TAMPA — There were a lot of Buccaneer players and coaches kicking themselves after Sunday's close-but-no-Hav-A-Tampa loss to the Falcons.
What seemed to bother them most? All the field goals they asked Connor Barth to kick — and perhaps one they shouldn't have — in a 24-23 defeat before 54,400 at Raymond James Stadium.
Start with coach Greg Schiano, who decided to let Barth try a 56-yard field goal trailing by a point with 3:30 remaining and having all three timeouts. After running back Michael Turner put the Falcons ahead with his 3-yard touchdown run with 7:55 to play, the Bucs faced fourth and 7 from the Atlanta 38.
"There were a lot of thoughts," Schiano said. "There were thoughts of pinning (Atlanta) down. There were thoughts of going for it on fourth down. There were thoughts of, 'We've made a field goal longer than that, from that exact spot on the field. And the wind was coming from the (pirate) ship.' "
Barth's attempt was short and wide right.
By the time Tampa Bay got the ball back, there were only eight seconds remaining. After a 9-yard catch by tight end Dallas Clark, Josh Freeman's Hail Mary from his 47 fell incomplete.
The Bucs (6-5), whose four-game win streak was snapped, hoped Sunday would end more happily than the seven quiet rides home after the past eight games against the Falcons (10-1).
But Matt Ryan passed for 353 yards, including an 80-yard bomb to Julio Jones, who beat cornerback Leonard Johnson in the third quarter. Jones finished with six catches for 147 yards.
It was Ryan's 21st winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime since entering the league in 2008, including the fourth against the NFC South rival Bucs.
"We've got to turn field goals into touchdowns," left tackle Donald Penn said. "We didn't do that. The fact of the matter is we're a better team than them, and we know that."
But losses Sunday by Seattle and Minnesota kept Bucs in a three-way tie for the sixth and final NFC wild-card spot. If the playoffs began today, that spot would go to Seattle over Tampa Bay because of a better conference record (4-4 compared with 3-5).
"The main issue was just not scoring enough," quarterback Josh Freeman said. "It's a matter of driving down and going off the field with three points rather than seven."
Freeman and the offense were kicking themselves for failing to capitalize on a pair of turnovers. Safety Ronde Barber recorded his 47th career interception, picking off Ryan in the second quarter with the Bucs trailing 10-7. On first down from the Atlanta 31, Freeman pitched a lateral to receiver Mike Williams, who passed 28 yards to Vincent Jackson to the Falcons 3.
But running back Doug Martin ran for 2 yards on first down, Freeman threw incomplete on a play-action pass and former Gator linebacker Mike Peterson tackled Martin for a 3-yard loss on third down, forcing Barth's 22-yard field goal, the first of his three on the day.
Martin, who was held to 50 yards on 21 carries, scored his second touchdown on a 1-yard run to give the Bucs a 20-17 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.
And on the next series, cornerback E.J. Biggers sacked Ryan, forcing a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy at the Atlanta 36.
But once again, the Bucs could not take full advantage, settling for Barth's 48-yard field goal.
Even so, the defense could have made the 23-17 lead stand up. But safety Ahmad Black was called for holding on third and goal from the 5 after Ryan chucked one over the head of receiver Harry Douglas.
"I think the ball was thrown out of bounds," Black said. "There was no possible way at all, even if I didn't touch him, he was going to catch that ball. Am I supposed to just look at him and stare at him the whole time? I don't know."
Even with the miscues, the Bucs had a chance to win on the 56-yard attempt by Barth, who kicked a career-best 57-yarder earlier this season against Washington.
"The reason we did it was my confidence in Connor that he was going to make it," Schiano said. "That's the kind of kicker I think we have.
"Just one of those missed opportunities. Not easy. It's not like every day he has to hit a 56-yarder and we call it a day. That's a tall order, but we have one of the best kickers in the National Football League."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected] and can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.