-seven scramble from his own 35 brought out the chains but the nose of the ball just reached the sticks to preserve the march. Vick later converted a third-and-four at the Bucs’ 39 with the high, deep pass down the sideline to Jenkins. CB Ronde Barber was in position to make the play and initially knocked it loose from the receiver’s hands. However, the ball rested on top of Barber’s helmet long enough for Jenkins to pull it in as he fell to the ground at the Bucs’ two. RB T.J. Duckett scored the go-ahead points one play later on a two-yard run up the middle.

Fortunately for the Buccaneers, the kicking game has been revived as a weapon in their offense. Gruden confidently sent K Matt Bryant out to try a 50-yard field goal six minutes into the fourth quarter, and Bryant nailed it to the game at 17-17. It was the longest field goal of his career, his first in five career tries from 50 yards or farther. Bryant’s long boot, which had plenty of distance, concluded an impressive drive in which Simms overcame two first-and-20s following holding calls, firing strikes of 17 yards to Becht and 21 yards to Galloway.

Vick, who had his best passing day of the season in the Bucs’ win over Atlanta in November, came out with a hot hand once again on Sunday. He drove Atlanta to the game’s first score in the first quarter, though 47 of the 80 yards on the scoring drive came courtesy of a pass-interference penalty on CB Brian Kelly. Vick completed his other two passes on the drive, including a four-yard touchdown toss to FB Justin Griffith on the first play after the penalty.

Turnabout was fair play, however, as a 30-yard pass interference flag on Atlanta S Bryan Scott on the next drive put the Bucs at Atlanta’s 11. Simms even finished the drive the same way Vick did, throwing an outlet pass to his fullback, Jameel Cook, for a nine-yard touchdown pass that tied the game. The drive was preserved early by two catches for 31 yards by Smith, who converted a third-and-11 with an 18-yard rumble on an interesting screen pass over the middle.

The Bucs took their first lead of the game just a few minutes later, thanks to the game’s first turnover. White poked the ball out of Vick’s hands at the end of a short scramble and DT Chris Hovan recovered for the Bucs at Atlanta’s 29. The Bucs needed just four plays to get it into the end zone, twice going to FB Mike Alstott. After his five-yard run put the ball at the 15, Alstott caught an outlet pass on second down from the 13 and leaped over S Bryan Scott to cover the last two yards to the end zone.

Unfortunately, the Falcons were able to answer in kind. LB Keith Brooking intercepted Simms in the second quarter after DE Patrick Kerney’s hit caused Simms’ pass to go offline, and Atlanta drove 53 yards on 11 plays to tie the game. Vick hit Jenkins on an eight-yard scoring pass to conclude the drive, but it was preserved when Vick slipped on fourth-and-two but got up in time to complete a five-yard pass to Jenkins. On the previous play, blitzing CB Ronde Barber had deflected Vick’s third-down pass into the air but it still floated to TE Alge Crumpler for a gain of five. The Bucs drove into Atlanta territory and were threatening to take the lead back inside the two-minute warning of the first half when Simms sailed a pass behind Galloway and it was intercepted by CB DeAngelo Hall. Hall’s 65-yard return to the Bucs’ 13 set up Todd Peterson’s 31-yard field goal, giving Atlanta a 17-14 lead.

WR Mark Jones continued to stake his claim as the league’s most hard-luck punt returner. In a perfect world, Jones might have touchdown returns in three straight games. However, the punter made a diving stop of his breakaway in Carolina two weeks ago; a penalty erased a touchdown runback one week ago in New England and another penalty brought back what would have been a 54-yard return on Saturday against the Falcons. Thanks to his big runback at the end, however, Jones still averaged 9.2 yards on six returns.

The Bucs finish the regular season next Sunday, January 1, with a home game against the New Orleans Saints. Thanks to a superior division record – the Bucs are now 4-1 against the Falcons, Saints and Panthers and would be 5-1 with a win next week – they need only to secure that final victory to win the NFC South and guarantee a home game in the playoffs. The Bucs are also still alive to earn the second seed in the NFC field and earn a first-round bye.