TAMPA -- A red puddle pooled above Josh Freeman’s upper lip, a little bad blood that was spilled after he hit Atlanta Falcons defensive back Brent Grimes out of bounds following the game-sealing interception.
Ronde Barber’s jaw was locked and his eyes narrowed in anger over the team’s biggest collapse of the season. Donald Penn had a look of disbelief. Barrett Ruud wore the expression of frustration.
The disappointment of Sunday’s 28-24 loss to the Falcons -- in which they failed to protect a 10-point lead with 10 minutes to play -- was written all over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers players’ faces.
First Atlanta kick returner Eric Weems scored on a 102-yard kickoff return, the longest in franchise history. Then quarterback Matt Ryan capped the fourth quarter comeback with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins as the Falcons rallied before 53,955 at Raymond James Stadium.
“We need guys to make plays and they didn’t,” Barber said. “That’s the bottom line. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this mad after a loss. (Atlanta) was not as good as we thought they were, we played harder than they did and they beat us. We played better than they did and we lost the football game. I’m leaving because I don’t know what else to say.”
It was the sixth fourth-quarter comeback of the season for the Falcons (10-2), who won their sixth straight. Meanwhile, in suffering back-to-back losses for the first time this season, the Bucs fell to 7-5 overall and lost more ground in the playoff wildcard race.
This much can be said for the Bucs’ breakdown Sunday -- it was a team effort.
Tampa Bay took a 24-14 lead on Earnest Graham’s 2-yard halfback option pass for a touchdown to tight end John Gilmore with 10:24 remaining in the game. Suddenly, everything was possible for the Bucs again -- a playoff spot, even a division title with four games remaining.
But on the ensuing kickoff, Weems changed all that.
Taking the kick two yards deep in the end zone, he made Maurice Stovall and a couple of Buccaneers miss before cutting inside of E.J. Biggers on the sideline and racing for a touchdown.
The play took 21 seconds, about the time a NFL player can run 200 yards. But by the time Weems reached the north end zone, momentum had switched sidelines.
“I definitely was in position to make that play,” Stovall said. “It was just a missed tackle. You can’t have that in a game like this.”
The Bucs went three-and-out on their next series. Even so, Tampa Bay had a 3-point lead and the upper hand when Atlanta faced a third-and-20 situation at their own 23-yard line with 7:40 remaining.
But with cornerback Aqib Talib forced to leave the game in the first half with a hip injury, Ryan hit receiver Roddy White on a deep out route for 25 yards between Biggers and safety Corey Lynch.
“It was Cover 2, and in that defense, a perfect throw and perfect catch shouldn’t happen,” Ruud said. “We can’t let that happen. Certain parts of the defense you can’t give up and you’ve got to know about it. It was an absolutely perfect throw and a perfect catch, but it shouldn’t have mattered. We know that play is coming. We needed to take care of that one.”
Biggers said he didn’t drop deep enough in coverage. “If I’d been deeper, that would’ve cancelled that out,” Biggers said. “You can’t mistakes in games like this.”
What followed was a series of other mistakes on defense. On third-and-1 from the Tampa Bay 43-yard line, Ryan fired incomplete, but Barber was called for interference on tight end Tony Gonzalez.
On second-and-8 from the Tampa Bay 31, running back Michael Turner was stopped for no gain, but linebacker Quincy Black was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul because of a horse collar tackle.
“At 24-14 with 10 minutes left, you’ve got to win those games,” Ruud said. “Especially since we had played well and we had outplayed them to that point. And when you’ve got a team down 10 points with 10 minutes to go, you have to slam the door shut and that’s what is frustrating about this.”
The Bucs still had a chance to win the game. Freeman, who finished 19-of-38 passing for 181 yards with a touchdown and an interception, engineered six fourth quarter comebacks in his young career.
Taking over at the Tampa Bay 23-yard line with a timeout and 4:31 to play, he converted a third and 10 with a 21-yard pass to Mike Williams to the Atlanta 44.
An intentional grounding penalty put the Bucs in a hole again. That’s when receiver Sammie Stroughter made a 19-yard catch on his back on fourth-and-12 at the Falcons’ 27-yard line to keep hopes alive at the two-minute warning.
Following the timeout, however, Freeman tried to hit Williams near the first down marker and Grimes jumped the route to make the game-saving interception. Freeman then drew a personal foul for hitting Grimes out of bounds on his return.
“Say what you want, he made a great play,” Freeman said. “If I could’ve recognized he got such a great jump, I could’ve sailed it out of bounds. But it happens. It’s on me as a quarterback to get the ball in position to guys to make plays and in the end I didn’t do that.”
Perhaps Ruud put it best.
“It went from being what would’ve been the biggest win of our tenure to our biggest loss,” he said.