The last time Tampa Bay beat Atlanta was during the second game of Matt Ryan’s rookie season. The Bucs blew out the Falcons, 24-9 in Week 2 of the 2008 season, but that victory seems like eons ago as Atlanta has ripped off five straight victories, beginning with a 13-10 overtime victory in the Georgia Dome against a Brian Griese-led Tampa Bay team.
The Bucs will have yet another chance to end the streak on Sunday when both 1-1 teams square off at Raymond James Stadium with first place in the NFC South division on the line.
In Tampa Bay’s five straight losses dating back to 2008, Atlanta’s margin of victory has been by a combined 26 points, or an average of five points per contest.
OUTCOME OF LAST 5 BUCCANEERS - FALCONS GAMES
WIN – Sept. 14, 2008 – Tampa Bay vs. Atlanta 24-9
LOSS – Dec. 14, 2008 – Tampa Bay at Atlanta 10-13 OT
LOSS – Nov. 29, 2009 – Tampa Bay at Atlanta 20-17 loss
LOSS – Jan. 3, 2010 – Tampa Bay vs. Atlanta 20-10 loss
LOSS – Nov. 7, 2010 – Tampa Bay at Atlanta 27-21 loss
LOSS – Dec. 5, 2010 – Tampa Bay vs. Atlanta 28-24 loss
“I don’t like anybody in the NFC South, but I have a big chip on my shoulder because we haven’t beat them in the last five meetings,” said Bucs left tackle Donald Penn. “That’s tough. You really don’t have any bragging rights if you haven’t beaten somebody in the last five times. This is a very important game. We need to get that bad taste out of our mouths. I know I want to get that bad taste out of my mouth. They aren’t going to come in and lay down, either. They don’t like us just as much and they will probably want to keep that streak alive so they can keep bragging. It’s going to be tough. Real tough. It’s going to be a big, physical game like it is when we play them.”
Raheem Morris has not tasted victory against the Falcons as a head coach, but his team has come close with the largest margin of defeat being six points in the Bucs’ 27-21 loss on November 7 when running back LeGarrette Blount was stopped on fourth-and-goal near the goal line late in the fourth quarter.
After coming a yard away from ending the streak at Atlanta last year, the Bucs actually had a 10-point lead against the Falcons on December 5 at Raymond James Stadium after tight end John Gilmore caught a touchdown pass from fullback Earnest Graham. However, Eric Weems returned the ensuing kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown to trim the Bucs’ lead to 24-21.
Ryan threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins with 4:31 left in the game to give the Falcons the lead as cornerback Brent Grimes picked off quarterback Josh Freeman at the Atlanta 19-yard line to preserve the road win. Although eight of Freeman’s 14 career wins have been in come-from-behind fashion, the one team that has proven to be immune to his fourth quarter heroics is Atlanta.
“On one play, we were a yard away and the other play was them converting on a third-and-20,” said Bucs wide receiver Mike Williams. “Two plays away and we are in the playoffs. We’ve got to get that together and know that we can play with these guys and get a win.”
Williams said that with an early lead in the division on the line, this Week 3 contest has already achieved “must-win” status.
“It’s going to be very ‘must-win’ for us,” Williams said. “To be in first place in our division; that’s what we came out to do. We came out to be in first place in our division, win our division and see what we can do after that. This is the first step towards that.
“Like Rah said, ‘It’s the next game ahead of us.’ That’s our most important game. We have to get a win no matter who it is.”
Weems’ 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown helped Tampa Bay blow a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Bucs special teams captain Adam Hayward feels like stealing punter and kickoff specialist Michael Koenen from Atlanta could take away Weems and help the Bucs beat the Falcons in terms of field position. Only two of Koenen’s monster kickoffs have been returned this year for a total of 17 yards (8.5 avg.).
“Weems killed us. He definitely did,” Hayward said. “We didn’t play Buc football last year and that’s kind of the difference [that] we are playing Buc football from the get-go because we know how important special teams is. You saw this week with a few good returns and the onside kick we are back in the game. We definitely take pride in that and [special teams coordinator Dwayne] Stukes is very, very on top of everybody and making sure that we understand to get down there because you never know when somebody is going to return and take it out. We got Michael and that dude is kicking the ball up like no other. As long as he keeps doing that he makes our job look easy as far as covering.”
Weems is certainly not the only weapon Tampa Bay will have to contain. The Atlanta defense has been revamped with the addition of free agent defensive end Ray Edwards teaming with fellow end John Abraham, middle linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and Grimes at cornerback. But like the Bucs, the Falcons are an offensively-driven football team, led by running back Michael Turner, tight end Tony Gonzalez, receivers Roddy White and rookie Julio Jones and Ryan at quarterback.
Ryan showed last week that Freeman wasn’t the only quarterback that was adept at fourth quarter comebacks. Trailing Philadelphia 31-21 in the fourth quarter, Ryan threw two of his career-high four touchdowns for his 10th career fourth quarter comeback.
The Falcons have scored at least 20 points in their last four games against the Bucs with Atlanta putting up 27 and 28 points in their last two contests. Williams knows that Tampa Bay must start fast offensively, which has been difficult to do dating back to last year, and put up some points to match Ryan and Co.
“I wouldn’t really say a shootout,” Williams said. “It’s going to be a good game. They have some shooters over there, too. It’s going to be a good game.”
Morris said that while the Bucs have played the Falcons competitively in all five losses, they can’t claim any moral victories for keeping the score close.
“We have a great division opponent coming in this week, but can’t call it a rivalry yet because we haven’t won any of them,” Morris said. “These guys have been dominant right now. We’ve played them tough, but we get no moral victories. We’re going to go out and try to win some of these games and try to win our division like we’ve talked about early on and like we talk about often.”