TAMPA – Ronde Barber’s interception return for a touchdown on the third play of the game was a pretty good sign that Tampa Bay was going to beat the troubled Atlanta Falcons to win its third NFC South division championship since head coach Jon Gruden’s arrival in 2002.
If you needed any more evidence that it was going to be Tampa Bay’s day, how about a long-awaited 90-yard kickoff return by Michael Spurlock to put the Bucs up 14-3 in the first quarter? The history-making touchdown came after 1,864 kickoffs without a touchdown, perhaps the most dubious record in the NFL, and helped the Bucs move to 9-5 on the season behind a 37-3 victory and win the division in front of 65,133 fans at Raymond James Stadium.
The three division titles won under Gruden is a new franchise record, surpassing the record of two division titles held by Gruden (2002 and ’02) and John McKay (1979 and 1981). The last two times Gruden and the Bucs have won the NFC South has come after double-digit losing seasons. The Bucs went 11-5 in 2005 after finishing 5-11 in 2004. This year’s Tampa Bay was coming off a 4-12 campaign in 2006.
The Falcons, who have gone through the turmoil of the Michael Vick scandal in the offseason and the abrupt resignation of head coach Bobby Petrino on Tuesday, fell to 3-11 on the season. Tampa Bay’s defense completely dominated Atlanta, which was out-gained 285-133 yards. The Falcons had just 38 yards of total offense in the second half.
Chris Redman got the start at quarterback for Atlanta and ended the game 4-of-15 for 34 yards with two interceptions and zero touchdowns. He finished the game with a 0.0 quarterback rating. Atlanta picked up only five first downs in the entire game and was 0-for-9 on third downs.
Due to incredibly windy conditions, the return of quarterback Jeff Garcia from a two-week absence due to a back injury didn’t feature too many aerial fireworks. Garcia finished a modest 15-of-25 for 109 yards with one touchdown and one interception while getting sacked twice.
But with Tampa Bay’s defense and special teams playing so well, Garcia didn’t have to carry the team to victory. In fact, it was running back Earnest Graham who was the workhorse for the Bucs once again, rushing for 79 yards on 22 carries (3.6 avg.) and one touchdown and hauling in a game-high five catches for 40 yards.
The Buccaneers started off the contest with a bang on the third play of the game as Barber stepped in front of wide receiver Michael Jenkins, picked off Redman and returned the interception 29 yards down the left sidelines for a touchdown to give Tampa Bay an early 7-0 lead with 14:00 left in the first quarter.
Atlanta would answer two possessions later, driving 59 yards in seven plays, but being forced to settle for a 33-yard field goal from Morten Anderson. Jerious Norwood rushed for 38 yards on his first two runs to start the drive, and Laurent Robinson’s 18-yard catch moved Atlanta deep into Tampa Bay territory at the 18 before the drive stalled on third down. With 6:19 left in the first quarter, the Bucs led 7-3.
History was made on the ensuing kickoff as Spurlock returned the ball 90 yards for a touchdown down the right sidelines to give Tampa Bay a 14-3 advantage with 6:32 left in the first quarter.
The Bucs would tack on a field goal to increase their lead after traveling 57 yards on 14 plays. Graham accounted for 25 rushing yards on the drive and Garcia hit Hilliard with a 14-yard catch on fourth-and-4 at the Atlanta 38. But the surge stopped at the Falcons’ 6 when John Abraham recorded a sack. With 11:24 remaining in the second quarter, Tampa Bay’s lead it’s increased to 17-3 thanks to a 33-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
Tampa Bay would continue to pile on the points in the first half after Adams sacked Redman on third-and-9 at the Atlanta 13, forcing a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Jovan Haye at the 6-yard line. On second-and-goal at 5, Graham rushed for three yards. After the play was over, defensive end Jamal Anderson and cornerback DeAngelo Hall were flagged for unnecessary roughness for piling on. The penalty against Hall was accepted and Graham scored his 10th touchdown of the season on a 1-yard plunge. With 4:09 left in the second quarter, the Bucs’ lead swelled to 24-3.
