A week after getting some help in the NFC South race during their bye, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers helped themselves to a 31-7 drubbing of the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
In doing so, the Buccaneers did more than just improve to 6-4 with six games remaining. Losses by New Orleans and Carolina — both of which started the day one game behind the Buccaneers — strengthened the Bucs' hold on the division lead. Tampa Bay has a two-game lead entering next Sunday's home game against Washington.
The Buccaneers dominated the Falcons (3-7) defensively, forcing new starter Byron Leftwich into three turnovers and chasing him from the game in favor of backup Joey Harrington. The Bucs offense turned those miscues into 21 points.
Leftwich finished 15-of-28 for 106 yards. His receivers dropped eight passes. The Falcons offense saw a slight bump when Harrington entered the game, and despite an efficient second half — he went 16-for-20 for 139 yards — the Falcons were only able to muster a late touchdown pass to Adam Jennings.
The Bucs also limited Falcons RB Warrick Dunn — which had rushed for more than 200 yards in the last two games — to only 32 yards on 15 carries.
Meanwhile, the Bucs offense provided a well-balanced effort, with QB Jeff Garcia tossing two touchdown passes and RB Earnest Graham rushing for 102 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Graham ended the Bucs scoring with a 26-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter to give him his second straight 100-yard rushing game.
Graham's touchdown run came a drive after tight end Alex Smith's 21-yard touchdown reception with less than five minutes left in the third quarter.
Smith ran a seam route and beat the safety to rope in Garcia's second touchdown pass of the game.
The Buccaneers defense, as they had all afternoon, set up the score. Bucs rookie DE Gaines Adams beat Falcons T Quinn Ojinnaka to hit Leftwich's arm from behind, forcing the ball loose. Bucs DT Chris Hovan picked the ball out of the air for his first interception of the season to give the Bucs offense great field position in Falcons territory.
It was Leftwich's second interception of the game and prompted Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino to bench him for Harrington.
Earlier in the third quarter Matt Bryant kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Bucs a 17-0 lead, after CB Ronde Barber tackled Dunn for no gain on 4th-and-1 in Bucs territory to force a change of possession.
Tampa Bay had a 14-0 halftime lead after a first-quarter touchdown pass from QB Jeff Garcia to WR Joey Galloway and a 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Barber with 10:42 left in the second quarter.
Facing 3rd-and-10 Leftwich dropped back to pass and stepped up when his pocket collapsed. With room to run Leftwich found a receiver. But before he could pass Bucs defensive end Greg White hit him from behind. That hit dislodged the ball and Barber picked it up in full stride and returned it for a touchdown.
The Falcons declared Leftwich the starter over Harrington before the game, but he committed two turnovers in the first half.
The Bucs nearly made it a third turnover on consecutive plays in the second quarter. First, Bucs LB Derrick Brooks forced Dunn to fumble a short reception and Bucs LB Cato June recovered. But the Falcons challenged the play, saying Dunn had not established himself and officials agreed, reversing the play.
On the following play Leftwich threw a slant to WR Roddy White, but he fumbled and Bucs CB Brian Kelly recovered. Kelly returned the fumble briefly and before he went to the ground tossed the ball to June. June was then tripped by Roddy White and fumbled the ball, and the Falcons recovered. The Bucs challenged the call, saying the ball carrier was already down. But game officials upheld the call, saying Kelly was not down before he tossed the ball to June.
It was not clear if Bucs head coach Jon Gruden was challenging the play on Kelly or the play on June, but his reaction made it clear he expected a different call. That was also the Bucs' second and final challenge of the game.
Tampa Bay took a 7-0 lead over Atlanta with 7:43 to play in the first quarter on Galloway's 44-yard touchdown catch.
Galloway ran a go route past Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall, who bit on Galloway's quick move inside to give Galloway a clear sideline to work with.
The Bucs scored the touchdown after a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on Falcons DE John Abraham, putting the Bucs at the Falcons 44-yard line.
The score also came after the Falcons and Bucs traded turnovers on consecutive plays.
Atlanta appeared to have a chance to score the game's first points with great field position at the Bucs' 31 with 8:55 left in the first quarter. Bucs RB Michael Pittman fumbled a slant pass from Garcia, which was recovered by Falcons LB Keith Brooking.
But on the Falcons' first play from scrimmage Bucs DT Jovan Haye came on a delayed stunt and hit Leftwich as he threw a pass. Bucs LB Barrett Ruud picked off the fluttering pass to force a chance of possession.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.