Tampa Bay ends tough season on high note
Compared to the last five miserable weeks, Tampa Bay rookie running back Doug Martin sensed something different this time.
Martin got all the proof he needed when the Buccaneers, though out of the playoffs for the fifth straight year, needed just 2 minutes to respond to a fourth-quarter touchdown by Atlanta.
''I could see it in everybody's eyes out there,'' Martin said. ''They weren't going to let that happen. Everybody just started to show up.''
Despite falling short of their postseason goals again, the Bucs at least were able to leave the Georgia Dome feeling some self-respect.
That was hardly the case last season, when they suffered a 10th straight loss in a Falcons rout and learned the next day that Raheem Morris had been fired as head coach.
Atlanta, just like this year, was on its way to the playoffs.
''We were on a losing streak last year, obviously, and it did not feel good walking out of this locker room, regardless of the situation,'' safety Ronde Barber said. ''I think everybody doesn't feel great about the season, of course, but we'll definitely be proud of the way we played this last game.''
Tampa Bay (7-9) relieved some frustration against an NFC South rival that had ended its four-game winning on Nov. 25.
The Bucs had not won since, but on Sunday they answered appropriately each time the Falcons (13-3) threatened to take the lead.
Martin's 40-yard touchdown late in the third quarter was significant because Atlanta had cut the lead to six after Asante Samuel picked off Freeman and Michael Turner scored on a 17-yard run.
''Erik Lorig, our fullback, did a good job of staying on his guy, and also Donald Penn, our left tackle, stayed on his guy,'' Martin said. ''I just pressed it and bounced it out and then broke two tackles, and it was off to the races.''
The score was important, too, because it helped restore Freeman's confidence. The fourth-year quarterback had thrown four interceptions in each of the last two weeks as New Orleans and St. Louis outscored the Bucs by a combined 69-13.
That wasn't the case this time.
''Any time you have a turnover, you have to respond,'' Freeman said. ''It's happened a number of times this year. A lot of times we responded. Sometimes we didn't respond, but especially when you're on the road and the team is as good as the Falcons are or really any team, it's crucial to respond.''
Tampa Bay's defense began the game ranked first against the run and last against the pass, but the Bucs were stout in both facets.
They played lots of zone coverage and let their linemen and occasional blitz packages keep pressure on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
The Falcons' 275 total offensive yards were their second-fewest this season as defensive ends Daniel Te'o-Nesheim and Michael Bennett combined with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David with two sacks for minus-25 yards and six quarterback hits.
Middle linebacker Mason Foster finished with 12 tackles, 11 of them solo stops, and safety Mark Barron made arguably the Bucs' defensive play of the game when he knocked down a fourth-down pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez with 2:02 remaining.
''The few pressures we did bring really were run stoppers,'' Barber said. ''We did a good job of first and second down to what we thought were manageable third downs to get off the field. It's been a problem for us all year, but it's how you win football games in this league.''
Offensively, Freeman surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his career. Martin, who began the game ranked third in NFL yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.1 yards on 28 attempts, and Williams beat Samuel in the back of the end zone for an 8-yard score that gave Tampa Bay a seven-point lead midway through the second quarter.
The Bucs played their best against Atlanta's starters for four quarters. Despite having the NFC's No. 1 seed and homefield advantage in the playoffs clinched last week, Falcons coach Mike Smith kept his first-string players on the field for the entire game.
''This team, I think, never really takes it for granted that they get to do this (for a living),'' first-year Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. ''It's a good thing to be able to use all of your cumulative experiences and make up who you are and what you do.''
Freeman said he would take some satisfaction in the victory even though it came too late to save the season.
''If you end the year without winning the Super Bowl, your season can't be considered a success,'' Freeman said. ''But certainly I'm optimistic. We've got a lot of pieces and a number of guys we'll get back on the team this offseason. Looking forward, I'm really excited.''
NOTES: Martin was the only Tampa Bay running back with a carry. WR Tiquan Underwood and Freeman each had one carry for 1 yard. ... Bryant's first-quarter field goal was his 33rd of the season, setting a Falcons record. Jay Feely had 32 field goals in 2002. ... Tony Gonzalez reached 90 catches to become the first NFL tight end with five seasons of 90 or more receptions. ... Ryan's TD pass gave him a team-record 32 for the season. Steve Bartkowski threw 31 TD passes in 1980. ... Jacquizz Rodgers had a game-high eight catches for 50 yards and led Atlanta with 28 yards rushing on five carries.
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