Joe Henderson Columns
Falcons present mountain to climb for Bucs
TAMPA - There was music, laughter, and a raucous card game going on Monday in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room. There were happy players everywhere, eager to share their thoughts with people like me. These are all things you would associate with a team that less than 24 hours earlier had applied CPR to its season, early as that season may be. The Bucs showed a lot of moxie in coming from 17 points behind Sunday to win at Minnesota. This is the National Football League, though, and reality checks come quickly. With that in mind, ladies and gentlemen, we introduce you to the Atlanta Falcons. They have beaten the Bucs five consecutive times, including a pair of close ones last year that meant the difference between postseason play or an offseason thinking about what might have been. "Missing that tackle on the kickoff really hurt us. It was a momentum-changer," Bucs linebacker Dekoda Watson said.That tackle — or lack thereof — came after the Bucs had taken a 10-point lead over the Falcons in the fourth quarter last December at Raymond James Stadium. Atlanta's Eric Weems ran a kickoff back 102 yards for a touchdown, and the Falcons eventually claimed a 28-24 victory by snuffing a last-ditch rally from Josh Freeman. Or there was last season's first meeting with the Falcons, which ended in a 27-21 loss for the Bucs when LeGarrette Blount ran the wrong way on a goal-line play at the end. Those were close games, wrenching losses. Since the Falcons are defending division champions and have this thing going against the Bucs, this game represents a measuring stick of sorts. So we know the Bucs need to get over the top against this team. The question is how to do that. "We have to come back and be ready in all aspects of the game, whether it's special teams, offense or defense. We have to be ready to go," Watson said. "We have to make sure we capitalize on everything. We have to be on our p's and q's on everything, whether it's the play-calling, tackling, everything. As you can see, the smallest mistake can cost us a whole game. "Special teams can make you win or lose a game. When you come down to a close game like that, everything matters — whether it's penalties, making tackles, right play-calling, everything has to play in our favor." The Falcons have a little different look than they used to. While running back Michael Turner remains a threat, the Falcons have opened things up a bit with quarterback Matt Ryan. He threw four touchdown passes Sunday night as Atlanta rallied to beat Philadelphia and he is on pace to throw nearly 400 times this season. "They've picked up some new weapons," head coach Raheem Morris said, referring to rookie receiver Julio Jones. You may recall Atlanta mortgaged its future, its children's future, and probably some grandkids, too, to move up on draft day and get Jones. That gives the Falcons another receiving threat to go with Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White, which means a couple of things for the local lads. The secondary will be a happening place in this game, and this would be a really good time to see the big-time heat this new reconfigured defensive line was supposed to bring. "It'll be a physical game. They don't like us; we don't like them," Morris said. "It's always nice to play the Birds at our house." We tend to overlook bad things when teams win the way the Bucs did in Minnesota, but there are some red flags. While Freeman still knows how to win in the fourth quarter and the offense was reintroduced to Blount in the second half against the Vikings, some of their old problems are now new problems. They rank a disturbing 31st in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 156 yards per game. OK, it's only two games, but that's not good. They have two sacks, ahead of only the dreadful Kansas City Chiefs. They haven't scored an offensive touchdown in the first half yet. And Atlanta still represents a mountain. Until the Bucs prove they can climb it, the Falcons remain a problem, too.