After beating the St. Louis Rams and the Arizona Rams in consecutive weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a 5-2 record going into Week 9. This meant that they were tied with the Falcons for the division lead. This gave their matchup a little extra meaning, as the winner of their Week 9 face-off would emerge as the top team in the division. For the Bucs this was also another chance to prove they could actually beat a good team, having failed to do so against the Steelers and Saints in previous weeks.
So you'd think the Bucs would finally get off to a fast start then, right? Well, no. In fact, they gave up a touchdown on their very first drive. It started with a big Eric Weems return to the Falcons' 39-yard line. From there on the Falcons efficiently dissected the Bucs' defense on a 13-play drive, ending with a 2-yard Michael Turner touchdown. So much for that fast start.
The Bucs tried to strike back quickly with their own 11-play drive, but that drive ended with a punt in Falcons' territory. The Falcons kept the pedal to the medal and struck back with a 10-play, 99-yard touchdown drive capped off by yet another Michael Turner touchdown. The Falcons had two drives and touchdowns at that point, and this was starting to look like another Steelers game.
But up came Michael Spurlock to give the Buccaneers a boost. He raced 66 yards on the kickoff return, giving the Bucs the ball deep in Atlanta territory. Four plays later and Arrelious Benn grabbed his first touchdown of the year and his career, reducing the Bucs' deficit to 7 points. That touchdown play was beautifully designed, as the Bucs got him isolated against linebacker Stephen Nicholas.
However, the Bucs' defense still couldn't stop the Falcons, who put up an 11-play drive this time. The Bucs were lucky that that drive stalled at their 13-yard line, and they forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal and a 17-7 lead. Tampa Bay was still in this game, but the team needed to keep up with Atlanta. And so they did. But instead of putting together a long-winded, methodical drive, the Bucs just heaved it to Mike Williams on a slant, who had beaten the Falcons' star cornerback Dunta Robinson. Because the Falcons had decided to send an all-out blitz there was no one behind Robinson and Mike Williams walked in for the 58-yard touchdown. It was now 14-17 and the Bucs were right back in it. That was the last relevant action of the half, as the Bucs managed to actually stop the Falcons for two drives in a row to end the second quarter.
The Bucs were in this game, they looked sharp and they looked focused. Surely they'd come out of the locker room and blow the Falcons away? Well that's what I thought anyway, and three plays later Josh Freeman threw a bone-headed interception to defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux of all people. This happened because of a total breakdown on the Bucs' side, as Kroy Biermann came untouched at Freeman and he had nowhere to go with the ball. Instead of just eating the sack, he threw it up for grabs, which gave the Falcons great position to extend their lead. And that's exactly what they did with a short drive, capped off by a 5-yard touchdown catch by undrafted rookie Michael Palmer.
Down 24-14, and things weren't looking too good for the Bucs. They looked even worse when at the end of the third quarter, Matt Bryant added another 3 points on the board for the Atlanta Falcons. But up came Michael Spurlock again, giving the Buccaneers an 89-yard touchdown return. Yep, this was Spurlock's day. The Bucs even tried to capitalize on this good fortune by trying an onside kick the very next play, which worked if not for Connor Barth touching the ball just a few inches too early.
It was now the fourth quarter, though, and as usual the Bucs lifted magically started to play better. First, they stopped the Falcons after the failed onside kick, forcing them to punt despite the very short field. Brent Grimes got the Falcons another short field after interception Josh Freeman the next drive, but the Bucs defense stopped up again and forced them to punt. This gave the Bucs the ball at the 9-yard line, and now it was time for Josh Freeman's late-game heroics.
It seemed inevitable that Josh Freeman would lead the Bucs downfield and give the Bucs the game-winning score. The drive started with a 21-yard Legarrette Blount run, his first big contribution of the game. As Josh Freeman continued to direct the team downfield, I was increasingly confident the Bucs would win this game. It still took a penalty to get the Bucs down to the Falcons' 11-yard line, though, as William Moore interfered with Arrelious Benn who was adjusting to an underthrown ball. With 1st-and-10 at the Falcons' 11-yard line, they ran Blount for no gain. On second down, they got a quick screen to Preston Parker, who got down to the 4-yard line. With 3rd-and-3 the Bucs gave the ball to Legarrette Blount, who got down to the 2-yard-line. One more yard for a first down, two more yards for a touchdown. This play would decide the game.
And that's when the pendulum swung to the Falcons. The Bucs had two tight ends on the field, DT Roy Miller at fullback, Derek Hardman as an extra lineman, and Legarrette Blount as the tailback. Everyone knew what was coming. The Bucs took the snap, faked the give to Roy Miller, which delayed the play, then gave the ball to Blount. Blount had room right in front of him, he could've walked for a first down, and probably a touchdown. But for some reason, Blount cut outside, and he had no shut there. The Falcons shut him down, got the ball back, and that won the game.
The Bucs had not only failed to beat a good opponent, they had also failed to take the lead in the division. This was one of several crucial games they could have won that would have gotten them into the playoffs. But they lost, and in the end they fell short.