The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a huge step backwards Saturday, losing to the two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, 28-0. The loss was the first time the Buccaneers had been shut out since losing 45-0 to the Oakland Raiders during the 1999 season. With the Carolina Panthers defeating the New Orleans Saints Sunday, the 9-5 Buccaneers have fallen one game out of first place in the NFC South with division rival Atlanta visiting Raymond James Stadium Saturday.

This evening the Falcons travel to Soldier Field to take on the Chicago Bears. If Atlanta prevails in tonight’s contest they will be tied with the Buccaneers for second place in the division with two games remaining in the 2005 regular season. The Buccaneers will have to recover quickly if they intend to finish a playoff run after being blanked by the Patriots.

“We have positioned ourselves to potentially make the playoffs,” head coach Jon Gruden said Sunday. “We still potentially can win the NFC South. Heading into Week 15, with the kind of conference that we’re in, one of the most difficult conferences in all of football in my opinion. We have positioned ourselves for an exciting season. And now it’s a matter of making the corrections, acknowledging that we got beat by a very good football team, making the corrections, being honest with our performance with not being good enough yesterday. At the same time, feeling pretty good about winning two out of three on the road following a tough setback to the Chicago Bears. We are excited about playing at home and we’re looking forward to playing much better than we did yesterday.”

Tampa Bay will need to be more consistent play along the offensive line vs. a stout Atlanta pass rush. Tampa Bay gave up seven sacks against the Patriots, the most sacks given up since allowing the Carolina Panthers six sacks in the Week 9 contest at Raymond James Stadium.

“They didn’t go real deep into their playbook to create any awkward or new blitzes that we haven’t seen,” Gruden said. “We just got whipped in some particular instances. We paid for that yesterday. We’re disappointed. We think we can do much better than that, but you don’t get do-overs in this business. Hopefully, we can show some resolve and come back much better next week.”

Tampa Bay has had success protecting the quarterback when it jumps out to an early lead. The Buccaneers are 7-1 this season when they score first. The loss to the Patriots dropped the Buccaneers to 1-4 when the opponent scores first.

But failing to score first wasn’t the only thing that cost the Bucs on Saturday. They also had several dropped passes on offense, which was something Gruden expressed his frustration with during his press conference on Sunday.

“We have dropped some passes,” Gruden said. “Not only Joey (Galloway), we’ve dropped several passes in the last five or six games. I think we’ve had 13 or 14 drops. When you attempt a forward pass, there’s only one good thing that can happen, and that’s a completion. Sacks, incomplete passes and interceptions are negatives. We’ve got to do a much better job as a football team, as an offensive team, catching the ball. I think all of our skill people respect that and understand that.”

The Buccaneers failed to pick up a club record sixth road victory Saturday in Foxboro, but Gruden was pleased that the Bucs went 2-1 during their three-game road trip.

“I think any team in football that goes 5-3 on the road feels somewhat good about that,” Gruden said. “We’d like to win every game, but we lost to the Jets and we lost to the 49ers, and we felt just as sick after those losses as we did yesterday’s. So we’ve got to see the trainer today. We have to get some treatment, all of us, psychological and physical treatment, and by God get ready to go for the upcoming game.”

Tampa Bay’s final two games will be played within the friendly confines of Raymond James Stadium against two key division opponents in Atlanta and New Orleans, respectively. The Buccaneers have only lost one division game this season and must win out and hope Carolina drops a game in order for the Buccaneers to have any hope of obtaining the NFC South crown.

Since the 2003 season, the Buccaneers have split games with Atlanta. The Buccaneers have not beaten the Saints at home since the 2001 season when the posted a 48-21 victory.

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