ATLANTA — Let the records show, for at least one week, the best team in the NFC South resides here. Six days after Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris claimed his Buccaneers were the top dogs of not only the division, but the entire NFC, the Atlanta Falcons begged to differ.
Forget talk, running back Michael Turner’s two-touchdown performance and a crucial goal-line stand was all the answer the Falcons needed to make Morris sound less like the all-foreseeing sage he believed he was.
What was the Falcons’ lesson to Morris following a 27-21 win Sunday over Tampa Bay at the Georgia Dome? Patience, practice it.
“I don’t need to talk to play the game,” Falcons defensive end John Abraham said. “They did all their talking (before the game), and we’ll see them again. We’ve got another game left to play against them. I wish them luck the rest of the year, but we’re going to move on.”
Entering the game, Atlanta’s only concern, Abraham said, was picking up a sixth season win and keeping pace with a New York Giants team that has been right there with them, neck-and-neck, atop the conference race all season.
“Like I said, we weren’t really worried about their talking because this is a game that you’ve got to show and prove,” Abraham said. “And we proved that we could do it in the game, and that’s what we were able to do.
“We weren’t worried about being the best; we were just worried about keeping it moving and being 6-2. Right now, that’s what we are.”
As the clock ticked inside three minutes remaining in the contest, the Falcons almost weren’t able to move toward a win.
After stalking to a quick 14-0 first-half lead off Turner’s two rushing scores, and then pushing it to 27-14 by the third quarter, the Falcons seemed poised to run away and embarrass the Buccaneers (5-3), and make Morris eat his words that much more.
That was the plan, at least. It just didn’t happen.
“This was a game that we should’ve won outright. It shouldn’t have even come close to the end,” Abraham said.
But it did.
With 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Falcons, fresh off Matt Bryant’s 41-yard field goal that gave them their final score, allowed Buccaneers kick returner Micheal Spurlock to take back an 89-yard touchdown return. The score brought the game to within six, and all but zapped every decibel of sound out of the previously noisy, roof-blowing Dome crowd.
Tampa Bay didn’t stop there, either.
Two Buccaneers possessions later and with 10:05 remaining in the game, Tampa Bay went on a 13-play drive that spanned 7:28 and ended with them mere yards from bringing Morris’ words to fruition.
As Tampa Bay sat on the Atlanta 2 in a fourth-and-1 situation, out of timeouts and with 2:44 remaining, the Falcons called on their goal-line defense. But it wasn’t a defensive lineman who made the big play to keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone and first-down territory, it was a defensive back.
“It just so happened that it was my play to make,” safety Thomas DeCoud said.
Stepping up at the line of scrimmage, DeCoud got low and wrestled to the ground hard-running Buccaneers back LeGarrette Blount. The big, physical ballcarrier even fumbled the ball as he hit the ground short of the first-down marker.
“It’s just not slowing down. Don’t go into the tackle with any kind of hesitation or fears,” DeCoud said. “He’s a big guy, he’s not going to be able to move as well if you come in with force and confidence.”
The entire Falcons defense played forcefully and confidently, at times, as it harassed Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman all afternoon.
Pressured from all angles, Freeman was sacked once and threw a pair of interceptions. The biggest of the pickoffs came early in the third quarter, as cornerback Brent Grimes made a redemptive grab.
Two plays after giving up a 43-yard reception to Spurlock down the Falcons’ sideline, Grimes buckled down on receiver Mike Williams, jumped the route and intercepted Freeman’s pass to stall an earlier potential game-winning Buccaneers drive.
“It’s just a testament to our resiliency,” DeCoud said about the secondary’s overall play. “Sometimes we bend, but we don’t break. We keep guys out of the end zone, and that’s what we’ve got to do. That’s what we get paid (to do) on defense.”
Resiliency and consistency are two words Falcons receiver Roddy White would like his teammates to channel.
“Seven games into the season, it’s a long season. We’ve got a lot more games to go, eight more, actually, and we just have to go out there and continue to get better,” White said.