Playoff teams wins games they're supposed to win. Those are the games that, when you look at both teams on paper you say to yourself, "Yep, that's a win."
Atlanta was that sort of "yep" game for Tampa Bay. Even though the Falcons were playing well entering the game, the Buccaneers were better than the Falcons and needed to prove that — not just to themselves but also to the rest of the division.
Mission accomplished. The Bucs' 31-7 drubbing of the Falcons gave everyone in the NFC South something to think about. And while the Bucs were winning, both the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints were losing, giving Tampa Bay a two-game divisional lead with six games to play.
The Bucs certainly don't have the division locked up, but the stars are aligning in their favor. They have a healthy roster now. They have a schedule that looks as soft as nougat. And they got back to playing the type of football they played in September.
That formula is very simple:
Step 2: Play stifling defense. The Bucs limited the Falcons to less than 50 yards on the ground and a 5-for-16 third-down conversion rate. Also, the Falcons committed three turnovers thanks to a Bucs pass rush that pestered starter Byron Leftwich until he was benched. The Falcons had committed only nine turnovers in their first nine games.
Step 3: Run the ball to salt the game away. Earnest Graham has most of his rushing yardage — and his touchdown run — in the second half.
No, Sunday's game wasn't perfect. The Bucs easily could have been ahead 28-0 at the half. Brian Kelly should have held onto that fumble recovery (Cato June should have hung on to Kelly's pitch, for that matter). The replay official should have reviewed the right part of that play. Michael Pittman looked rusty. The Bucs were only 3-of-10 themselves on third down.
But they did more than enough to win on Sunday, more than enough to take control of the division.
And playoff teams know that's all you need to do.
A QUICK WORD ON PETRINO: Put Sunday's loss squarely on the shoulders of Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino. He created indecision for his team by waiting until Saturday to name Leftwich the starter. Petrino gave the job to Leftwich, despite the fact that Leftwich missed the last three games with an injury and had only been with the team about two months. He benched Joey Harrington, an estimable quarterback. But he had won the last two games. It's admirable that Petrino stood by his statement of three weeks ago when he told reporters that Leftwich would start when he returned. But the Falcons were 1-6 then. The situation had changed. The Falcons could have closed to within a game of Tampa Bay with a win. He should have stayed with the hot hand and started Harrington, and he most definitely should have lifted Leftwich at halftime, instead of waiting after that third-quarter interception.
REPLAY THIS: The Bucs had terrible luck with the replay challenge on Sunday, losing both. The second one was apparently a mistake by the game official.
In the second quarter, Kelly recovered a fumble and before he was tackled he handed it off to Cato June. June then fumbled it and turned it over. After reviewing the play, the referee made it sound like Bucs head coach Jon Gruden challenged the Kelly fumble, when he would have been better off challenging the June fumble. June was clearly down before he lost the ball as the result of a trip by the Falcons' Roddy White. Tripping is illegal. Gruden made it clear after the game that he wanted June's portion of the play challenged. That's a challenge the Bucs would have won, allowing them to keep their final first-half time out and retain the football. The referee obviously misunderstood what part of the play Gruden wanted to review. But the referee can only review a clearly defined play. So if he thought Gruden wanted Kelly's portion of the play reviewed, he couldn't have looked at June's portion even if he wanted to.
RB Earnest Graham : Grinded out his second straight 100-yard rushing game. Really helped the Bucs put the game away with a fine second half.
QB Jeff Garcia : He threw two nice touchdown passes downfield and ran the offensive mistake-free.
DE Greg White : Two big sacks, including one that forced a fumble and led to a Ronde Barber touchdown return.
QB Joey Harrington: Give it up to the normally maligned QB. He made the best of a horrible situation, going 16-of-20 passing and made a case to be the starter next week.
DT Chris Hovan: Notched a sack and picked off his first career pass.
CB Ronde Barber: Scored his first touchdown of the season — and the 11th of his career.
Bobby Petrino : The Falcons head coach sabotaged his own team by starting a cold Byron Leftwich over a hot Joey Harrington.
