Bucs let victory slip away against Atlanta
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 6 December 2010

All of a sudden, the Buccaneers have another enemy to concern themselves with besides the four teams that are left on their schedule. It's time, something that began to run out on them Sunday as they watched a 10-point fourth-quarter lead slip away into a potentially devastating 28-24 loss to the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium.

"I thought we had to win out coming into this game,'' linebacker Barrett Ruud said in sizing up the Bucs' playoff chances. "Now I know for sure that we have to win out.''

Even that may not do the trick. After all, the Bucs (7-5) are a full game behind the Giants and Packers (both 8-4) in the battle for the NFC's final wild-card berth.

Not only that, but also their second straight loss overall and second this year to Atlanta damaged their chances of winning a key tiebreaker as it dropped their conference record to 5-3, while the Giants are 6-2 and the Packers are 6-3.

All that was bouncing around inside Ruud's head late Sunday, but the thing that left him and so many others in the Bucs' locker room shaking their heads was the manner in which this one got away.

It started with a kickoff 2 yards deep into the Falcons' end zone that followed a 2-yard touchdown pass from fullback Earnest Graham to tight end John Gilmore that gave the Bucs a 24-14 lead and lots of momentum with 10:24 to play.

The Bucs lost a good chunk of both their lead and their momentum, however, when return man Eric Weems ran the kick back 102 yards through seemingly every Buccaneer on the field for a touchdown.

Four plays into the Falcons' next offensive series, which followed a Tampa Bay three-and-out, the defense failed to get off the field as Matt Ryan fired a 25-yard pass to Roddy White on a third-and-20 from the Falcons' 23.

A pass interference penalty against Ronde Barber on third-and-2 and a horse-collar call against Quincy Black two plays after that followed before Ryan hit Michael Jenkins with a 9-yard touchdown that gave Atlanta the lead.

The Bucs, who have come from behind to win four times this year, staged another comeback attempt, but this one ended when Josh Freeman was intercepted by Brent Grimes on a first-and-10 play from Atlanta's 27.

"We put ourselves in a position to score but we just weren't able to finish it off,'' said Raheem Morris, who seemed most upset about his team's failure to hold on to its late two-score lead. "That's what veteran teams do,'' he said. "That's what really good teams do. The really good teams find a way to finish games. This team has got to grow up and learn how to do that.''

Clearly there is some learning to do on the Bucs' part. This was the fifth time this year they have lost to a team with a winning record. For the third time in a row, though, they stuck with such a team.

They lost 27-21 to Atlanta a month ago when running back LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain on a potential game-winning run from the Falcons' 2, and they lost 17-10 to Baltimore last week when the defense failed to make a late stop.

The Bucs, though, are well past the point of counting moral victories, so the fact that they outgained the Falcons 325-290 and had a late two-score lead didn't give them any solace. In fact, it only made losing tougher.

"I'm hurting right now more than ever,'' said left tackle Donald Penn, who found himself playing alongside backup center Jeremy Zuttah and third-team right guard Derek Hardman at the end.

That was the result of a triceps injury to center Jeff Faine, who wasn't the only starter to go down in this one. The Bucs also lost cornerback Aqib Talib to a hip injury early in the second quarter. That forced the Bucs to put second-year corner E.J. Biggers on White, the league's leading receiver, and to make extensive use of rookie corner Myron Lewis. Still, it wasn't until late that they blinked.

"That's the thing,'' said Ruud, who started the game with third-string safety Corey Lynch patrolling the deep secondary, the result of Cody Grimm's season-ending ankle injury last week at Baltimore. "When we've lost to good teams lately, we haven't played poorly. We just haven't played for 60 minutes. That's what it was again today. We played 50 good minutes, not 60.

"We just have to figure out a way to finish teams off when we've got them down. I mean, when you're up 24-14 with 10 minutes left, you have to win that. You've got to finish it and we let it slip away and that's why this one hurts so bad.''