Kevin C. Cox
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed to end a disappointing season on a high note, beating the Atlanta Falcons with their starters in a meaningless game.
After weeks of agonizing, soul-destroying losses, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bounced back to close out the season with a win. Beating the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta is pretty impressive, despite the fact that the Falcons had nothing to play for. It's certainly an improvement over getting blown out by the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Rams.
The Buccaneers had an all-around good game for the first time in weeks. The defense was surprisingly strong against the pass, the offense clicked, Josh Freeman had one of his good games and Doug Martin got going on the ground and through the air as well, racking up 142 yards and a touchdown. The offense punctuated an explosive if inconsistent season by setting several franchise record. Doug Martin holds every franchise rookie record, Josh Freeman set single-season and career records for touchdown passes, while also breaking the single-season record for passing yards. The Bucs as a team set a franchise record for points scored in a season, and Mike Williams came just four yards short of breaking through the 1,000 yard barrier, which would have given the team its first duo of 1,000-yard receivers in its history.
They did all of this against Atlanta's starters, who played the full game. Surprisingly, the Falcons didn't rest their starters and suffered the consequences: Dunta Robinson was lost for the game early on, and John Abraham got carted off in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile Asante Samuel got banged up in the first quarter, although he did return. That didn't prevent him from coming up with a bad Josh Freeman interception, though, setting up Atlanta's first touchdown. But the defense was incredibly impressive, despite playing without its best cornerback (Eric Wright). They limited the Falcons to just 3 points in the first half, sacked Matt Ryan twice and pressured him regularly while being surprisingly stout on the back end throughout most of the game.
Josh Freeman had his most impressive game in four weeks, despite a bad interception and several bad drops by various wide receivers. He was still a little inaccurate at times, but he showed once again that he can play well. Mike Williams had a good game, bouncing back from what was a poor showing last week. Even tight end Luke Stocker, invisible for most of the season, showed up to catch a few crucial passes. This was an offense that looked more like its explosive mid-season version, than the plodding, inconsistent unit we saw in recent weeks.
Despite that, the Buccaneers managed to make this game an exciting affair in the fourth quarter. They allowed the Falcons to come back from a 16-3 deficit to a 22-17 score midway through the fourth quarter. The defense broke down in the secondary despite good pressure, and eventually gave up a touchdown on fourth-and-7, giving the Falcons some life when they seemed all-but-dead. And yet, the defense stepped up when they needed it most. Fittingly, Mark Barron provided the final nail in the Falcons' coffin, breaking up a fourth-down pass to Tony Gonzalez to give the Bucs the ball on the Atlanta 33 at the two-minute warning.
The Buccaneers may have played a team with nothing at stake, but they faced their starters for the full game. They showed their potential against the number one seed in the NFC, and may have played their best complete, all-around game of the season, with big contributions from both the offense and the defense. It was a refreshing change from recent weeks, when Tampa Bay appeared to be folding. Beating the Falcons may have given the Bucs a worse draft pick, but this win restored some of the faith of the Tampa Bay faithful in Greg Schiano's culture change.
In the end, this game was meaningless. Nothing was at stake. But the Buccaneers did show that they weren't folding, that they still had a competitive team. In other words: they showed that despite a five-game losing streak, this is a different team from last year's.