The two-month long slide of the Buccaneers continued on Sunday as the team lost at Atlanta to the playoff-bound Falcons, 45-24.
For the Falcons, they avenged a Week 3, 20-16 defeat at Raymond James Stadium and are headed to the NFL postseason for the third straight year. Atlanta clinched the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs with Sunday’s victory.
For the Buccaneers, it was the team’s 10th straight loss. After a promising 4-2 start, Tampa Bay finished with a 4-12 record, which assures the team of a top 5 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
For Raheem Morris, Sunday will likely be his last game as Tampa Bay’s head coach. The 34-year old Morris has presided over a 3-13 team in 2009, a 10-6 squad in 2010 and a disappointing 4-12 team this season. Morris’ record over three years is 17-31 with no playoff appearances. There is a chance that Morris and possibly his entire staff could be fired as early as Monday.
For the defense, it was a game in which the Buccaneers surrendered 42 first half points to Atlanta and trailed 42-0, and also gave up the most points in Tampa Bay history by surrendering 487 points this season. That topped the old mark of 473 by the 1986 squad.
For Ronde Barber he may have played his last game in the NFL as the 36-year old cornerback is entering a contract year after 15 seasons with Tampa Bay. Barber, who suffered a broken right hand in the first half, left the contest early after his 199th consecutive start and playing in his 225th game with the Buccaneers, which is a franchise record.
For Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, it was a game in which he topped 20 interceptions in a season for the first time in his three-year career. Freeman had two picks in the first half, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and another in the fourth quarter to finish with 22 in 2011. He also fumbled the ball when he was sacked in the second quarter.
Freeman finished the game completing 31-of-45 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Freeman was also the Bucs’ leading rusher with 14 yards on three carries as Atlanta shut down Tampa Bay’s running game. LeGarrette Blount was held to 12 carries on six carries.
But Tampa Bay had no answer for Atlanta’s ground game as the Falcons outrushed the Bucs 251-35 yards. By halftime, Michael Turner had rushed for 172 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries (10.1 avg.) before being pulled with the rest of Atlanta’s starters as the Falcons built a 42-7 lead after two quarters.
Wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe, who started in place of Arrelious Benn, stepped up for Tampa Bay by catching a career-high eight passes for 53 yards and two touchdowns, which was also a personal best. Preston Parker led the Bucs with 74 yards on four catches, while Kellen Winslow had seven catches for 56 yards.
The Falcons scored on their opening possession to take a 7-0 lead with 8:12 left in the first quarter. Michael Turner ripped off a 27-yard run on the first play of the game. On third-and-11, Matt Ryan found wide receiver Roddy White for a 23-yard gain to pick up the first down. Eight plays later, rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers scored on a 1-yard touchdown run.
After the Bucs went three-and-out on their first possession, Atlanta marched down the field again with Julio Jones capping off the seven-play drive with a 17-yard touchdown catch in which he broke three attempted tackles by linebacker Geno Hayes, cornerback Elbert Mack and safety Sean Jones. With 3:30 left in the first quarter, the Falcons were out in front, 14-0.
On Tampa Bay’s next play, Freeman threw an interception to Dominique Franks, who picked off the ball at the Bucs’ 48-yard line. On the next snap, Ryan threw a 48-yard bomb to Jones, who outwrestled free safety Tanard Jackson touchdown and ran through E.J. Biggers for a touchdown. The Falcons went up 21-0 in the first quarter and Jones would finish the game with four catches for 76 yards and two scores.
Freeman had another turnover as Lee whiffed when trying to block defensive end John Abraham, who also stripped and recovered the ball from the Bucs quarterback at the Tampa Bay 30. After a 14-yard run by Turner, the Falcons would score six plays later on his 1-yard touchdown run as he accounted for all 30 rushing yards.
Things went from bad to worse for Tampa Bay as Freeman threw a pick-six to linebacker Curtis Lofton, who returned Freeman’s interception 26 yards for a touchdown. The pass was intended for running back Kregg Lumpkin, who collided with Winslow and was knocked to the ground. With 10:43 remaining in the second quarter, Atlanta’s lead swelled to 35-0.
The Falcons piled it on with an 81-yard touchdown run down the left sidelines to cap off a two-play scoring drive. Just minutes before halftime, Turner’s second touchdown of the day put Atlanta up 42-0.
The Bucs finally got on the scoreboard with a 2-yard touchdown catch by Briscoe to cap off a seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive. The key play was a 48-yard catch-and-run by Parker to move the ball into Atlanta territory. The touchdown was Briscoe’s team-leading fifth of the year as the Bucs’ carved into the Falcons’ lead yet trailed 42-7.
Connor Barth added a 41-yard field goal, his 15th straight of the season, to cut into Atlanta’s lead, which was trimmed to 42-10 with 4:19 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs added their second touchdown of the game a few plays later as Mack intercepted Chris Redmon and returned in the pick 40 yards for a touchdown. Winslow’s two-point conversion catch cut Atlanta’s lead to 42-18 with 3:39 left in the third quarter.
Briscoe scored his second touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter, but the Bucs’ attempt at another two-point conversion failed and Atlanta’s lead was reduced to 42-24.
Matt Bryant added a 19-yard field goal with 3:59 left in the game to push Atlanta’s lead to 45-24.