Falcons beat Bucs 20-10 to end dismal season
The Bucs were in a bind again late Sunday, down by a touchdown, which is to say they were mired in just the kind of situation that has so far brought out the best in their rookie quarterback, Josh Freeman. Staging jaw-dropping, last-quarter, game-winning rallies has sort of become Freeman's thing, but the magic touch he had against the Packers, Seahawks and Saints eluded him against the Falcons.

Like the Bucs' resurgent running game, Freeman's magic touch froze up during a cold, gray day at Raymond James Stadium, where his two fourth-quarter interceptions proved to be the difference in a 20-10 season-ending loss.

"I have to put (the loss) on me as the quarterback and as the leader of the offense," Freeman said. "It should have been a different football game. We just weren't able to get anything going."

The whole season pretty much went that way for the Bucs. Until just recently, they were always struggling to get their running game or their passing game or their defense going. That trend finally began to change a few weeks ago, after head coach Raheem Morris took over the defense and installed a scheme that was a lot more suitable to his players' overall skill set.

A greater commitment to the run followed a couple weeks later, and with back-to-back victories, the Bucs went into Sunday's finale feeling like they'd finally developed a winning formula. They still feel that way, even in the wake of Sunday's loss, which left them with their first 3-13 season since 1991. What the Bucs need to develop now, though, is some semblance of consistency.

"I still think these last few games are a snapshot of what we can be," center Jeff Faine said. "We just have to find a way to become consistent with everything we're doing and that will come with experience. I mean, we know what our identity is now. And we know now that there won't be any more questions about who our starting quarterback is going to be. We know who that is now.

"Hopefully there will be some consistency within the coaching staff as well, because if we can get that, then we can carry the playbook over to the next season and we can move forward and have something to build on."

The Bucs will have plenty to build with. They have 10 picks in April's draft, including the third overall selection and three picks in the first two rounds. Morris wasn't ready to say precisely where he intends to use the bulk of those picks, but a look at Sunday's game in which the Bucs struggled to run the ball and stop the run likely provides a clue.

"They won the battle up front today and they won it on both sides of the ball," Morris said of the Falcons, who ran for 183 yards while allowing just 38 rushing yards on 22 carries.

Most of the Falcons' rushing yards came in the fourth quarter, when they ran 12 times for 96 yards, with backup running back Jason Snelling getting all Atlanta's fourth-quarter carries and rushing yards. "With this team you have to knock the run right out and make them one-dimensional and we just didn't do that against them today," Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said.

The Falcons did that to the Bucs, though, forcing the game onto Freeman's shoulders. Freeman carried the responsibility well for a while, throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to forge a 10-10 tie.

Each of the Bucs' next two possessions ended with Freeman interceptions, however, and the Falcons used those picks to launch their game-winning drive and then a game-sealing drive. "He just didn't make the kind of throws that he made in the Green Bay game," Morris said in summing up Freeman's outing, one in which he completed 16 of 32 passes for 174 yards and one touchdown.

"But he's got to take his shots and try to win the football game. And now we have to evaluate him and get him better so that we can improve his chances of winning games like that."

Freeman's teammates believe he's already improved. They say he's made great strides from the time he first joined the team and they point to his success in bringing the Bucs back in their three victories as proof. Freeman agrees, but he's not satisfied with the progress he's made. The Bucs are his team now and he says it's up to him to lead them out of the 3-13 hole they wound up in.

"I felt like I got better as a player this year, but I still didn't play as well as this team needed me to play to win games," said Freeman, who went 3-6 as a starter. Finishing 3-13 is unacceptable. It is an unacceptable season. I know all the guys on our team feel that way and we are going to come in and grind this offseason and make sure that this never happens again."

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune/The St.Petersburg Times January 2010