Searching for more points before halftime, the Bucs saw a promising drive end at the Atlanta 11 when Garcia threw an ill-advised pass towards the right sideline intended for Joey Galloway when the ball was intercepted by Hall with 1:14 left in the second quarter.
On the Falcons’ first play from scrimmage, defensive end Greg White stripped Dunn of the ball and recovered the ball. However, White was flagged 15 yards for a choreographed celebration and that backed up Tampa Bay. With less than a minute remaining in the first half, the Bucs were unable to do anything more than trot out Bryant for a 28-yard field goal that gave Tampa Bay a 27-3 halftime lead.
The Bucs would add to their lead with 4:08 left in the third quarter with a 34-yard field goal from Bryant that came after Tampa Bay safety Jermaine Phillips picked off Redman at the Atlanta 23-yard line.
Tampa Bay tacked on another touchdown to go up 37-7 with 7:42 left in the fourth quarter after an eight-play, 55-yard drive with Garcia hitting tight end Anthony Becht for a 1-yard touchdown off play-action on third-and-goal from the 1. Michael Bennett was the workhorse on the drive, picking up 54 yards on six carries on the drive, including a 28-yarder.
Bennett finished the game with 63 yards on nine carries (7.0 avg.), while Michael Pittman finished with 50 yards rushing on 13 carries (3.8 avg.) to push the Bucs to 190 yards rushing.
Garcia was pulled in the fourth quarter in favor of QB Bruce Gradkowski instead of Luke McCown, who could not enter the game due to the fact that he was battling laryngitis.
As the game was winding down, both Gruden and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia received Gatorade showers from defensive tackles Chris Hovan and Kevin Carter to celebrate a convincing win over a division rival, the NFC South title and the home playoff game that comes with it in three weeks.
IT WAS OVER WHEN… With all of the turmoil in Atlanta this year, the Falcons needed to get off to a fast start to have a chance at the beating a superior Bucs team at home. Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber made sure that didn’t happen by recording his 12th career touchdown (including the postseason) when he stepped in front of a Chris Redman pass and raced 29 yards for a touchdown on the fourth play of the game. That gave Tampa Bay a 7-3 lead, which wound up being all the Bucs needed to put away the hapless Falcons.
Bucs kick returner Micheal Spurlock made sure Atlanta wouldn’t come back with a 90-yard return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff to put the game away at 14-3. That gave Tampa Bay all the momentum they would need to score 30 unanswered points after Atlanta’s field goal.
PEWTERREPORT.COM’S PEWTER PLAYER OF THE GAME Tampa Bay return man Micheal Spurlock easily wins this award for his historic, 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which was also the longest in team history. It took Spurlock, who entered the game with nine kick returns for 237 yards (26.3 avg.) 10 kick returns to do what no one else in team history has done. Spurlock eluded fullbacks Corey McIntyre and Jason Snelling as he broke what was supposed to be a middle-left return off to the right. As he reached the right sidelines, Spurlock kicked it into high gear, out-racing kicker Michael Koenen and cornerback Lewis Sanders for the touchdown. Spurlock, who has just 13 total kick returns after playing quarterback at Ole Miss, finished the day with a 49-yard average, as he returned his lone second half opportunity only eight yards, but his first return was the one that mattered the most and earned Spurlock the PewterReport.com Pewter Player of the Game honors.
RECORDS, MILESTONES AND NOTES • Several records were set on Sunday, the first of which was Tampa Bay winning its third division title, the most in the NFC South since realignment in 2002. The Bucs have now won the NFC South in 2002, 2005 and 2007.
• Jon Gruden became the first coach in Buccaneers history to win the division three times. Gruden and John McKay, the Bucs’ first head coach, each won two division titles.
