In a very close game, the Bucs came up just short of finally picking up their signature win. Again the Falcons prevailed in a close game the Bucs could've won, just like they did 4 weeks ago at the Georgia Dome. This game was scrappy, with no one unit really playing well - but the Bucs still looked like they were going to win it at several points in the game. Sadly, they couldn't pull out the win at the end. And the loss cost them two crucial players: Aqib Talib and Jeff Faine left the game with hip and triceps injuries respectively, and did not return. The Bucs haven't been able to determine how serious these injuries are, but it's possible this will end their seasons.
The game started off badly for the Bucs, with the Falcons marching downfield on their first possession to the Bucs 41, before punting. After a quick 3-and-out by the Bucs, the Falcons got the ball back at their own 48 and proceeded to go 52 yards for a touchdown in just 6 plays. Luckily the Bucs responded with an 86-yard touchdown drive of their own, consisting of 5 runs by Blount, two passes, an end-around, and an option play by Josh Johnson. WIth the game tied at 7-7, it turned into a position battle.
The Bucs and Falcons exchanged possessions and punts for most of the second quarter, until the Falcons managed to push downfield for a score. After Aqib Talib went down with an injury, they put together a drive consisting solely of passes, which was extended by Gerald McCoy on an Unnecessary Roughness penalty. Matt Ryan finished the drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Ovie Mughelli, who was completely uncovered on the play as he slipped out of the backfield. No one managed to come down quickly enough to stop him from getting into the endzone.
When the Bucs then followed that up with a quick 3-and-out things didn't look good, but the defense stepped up and Sean Jones intercepted Matt Ryan to give the Bucs the ball at the Falcons 30-yard line. They wouldn't waste this opportunity. Freeman went 4 out of 6 for 23 yards, with Arrelious Benn getting 7 yards on an end-around. The drive was capped off by a touchdown pass to Mike Williams on a quick slant against Dunta Robinson.
After halftime, the Bucs came out firing. They took their initial possession 51 yards to get a 48-yard field goal. After exchanging a number of punts the Bucs defense would change the game again. With 12:33 left in the fourth quarter, Corey Lynch in his first start as a Buccaneer intercepted Matt Ryan to give the Bucs the ball at the Falcons 39-yard line. 4 players later Tampa Bay converted that opportunity into points in a very unconventional manner: Earnest Graham took a handoff at the 2-yard line, took a step sideways and lofted the ball to John Gilmore for a touchdown. They were up by 2 scores at this point, but unfortunately it wouldn't last. Eric Weems took the ensuing kickoff back to the house for a touchdown on a play that was eerily similar to the Spurlock kickoff return for a touchdown against the Falcons earlier in the season.
This seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back. After a 3-and-out, the Falcons drove 67 yards for the touchdown, with the drive being extended on defensive penalties twice. Freeman got the ball back with 4:31 left, and after a beautiful catch by Sammie Stroughter to convert a 4th&11 he threw a game-ending interception to Brent Grimes. Although the booth reviewed the interception, footage seemed to show the ball bobbling and hitting the turf but the ruling on the field stood. That was essentially the end of the game, and the Bucs are still left without a 'signature win' against a winning team. And with the Redskins and Lions coming up on the schedule, their next attempt at such a signature win could come against the Seahawks in week 16 - or in a week 17 divisional matchup against the Saints, which is likely to determine who goes into the playoffs.
Perhaps the most disappointing unit in this game was the Defensive Line. After stellar performances against the 49ers and Ravens, they came out flat and did not manage to pressure Matt Ryan much and never sacked him. They were better in the run game, though, keeping Michael Turner to 88 yards on 24 rushes, for 3.7 yards. And despite the lack of pass pressure and missing Aqib Talib for most of the game, the secondary did very well in coverage. Matt Ryan was limited to 205 yards on 36 attempts, and was intercepted twice - although he did throw 2 TD passes. Roddy White, too, did not make a big impact on the game getting just 74 yards on 7 receptions and 16 targets.
The offense struggled, though. Josh Freeman was under pressure constantly and Ted Larsen was a particular liability in pass protection. Freeman managed just 181 yards on 38 attempts, and threw 1 TD and 1 INT. He did manage to pick up 28 yards on the ground on 4 attempts, though. This was also the first game he was intercepted since week 9 at Atlanta. Freeman did not manage to find Mike Williams much, despite targeting him 14 times. The result was just 5 catches for 59 yards, though they did connect for a TD. Sammie Stroughter was a very reliable target for Josh Freeman, catching all 6 of his targets for 48 yards. The brihgt spot of the game may be Legarrette Blount, who reached 103 yards on 20 carries for 5.2 yards per carry, also scoring a TD in the process.
With Aqib Talib and Jeff Faine out for perhaps extended amounts of time, more young players will have to step up for this team to make the playoff. This loss hurts, but it doesn't take the Bucs out of the playoff hunt. With 4 games left, they'll need to win at least 3 of the next 4 games to get into the playoffs - and preferably all 4, to make sure they don't get left out. But with the Redskins, Lions, Seahawks and Saints coming up, the Bucs need not beat an opponent with a winning record to win 3 games. This is a blow to the playoff chances, but the Bucs are still alive and well in the Wild Card race.