Bucs playing to prove they're for real
It's admittedly difficult to have a coming-out party if the party is blacked out ("Bucs Fever: Avoid It!"). But here's the kind of game that can turn a surprising team into a contending one. Here's a real chance for the Bucs.
For here come the 9-1 Atlanta Falcons, tied for the best record in the NFL, division rivals, all those close, sometimes nutty tilts with the Bucs, but who've won six of the past seven games between the teams.
When we last saw the Falcons play the Bucs, it was at the Georgia Dome and it was head coach Raheem Morris' final game and it was Falcons 42, Bucs 0 … with seven minutes left in the first half. It was an unmitigated embarrassment. "I don't recall," Ronde Barber said with a smile. "I've blocked it out."
Here are the 6-4 Bucs, second in the division, still looking for believers, even after that comeback in Carolina. "You don't get any respect until you get to the playoffs, so we're just doing what we can to win every game," Bucs defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. "We're not too worried about respect from anyone else."
It's a large game, an intriguing game. Beat the Falcons and these Bucs, under first-year coach Greg Schiano, enter December truly in the playoff picture. Lose and they're 6-5 and their defense goes to Denver and Peyton Manning.
It's one of those Sundays, a crucial swing either way. "You've got to be excited for a game like this," Bucs defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said. "There's a lot to speculate about, a lot to think about going into a game like this."
Funny, but as much as people wonder about how real the Bucs are, the Falcons are getting those same kinds of questions. They're 9-1, but, like the Bucs, they've beaten only one team playing better than .500 football this season. The Bucs beat the Vikings, while the Falcons beat Manning and the Broncos back in Week 2.
Even at 9-1, even after a combined 32 wins across three seasons (and this one has six games left), Atlanta has yet to get rave reviews, partly because of consecutive quick playoff exits. The Falcons were the No. 1 NFC playoff seed in 2010, but were dispatched by eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay. Last season, the eventual world champion Giants did the honors, shutting Atlanta down 24-2.
Here are the Falcons, out to prove they're the realest of real deals. Here are the Bucs, out to simply prove they're real in the first place.
And throw in the central combatants in the Methuselah Bowl. There's future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons tight end and the NFL's second-leading receiver in history, and future Hall of Famer Barber. They're in their own league of extraordinary gentlemen. And they're not stopping just yet. "Damn right," Barber said.
Everyone talks about Atlanta's big passing game, behind quarterback Matt Ryan and all those targets. But then you look up and see that the Bucs are actually averaging more points per game. Who ever thought we'd say that the Bucs' best bet might be to outscore someone? It might take that Sunday, especially if Julio Jones is at full speed.
Ryan threw five interceptions against Arizona last week — and the Falcons still won. Josh Freeman threw two interceptions and Doug Martin fumbled into the end zone and they were down eight points with a minute left — and the Bucs still won. Anything can happen in Bucs-Falcons, whether it's here or up there.
Ten years ago, Bucs-Falcons meant Derrick Brooks and the Bucs stuffing the sensational Michael Vick on their way to their world championship. In 2003, Rich McKay, squeezed-out Bucs general manager in midseason, returned after like 122 minutes as Falcons GM and watched Atlanta beat Jonny Football, Jon Gruden, by two.
Bucs-Falcons, right here in 2004, is where the Bucs shut out the 9-2 Falcons. It was here in 2007, in a 37-3 drubbing of Atlanta that clinched the NFC South, Bucs receiver Micheal Spurlock made the first kickoff return for a touchdown in team history. Even last year, before the death drop, the Bucs beat the Falcons right here.
You're thinking anything can happen Sunday. Well … you know, like Ronde said.
|About the writer|
Martin Fennelly has been The Tampa Tribune's leading sports columnist for many years and is always on hand with a topical and witty opinion on any Florida sporting event. He was named the Bucs UK's Writer of the Year four consecutive years from 2001 to 2004.