Dating back to Oakland, Gruden now has five division titles in his 10 years as a head coach. Gruden is tied with Philadelphia’s Andy Reid and Indianapolis’ Tony Dungy and trails only New England’s Bill Belichick (six) for the most division titles since 2000. As a franchise, the Bucs have claimed six division titles with four of them coming under the ownership of the Glazer family.
• The Bucs improved their 2007 home record to 6-1. The six wins are tied for the second-most home wins in team history. The Bucs won seven home games in 1999.
• By winning nine games, the Buccaneers have assured themselves of a winning record this season. That marks the third winning season Jon Gruden has produced and the 10th winning season in Tampa Bay’s 32-year franchise history.
• Not only does first-year defensive end Greg White lead the Bucs with eight sacks in 2007, he also tied the franchise record for most forced fumbles in team history with seven. That tied the mark set by linebacker Broderick Thomas (1991) and defensive end Wally Chambers (1979). White also has two fumble recoveries on the year.
• Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia had his 2,000 career completion at the two-minute warning against Atlanta. He now has 2,008 career completions.
• Tampa Bay running back Earnest Graham scored his 10th rushing touchdown of the season, including one in each of the last six games, which is a record. No other running back has scored a rushing touchdown in six consecutive games.
• The University of Florida’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow was in attendance at the Buccaneers game.
STATS THAT COUNT Bucs rookie fullback Byron Storer made his first career NFL start. … Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber recorded his 33rd career interception, which is tied with Baltimore’s Ed Reed for the most INTs with a current team. … Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams recorded his sixth sack and his second forced fumble of the year. … Tampa Bay safety Jermaine Phillips picked off a pass against Atlanta and leads the team in interceptions with four, which is a career high. … Tampa Bay defensive tackle Jovan Haye recorded his team-leading fourth fumble recovery of the year and is one shy of the Bucs’ single-season record of five, set by Bill Kolar in 1979. … Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud led the team in tackles with eight. … Bucs rookie linebacker Quincy Black and free safety Will Allen each had three special teams tackles, while reserve safety Kalvin Pearson had two.
BUCS’ STARTING LINEUPS VS. THE FALCONS Starting offense: WR Joey Galloway LT Donald Penn LG Arron Sears C John Wade RG Davin Joseph RT Jeremy Trueblood TE Alex Smith WR Michael Clayton FB Byron Storer RB Earnest Graham
Starting defense: LE Kevin Carter UT Jovan Haye NT Chris Hovan RE Gaines Adams WLB Derrick Brooks MLB Barrett Ruud SLB Cato June LCB Phillip Buchanon FS Tanard Jackson SS Jermaine Phillips RCB Ronde Barber
Starting specialists: K Matt Bryant P Josh Bidwell LS Andrew Economos
BUCS-FALCONS INACTIVES BUCS INACTIVES: FB B.J. Askew, FB Zack Crockett, RB Kenneth Darby, LB Jeremiah Trotter, DE Greg Spires, DE Greg Peterson, G Dan Buenning, QB Bruce Gradkowski (emergency quarterback).â€¨â€¨
FALCONS INACTIVES: CB Antoine Harris, LB Travis Williams, G Justin Blaylock, OL Pat McCoy, DT Jesse Mahelona, OL Harvey Dahl, TE Courtney Anderson and QB Byron Leftwich (emergency quarterback).
BUCS INJURIES Fullback B.J. Askew was put on the inactive list due to a high ankle sprain. Quarterback Jeff Garcia (back) and wide receiver Ike Hilliard (neck-back) returned to action. Garcia missed the last two games, while Hilliard missed the second half of the Houston game after getting injured. No in-game injuries were reported.
KICKOFF CONDITIONS The announced attendance for the Buccaneers vs. Falcons game at Raymond James Stadium was 65,133. The kickoff temperature was 68 degrees and windy with 60 percent humidity under sunny skies.
UP NEXT The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) travel to San Francisco to play the 49ers (4-10) at Monster Park next Sunday, December 23. Kickoff is set for 4:05 p.m. ET.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org