The Buccaneers went into Atlanta knowing a win would be virtually meaningless. Tampa Bay would not be making the playoffs, and a win against a coasting Falcons team wouldn’t be worth much, would it?
It was totally worth it.
The Falcons rested on their number 1 seed in the NFC and the Buccaneers defense had an excellent display to end the season on a positive note. The Falcons running game only had a couple of decent gains, and the passing game led by Matt Ryan was surprisingly average against an inspired Buccaneers defense. Mark Barron had a key pass break up in the fourth quarter to end the Falcons’ chances, and the Buccaneers held on for a 22-17 win.
The Buccaneers got off to a good start, holding the Falcons scoreless on their opening drive, and responding with a field goal. We appeared to have a “Good Josh” sighting, as the quarterback was accurate all through the first half. He would add a fantastic touchdown pass to Mike Williams in the 2nd quarter, and the Buccaneers had a healthy lead at the half, up 16-3.
The Falcons came out swinging in the second half, not benching any starters, and would start their comeback. Josh Freeman threw an ugly interception to set up the Falcons with good field position in the third quarter, and they would capitalize with a Michael Turner touchdown run. The Falcons starters remained on the field for almost the entire remainder of the game, and it turned out to be a damaging decision, as defensive end John Abraham suffered what appeared to be a severe ankle injury. To add insult to the injury, the Buccaneers added a highlight run from Doug Martin, including a very nice spin move, to re-open the deficit. Going into the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers led 22-10.
In the 4th, the Buccaneers defense would allow a wide-open Harry Douglas to score a touchdown that made the game frustratingly close. Down only 5, Coach Schiano was visibly upset, coaching his defensive backs to the very end of the game, using the overhead photos to point out the weaknesses of the pass defense. The defense would respond, with key pass break ups on a drive with less than four minutes left, stopping the Falcon’s last chance at a victory.
While the cynical Buccaneers fan will be upset the Bucs surrendered a few spots in the draft order, the reality is that this win was very, very important for Tampa Bay. Ending another season with a deflating losing streak would destroy any positive momentum the team built in October, and the upcoming offseason would feel strangely like the offseason prior. Beating the Falcons, who snuck past the Bucs to start the losing streak, certainly added some meaning to the victory, as the win was a sort of symbolic triumph over the struggles of the past month and a half.
Doug Martin was a key factor in the victory, running better than he has since before the losing streak began. He was given some good blocking on occasion, but also created yards that were not blocked for him, finding creases and exploding through them for big gains. He continued to run hard, even in week 17, dismissing the rookie wall myth as it relates to the Boise State product. Josh Freeman was over 50% completion percentage and despite making some bad throws, he was able to limit mistakes and manage the offense well. Luke Stocker was featured in the offense early, and showed he is certainly a capable backup tight end, a job he hopes to hold onto going into next season.
The offense was solid, but the defense was the surprise of the day for the Buccaneers. The Falcons as a team were held under 300 yards of total offense, and converted only 3 of 14 third downs. Those numbers were made possible by a pass defense that was much improved, as EJ Biggers and Leonard Johnson were able to stay with the Falcons’ wideouts, and Mark Barron was able to play some solid defense on Tony G. The defensive line pressured Ryan on occasion, and the Buccaneers came up with key plays in big moments, none bigger than the pass break-ups by Barron and Biggers on the final drive to put the Falcons away.
This win feels surprisingly good as a Buccaneers fan. Going into the offseason on a win, rather than a losing streak, brings an exptectant hope for next season. As we shift into looking ahead to 2013, let us not forget the effort of the Buccaneers in week 17. One of Coach Schiano’s talking points was acted upon today, as the Buccaneers fought to the very end of the game, and the season. They made Buccaneers fans proud, and hopeful for next season. There are still questions to be answered, but one thought can be put to rest… these are not the Raheem Morris Buccaneers.
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