When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the field with eight minutes left in the game, they trailed by one point. But an offense that had been productive throughout the game and explosive throughout the season failed to produce a single point, as the Bucs failed to put away the Atlanta Falcons.
Missing cornerback Eric Wright and facing two of the league's best receiver in Roddy White and Julio Jones, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were expected to struggle with the Atlanta passing game. And struggle they did, as Matt Ryan went off for 353 yards, and the supposedly injured Julio Jones roasted a secondary made up of castoffs to the tune of 147 yards.
And yet, the Bucs didn't lose this game because of the Atlanta passing game. They didn't lose it because their run defense struggled to contain Jacquizz Rodgers. They didn't lose because their rushing offense couldn't get going. They lost because they came up just a little short on numerous plays throughout the game. And all of that happened despite a very good start.
After one quarter, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led 7-3. The Falcons had marched down the field, but the Bucs had gotten a third-down stop near the goal-line and the Falcons settled for a field goal. They then responded with a perfectly executed drive: Doug Martin was rolling with 25 yards, while Freeman went 4 of 4 for 56 yards, allowing Martin to walk into the endzone.
That set up an exciting, up-and-down football game with scores, missed field goals, turnovers and mishaps all over the field. The Falcons didn't take long to respond, driving 75 yards for a touchdown as the Bucs really struggled to stop the Falcons on third down. Time and again, Tampa Bay would stop Michael Turner in the backfield, get the Falcons to third down - and then they'd give up a big pass play. Overall, the Bucs allowed the Falcons to convert 8 of 13 third downs, while they only managed to convert 4 of 10.
The normally explosive Tampa Bay offense was then contained for much of the game. The Bucs managed to score just six points through the second and third quarter, despite forcing a turnover. Ronde Barber snagged an interception out of the air, his fourth of the year, which was set up by Da'Quan Bowers' pressure. Josh Freeman and the Bucs offense managed just a field goal, despite that gift.
The damage was contained, though, as a ridiculous 11-play Atlanta drive to end the first half was capped off by a 22-yard Matt Bryant miss at the goal-line. But the Bucs kept cutting it close, and they wouldn't be able to get away with it for long. They had to settle for a field goal to open the second half, and the Falcons then managed an 80-yard touchdown pass, featuring a conspicuous Leonard Johnson missed tackle. Despite that, it was still a one-score game.
At that point, things got a little crazy. The Bucs went three-and-out, but they then forced an Atlanta three-and-out, too. And on cue, they went 82 yards down the field, ending the drive with another 1-yard Doug Martin touchdown run. Freeman was on fire during that drive, hitting Vincent Jackson and Tiquan Underwood repeatedly for big passing plays. When E.J. Biggers then forced a fumble on a cornerback blitz on the very next drive, the Bucs appeared to be in the driver's seat.
That's when things started to fall apart. They had to settle for a field goal after a Tiquan Underwood drop, and their lead was just 23-17 at that point. The defense then couldn't stop the Falcons again, and after a debatable defensive holding call, they allowed Michael Turner to punch it in.
The Bucs then got the ball back, down one point with 7:55 remaining. Nine plays later, they were on the edge of field goal range, and Connor Barth's attempt fell just short. Trailing 24-23, the Bucs needed their defense to get a stop - but they couldn't come up with one until it was too late. The Bucs started calling timeouts after the two minute warning, while they could have saved some 30 seconds by calling them earlier, and Tampa Bay got the ball back at their 38-yard line with just eight seconds remaining. Freeman couldn't conjure up some magic, and the Bucs ended up with a close loss to their biggest division rival.
With this loss, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers see a division win slip out of their fingers, now trailing the Falcons by an insurmountable four games with just five games left in the season. The wildcard race is starting to get tough, too. The NFC North appears to be running away with one of the wildcard spots, whether the Bears or Packers win it remains to be decided. The Bucs are tied with several teams for the final wildcard spot, and they'll need to separate themselves with a tough schedule remaining.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to Denver to take on Peyton Manning and a tough Denver squad on Sunday.