The Atlanta Falcons had the football and were tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with 1 minute 12 seconds to play Sunday in the Georgia Dome. Falcons tailback Warrick Dunn lined up behind quarterback Michael Vick in the backfield, looked up and saw his old friend, linebacker Derrick Brooks, who played with Dunn at Florida State and with the Buccaneers, across the line of scrimmage.
On second and two at the Atlanta 39, and with the Falcons seemingly driving for a game-winning field goal attempt, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp called a play-action pass. Vick took the snap from center and dropped back to throw, but before Dunn could get out of his stance, Brooks was blitzing up the middle. Dunn stepped up and tried to block him, but the linebacker leaped over him and caused Vick to fumble.
Buccaneers linebacker Shelton Quarles recovered at the Falcons 34 with 1 minute 7 seconds to play. The Buccaneers ran three plays, with rookie tailback Carnell Williams running for eight yards to the 26 on third down, and then Matt Bryant kicked a 45-yard field goal with 47 seconds left to give the Buccaneers a 30-27 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 70,794.
The Falcons got the ball back with 37 seconds to play, and Vick completed a pair of passes to give them a chance at a long field goal that would have tied it, but punter Michael Koenen's 55-yard attempt was wide right on the last play and the Falcons (6-4) lost for the second week in a row.
The Buccaneers (7-3) beat the Falcons for the eighth time in their last 10 meetings and, coupled with the Chicago Bears' 13-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Tampa Bay moved into a first-place tie with Carolina in the NFC South. The Falcons are one game behind both teams and play the Panthers twice in their last six games; the Bucs play both the Falcons and Panthers once more.
"This division is going to be a sprint," Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber said. "It's going to be Carl Lewis and [Leroy] Burrell and all those old cats running to the finish. It's going to be tight. There are three good teams in this division now and we want to make sure we're one of the two teams that gets in" the playoffs.
The Buccaneers came sprinting out of the locker room against the Falcons, taking a 10-0 lead. On a day the Falcons held a reunion for former players, they looked like some of the franchise's woeful teams of the past, stumbling early and often. Leading 3-0, the Buccaneers had the Falcons pinned at their 13 midway through the first quarter. On first down, Vick threw a pass high over the head of fullback Justin Griffith, and then after a false start penalty, Vick tripped over guard Kynan Forney's foot and was sacked by Anthony McFarland at the 1.
Vick was hurt on the play and had to leave the field, so backup Matt Schaub, the former University of Virginia star, came into the game. On Schaub's first play, he was hit from behind by defensive end Simeon Rice, who swatted the football out of the quarterback's hand. McFarland recovered in the end zone for a touchdown, and Bryant's extra point made it 10-0 with 7:03 to play in the first.
The Falcons were penalized eight times for 67 yards in the first half and have fumbled 11 times in their last three games, losing six of them.
"We had enough penalties to back us up into a safety situation and it was 10-0, and that's a stupid position to be in," Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler said.
The Falcons finally got something going late in the first half. After Todd Peterson kicked a 31-yard field goal to make it 13-3, Vick threw a long pass down the left sideline and rookie Roddy White, the team's first-round draft choice from Alabama-Birmingham, made a nice adjustment to beat two defenders for a 54-yard gain. Vick completed two third-down passes to Crumpler after that play, and then T.J. Duckett scored on a one-yard run to cut the Buccaneers' lead to 13-10 at halftime.
The Falcons went ahead 17-13 on Vick's four-yard touchdown pass to Crumpler early in the third quarter, and then 27-20 on Vick's 10-yard touchdown to Michael Jenkins midway through the fourth. Vick completed 21 of 38 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns, only the second time he had 300 passing yards or more in an NFL game.
"Things didn't go right for us early," Vick said. "We fought back and were able to make plays but we didn't win in the end, which is what matters most. Maybe we've got to start a little faster."
Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms, who was making his fourth start in place of injured Brian Greise, completed 11 of 19 passes for 118 yards and had one interception. Williams ran 19 times for 116 yards and one touchdown.
"Hopefully, the people back in Austin are watching this and they'll get off his back a little bit," Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said, of Simms's critics while he played at the University of Texas. "He's won a couple of big games."