Ending on a high note
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and Bucs safety Ronde Barber walked off the field together at the Georgia Dome Sunday.
Both had just completed their 16th NFL regular season, and while the outcome had no impact on the standings, don't think the game meant nothing to these iconic players.
On fourth and 10 from his 33-yard line, needing a touchdown to win late in the fourth quarter, Gonzalez ran a seam route over the middle and reached for a pass from quarterback Matt Ryan — only to have it swatted away by rookie safety Mark Barron, preserving the Bucs' 22-17 victory.
Gonzalez, 36, who has announced this will be his last season, has at least one more game to play when the Falcons host an NFC division playoff game in two weeks.
For Barber, 37, it's the fifth straight year the Bucs will miss the postseason after snapping a five-game losing streak Sunday to finish 7-9 under first-year coach Greg Schiano.
When will Barber stop chasing the carrot and decide to eat it? "If it is (the last game), it is," Barber said Sunday. "I've always been all right with that. I've never been shy of saying I'm proud of what I put on the field, and today was no different."
He had reason to be proud of his team, as well. The Bucs went toe-to-toe with the Falcons (13-3), who had already clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs as the NFC's No. 1 seed but played to win with their starters in for the entire game.
Bucs rookie running back Doug Martin rushed for 142 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown to provide breathing room after the Falcons had cut the lead to 16-10 late in the third quarter.
The game served as a measure of redemption for quarterback Josh Freeman, who completed 19 of 35 passes for 222 yards with a touchdown and an interception, becoming the first in franchise history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season (4,065).
Meanwhile, the Bucs defense, which had blown fourth-quarter leads against the Giants, Redskins and Eagles this season, held the Falcons to 278 yards and 3-of-14 on third down.
"It was really about just manning up, going in here and playing hard and playing with a chip on our shoulder," defensive tackle Roy Miller said.
"There was all kind of talk about who was going to play and this and that, and for us, it was kind of offensive. They're talking about the playoffs and all these other things, and we're men. Just like any other man, you want some respect."
Schiano said he was glad the Falcons played all their starters, which came with a cost. Defensive end John Abraham was carted to the locker room after injuring his ankle, and cornerback Dunta Robinson suffered a head injury after colliding with Martin in the first quarter.
Can the victory carry some momentum into the offseason for the Bucs? "I don't think people realize how hard it is to do it, how much goes into each and every game," Schiano said. "You get your scars, you get tougher and you learn to do it."
After the game, Barber was unable to explain the wild swings this season for the Bucs, who had losing streaks of three and five games sandwiched around a four-game win streak.
"Things seemed well, we got in a rut, obviously, couldn't win a game," Barber said. "Probably a lot of reasons for that, and those will be explored in the offseason, but this team has some parts. We need our great players to play great every week and if we start doing that, we're going to be a really good football team.
"There are some positives you can bring out of this now 7-9 season. We have some young, really kind of explosive talent, guys you can build on. That's important to identify, even in a losing season. Guys, who even in a losing situation, put it on their back to keep playing."
Barber said he will take a month or two to ponder his future as he has done the past three offseasons. "I can't tell you what those factors will be, but you guys will know when I make a decision," he said.
After the game, Barber posed for photographs with his mother and entire family — wife, kids, nieces and nephews. After Sunday, you wonder if he can picture the Bucs with a brighter end to the season in 2013?