Since then, the Dirty Birds have been the hottest team in the National Football League with a 7-0-1 mark. Everyone asked what the Bucs would have to do to stop the Falcons and their fleet-footed quarterback and wondered if they could stop Vick.
But no one was talking about what Atlanta needed to do to move the football against the No. 1 defense in the NFL and head coach Jon Gruden knew that was a mistake.
"The talk all week has been how do you stop Michael Vick," Gruden said. "We've already said, time and time again, that we respect him tremendously, but I didn't hear anybody in America say, 'How is he going to go up against this defense?'
"We haven't been chopped lived since the first game of the season. We've been playing pretty good here and we've been disciplined all season. We are very athletic with explosive playmakers, but a big part of it is being disciplined."
Sunday's playmakers were all in red and pewter as Tampa Bay stomped Vick and Atlanta 34-10 at Raymond James Stadium in easy fashion.
The Bucs' Brad Johnson had a big afternoon in the battle of the quarterbacks. Tampa Bay's signal caller was 23-of-31 for 276 yards, had a quarterback rating of 140.6 and threw four touchdowns. Johnson's final scoring strike, a 27-yarder to Keenan McCardell, who caught two touchdowns on the day, moved Johnson ahead of Trent Dilfer in the record book for most touchdown passes in a single season with 22. Dilfer held the top spot with 21 TD passes in 1997 as well as 1998.
In addition to McCardell, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius also caught two touchdowns and made several tough catches in traffic en route to an eight-catch, 100-yard day, his first in a Buccaneer uniform. Jurevicius' eight catches against Atlanta ties his career high.
Tampa Bay's victory put the NFC South division-leading Buccaneers at 10-3 and left the Falcons at 8-4-1. Gruden just viewed the offensive explosion as business as usual.
"It's pretty much what we do," Gruden said. "Sometimes, when it's man-to-man, the crossing routes can become bigger plays. Early in the game it was more of a zone type defense, and obviously, the defenders can't stay on the crossers when they're on the move. We were patient and I thought the line played well. You can't say enough about our quarterback in Tampa. He's doing a heck of a job for us."
The first quarter was like the beginning of a heavyweight championship fight with both combatants trying to feel the other out for some weakness they could exploit. Both teams probed and explored their opponent to see what they could use to their advantage and what they needed to discard.
Neither team took any big risks because they didn't want a lucky punch to knock them out early in the contest.
That mutual respect surfaced in the statistics for the opening stanza. Atlanta and Tampa Bay both ran off 12 plays and each team possessed the football for 7:30 seconds in a scoreless first 15 minutes of play.
One positive for the Bucs was that they extended their consecutive games with a sack to 57, but it was a most unlikely candidate that kept the streak alive. Reserve strong safety John Howell, playing for the injured John Lynch who strained a neck muscle tackling running back T.J. Duckett, came hard off the edge on a third-and-1. Howell caught the Falcons' elusive quarterback trying to run a bootleg and dropped him for a 6-yard loss, forcing Atlanta to punt.
The Bucs began the second quarter scoring barrage with 11:12 left before halftime. Johnson found Jurevicius on a smash route over the middle. Jurevicius beat the coverage -- and pass interference -- of linebacker Keith Brooking, ending the 80-yard drive that took 10 plays and 6:11 to complete. Gramatica's first of four successful conversions put the Buccaneers up 7-0.
Tampa Bay took advantage of the only turnover of the contest to put the offense in excellent field position for their next score. On a first-and-10 from their own 20-yard line, Vick tried to thread a quick slant pass to wide receiver Brian Finneran, but was hurried by linebacker Derrick Brooks. The pigskin caromed off his fingertips into the waiting arms of free safety Dexter Jackson at the Falcons 31-yard line.
Jackson returned the ball 21 yards to the Atlanta 10-yard line. That turnover was the 38th-straight game that the Buccaneers have recorded a takeaway.
Tampa Bay was given a golden scoring opportunity courtesy of their defense and they capitalized to stretch their lead to 14-0. Again, the combination of Johnson to Jurevicius clicked for a 13-yard strike. This was immediately after the head coach Dan Reeves made a coaching move that opened him up for second-guessing.
On first-and-goal from their own 10-yard line, Atlanta rose up and stopped running back Mike Alstott for a 3-yard loss. On the play, the Buccaneers were flagged for an illegal hands to the face, but the Atlanta coach declined the penalty. On the next play, second-and-goal from the 13, Jurevicius came all the way across the field from a bunch right formation and made a leaping grab over Ray Buchanan in the end zone at 7:42 of the second period.
After kicker Jay Feely hit a 30-yard field goal to pull Atlanta to within 14-3, the Bucs showed all 65,648 fans at Raymond James Stadium how the two-minute drill should be run.
Taking the ensuing kickoff at their own 20, Tampa Bay moved 80 yards in six plays to post their third TD of the quarter. This one was a Johnson-to-McCardell slant pass in front of cornerback Juran Bolden to push the Bucs' lead to 21-3 with 34 ticks left on the clock before halftime.
On the Bucs' first two possession of the second half Gramatica booted field goals of 42 and 21 yards respectively to move the team out to a 27-3 advantage. The first culminated a 10-play drive, and the second came after eight offensive snaps.
Atlanta finally put together a sustained offensive drive and crossed the goal line for the first, and only, time when Vick found tight end Alge Crumpler on a 5-yard touchdown pass. Feely's successful PAT narrowed the gap to 27-10 with 11:40 left in the contest, but that was all the Dirty Birds would get.
Tampa Bay answered that score with one of their own at 8:31 of the fourth quarter. Johnson and McCardell hooked up again, this time from 27 yards out, to cap a four-touchdown pass performance by Johnson, who clearly outplayed Vick.
The Buccaneers have climbed another hurdle, but there are three more big ones to go. Gruden is aware that Tampa Bay can't look past anyone especially the Detroit Lions.
"They can jump up and bite us," Gruden said. "They are a good football team and will be especially tough to beat at home in the dome. We better not look past the Lions or we could be in big trouble."
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