WR Ike Hilliard : Only one catch? He's usually much more productive. Jeff Garcia only completed 10 passes, but Hilliard usually gets a higher percentage of those completions.
CB Brian Kelly: He should have hung onto that fumble he recovered instead of trying to pass it off to LB Cato June (He had a fine game otherwise, so I'm stretching a bit here).
OG Arron Sears: Had two penalties on Sunday, one of which came during an early key drive.
THE GRUDEN HEAT-O-METER
Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden entered this season on the hot seat. Each week I'll take the temperature under that seat.
Last week: 1; Now: 1
What hot seat? With a two-game lead in the division and a soft schedule looming after what should be a tough game against Washington on Sunday, the Bucs are in the driver's seat in this division. As long as they stay healthy and beat the teams they should, a playoff berth is in the offing — and Gruden's agent can start discussing a contract extension with the Glazer family.
THE MATCHUPS IN REVIEW
I highlighted six key matchups entering Sunday's game. How did they turn out? Check it out in this quick review:
BUCS LT DONALD PENN VS. FALCONS DE JOHN ABRAHAM: Abraham had a sack and put some good pressure on Jeff Garcia. Penn at times seemed overwhelmed going one-on-one against Abraham.
BUCS WR IKE HILLIARD VS. FALCONS S LAWYER MILLOY: Hilliard only made one catch for 14 yards. It's hard to say why. Milloy probably had something to do with it, though rookie Chris Houston went up against Hilliard a lot in coverage.
BUCS RB MICHAEL PITTMAN VS. FALCONS LB KEITH BROOKING: Pittman had 12 touches, including a fumble. He looked rusty. Brooking finished with eight tackles. They rarely met up.
FALCONS RB WARRICK DUNN VS. BUCS MLB BARRETT RUUD: Dunn didn't reach his milestone. Ruud had only four tackles, but he made a couple of key plays on Dunn in pass coverage.
FALCONS LT TODD WEINER VS. BUCS RDE GAINES ADAMS: Weiner left the game with an injury and Quinn Ojinnaka replaced him. At times Adams won this matchup without help. He got around Ojinnaka to force an interception and bulled through him to sack Joey Harrington. He may have had his most productive day as a pro so far.
FALCONS WR RODDY WHITE VS. BUCS CB RONDE BARBER: White had four catches for 28 yards and never got going downfield. Barber had a fine game, picking up a fumble and returning it for a TD, providing solid run and blitz support and had four tackles.
I made 10 predictions before the game. How did I do? Let's check, shall we?
1. Tampa Bay will rush for 125 yards or more on Sunday. The Bucs rushed for 149 yards, most of it coming in the second half.
2. Jeff Garcia will not throw an interception or commit a fumble. Bingo. He had a passer rating of 110.2 and threw two touchdown passes.
3. Michael Clayton will go without a catch. Three-for-three. Clayton appeared non-existent on offense.
4. The Bucs will convert better than 50 percent of the third-down opportunities. The streak ends. The Bucs only converted 3-of-10.
5. The Bucs offensive line will allow fewer than two sacks. Four-for-five. The Falcons only had one sack.
1. Warrick Dunn will get his milestone, but not much else. Dunn failed to reach 10,000 career yards, rushing for only 32 yards against a stout Bucs run defense that only gave up 49 total rushing yards.
2. Byron Leftwich will start and play with inconsistency. A huge miscalculation by head coach Bobby Petrino. Leftwich had nothing going for him all afternoon, committing three turnovers before Petrino pulled him in the third quarter. He finished with a dismal 32.7 passer rating.
3. Alge Crumpler will have a good day. No. Crumpler caught three passes for 28 yards.
4. But the Bucs will force the Falcons into mistakes and short drives. Yep. The Falcons committed three turnovers and went 5-of-16 on third-down conversions.
5. Today's the day for Ronde Barber. Well, he didn't get the pick. But he did pick up a fumble and return it for a touchdown, the 11th of his career.
I picked the Bucs to win, 21-13. I improved to 6-4 in picking the winner, and improved to 5-2 when I pick the Bucs. But I was WAY off on the score. I never expect blowouts when it comes to the Bucs.
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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.