With 3:37 left in the game and Tampa Bay trailing Atlanta by a point, Schiano thought of punting, pinning the Falcons deep and leaving it to his defense to get the ball back for the offense. He even thought of going for it on fourth-and-7, hoping that either a run or a pass would give the Bucs new life.
In the end, though, he rolled the dice on what he believes is the closest thing he has to a sure bet.
“My confidence in Connor is such that I believe he’s going to make that kick,’’ Schiano said. “That’s just the kind of kicker we have with him. But, again, it comes down to missed opportunities.’’
Barth’s floater, which never seemed to have enough oomph, barely reached the end zone — just one in a string of opportunities the Bucs failed to cash in on during a 24-23 loss at Raymond James Stadium.
On defense, there were eight third-down opportunities — out of 13 overall — in which the Bucs failed to get the Falcons off the field, including three of 7 yards or more.
And on offense, there were a pair of takeaways the Bucs uncharacteristically turned into only field goals, plus at least one potential big pass play quarterback Josh Freeman missed.
Maybe that’s why Bucs left tackle Donald Penn, who stomped off the field swearing in frustration, remained adamant in the locker room that the “the better team’’ actually lost this pivotal NFC South matchup.
“We should have won, because we outplayed them,’’ Penn said. “That’s the worst thing, when you feel like you should have won and you didn’t. They just wound up making one or two more plays than we did.’’
Most of those plays were in the passing game, where Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan toyed all day with the Bucs’ last-place pass defense, completing 26 of 32 throws for 353 yards and one whopper of a touchdown.
Seeing he had Julio Jones in one-on-one coverage with Bucs rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson, Ryan simply threw to a spot in hopes Jones and the ball would get there at the same time. They did, thanks largely to Jones making a quick inside-out move on Johnson. The result was an 80-yard touchdown that gave Atlanta a 17-13 lead with 8:36 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs did manage to overcome that deficit, taking a 23-17 lead on a 1-yard Doug Martin touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter and a 48-yard Barth field goal later in the period.
The defense, however, continued to give up yards in chunks, allowing Atlanta to drive 64 yards for Michael Turner’s winning 3-yard touchdown run. And the offense petered out at Atlanta’s 38-yard line, forcing Schiano to opt for the 56-yard field goal try.
“We had some chances, both offensively, defensively and in the kicking game,’’ Schiano said. “And it’s not like we’ve been making all of them, but we have been making a lot of them. Today we only made some of them.’’
One area the Bucs had been making the most of their chances was in the turnover department, turning 11 takeaways into touchdowns prior to Sunday’s game. On each of the two takeaways against Atlanta, though, the Bucs settled only for field goals, including one that came after receiver Mike Williams threw a 28-yard pass to Vincent Jackson on the first play of the drive.
That completion was followed by a 2-yard Martin run to the 1, but that’s as far as the Bucs got after Freeman was forced to throw the ball away on second down and Martin was stuffed for a 3-yard loss on third down.
“The defense did a great job, setting us up in prime position,’’ said Freeman, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 256 yards and no touchdowns. “We just couldn’t score touchdowns.’’
Freeman, who had thrown at least two touchdowns passes in his previous six games, missed what seemed to be a sure touchdown opportunity early in the third quarter when he sailed a third-down pass over the head of Williams, who was wide open in the end zone.
There, too, Tampa Bay settled for a field goal and 13-10 lead.
What the Bucs did not lose on Sunday was their place in the playoff race. At 6-5, Tampa Bay remained tied with Seattle and Minnesota for the last NFC wild-card berth, with a tiebreaker edge over Minnesota.
Not that anyone took solace in that.
Sitting at his locker with his head down and a forlorn look on his face, defensive tackle Roy Miller summed up the feeling of the team around him after its first loss in a month.
“Emotionally, you’re locked into this team all week long and so it hurts,’’ Miller said. “We knew it was going to be a brawl, and they were just one play better than us.’’