No one can say it didn’t matter. Not when the Falcons played their starters to the end. Not when Atlanta went for it on fourth-and-10 from their 33-yard line with 2:07 left.
That might have been the best thing about Tampa Bay’s 22-17 season-ending victory against playoff-bound Atlanta in the Georgia Dome on Sunday. No one can say it was tainted.
"That was nice,’’ Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said as he walked out of a winning Bucs lockerroom for only the seventh time in 16 games this season. "It was a good way to finish.’’
Indeed, it was.
A team looking for redemption in the wake of a five-game losing streak that conjured memories of the horrid 2011 season, the Bucs squeezed about as much out of any one game as a team could.
A defense that was on the verge of surrendering more passing yards over the course of the season than any other in the NFL’s 93-year history not only avoided that ignominy, but held when it had to most in protecting a fourth-quarter lead.
And quarterback Josh Freeman, who did nothing the previous two games but create doubt about his future and competence by throwing eight interceptions, bounced back with one of his better games of the year.
Freeman completed 15 of his first 22 passes and finished 19 of 32 for 222 yards and a touchdown to become the first quarterback in franchise history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. He also set franchise records for most touchdown passes in a season (27) and career (78).
Long after it was over, Freeman put this feel-good victory into proper perspective.
"Yeah, I was happy with the way the guys finished today,’’ he said. "But, obviously, ending the season and not making the playoffs, it’s unacceptable. It’s just not where we want to be.’’
The sobering truth is that’s precisely where Tampa Bay has been for years. Since winning the Super Bowl 10 years ago, the Bucs have failed to make the playoffs eight times, including each of the past five years. The Bucs are 69-93 overall the past 10 seasons and have just one winning season (2010) since firing Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden in 2009.
But their second victory in the past nine tries against Atlanta gave the Bucs hope their draught might finally end in 2013.
"The W is important in itself, because we wanted to end this season with a win and get the 2013 season off to a good start,’’ rookie running back Doug Martin said. "That’s what we did. My hat’s off to our guys for being competitors.’’
Few competed as well as Martin, who ran 28 times for 142 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown late in the third quarter in which he found daylight after spinning off safety Thomas DeCoud at the 32-yard line.
For Martin, it was a strong finish to the most impressive rookie season for a Bucs running back, one in which he compiled 1,926 total yards and 1,454 rushing yards, totals that rank second in franchise history. Martin’s touchdown was his 11th rushing and 12th total, both also second among single-season performances in franchise history.
The run gave the Bucs a 22-10 lead – and the Falcons a reason to play harder.
Hoping to keep a 12-game home winning streak alive, Atlanta rallied to cut the lead to 22-17 with 7:02 left in, but a Bucs defense that struggled to finish games all year finally found a different gear at the end of this one. Tampa Bay defensive backs E.J. Biggers, Anthony Gaitor and Mark Barron broke up three straight passes, respectively, by Matt Ryan.
Barron’s against tight end Tony Gonzalez came on fourth-and-10 with 2:07 to play.
"We just did what our coached asked us to do, which is not press and make plays when the opportunity comes,’’ Biggers said. "Some games this year it didn’t work out that way, but that’s the expectation and we met it today.’’
They did so against the top team in the NFC, one that came to work Sunday determined to play its starters despite having clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Bucs appreciated that. After losing five straight, they wanted a real test of their ability. Even better, they passed it.
"I’m really proud of our guys,’’ first-year Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said. "They really locked in this week in practice and focused on facing the No. 1 seed in the playoffs and I’m really proud of how our team fought today.’’
They’ve been fighting this way all year, according to left tackle Donald Penn, but all too often they came up short on a key play here or there. The difference Sunday, Penn said, was the Bucs’ resilience.
"It felt good to finally put something together,’’ he said. "We know we’re a good team and we’ve been close all year. But today we just finally put it all together on every side of the ball.
"And that feels good, because the team you saw today, that’s the real Buccaneers. You’ve seen the other Buccaneers, too, so what we have to do next year is make sure that these Buccaneers show up more than the other Buccaneers. If we do that we’re going to be just fine.’’