It was bigger than the monster in the closet. It was larger than all the bad memories put together. It was grander than five fourth quarters' worth of festering frustration.
If you are in the business of measuring victories, this one was a mountain.
The Bucs have beaten the Falcons.
This time, the Bucs managed to hold on against a team that has repeatedly left them with nightmares. This time, the Bucs managed to survive on defense. This time, the Bucs maintained control on offense.
This time, the Bucs won.
When you consider the competition, when you consider the stakes, when you consider the Bucs' pronounced goal of the winning the NFC South, this is as good a victory as Tampa Bay has had in the Raheem Morris era. The Bucs beat a fine team, they beat a division opponent, and they backed up the notion that they, too, are contenders in the playoff race to come.
"It was huge," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "I hate those (guys)."
Who can blame Barber or, for that matter, the rest of the Bucs? More than any other team, the Falcons have left Bucs players talking to themselves in recent years. Not only had Atlanta beaten the Bucs five straight games, all of them left the Tampa Bay players with the same misery.
It was as if the teams played the same game every time, with the Bucs in wonderful shape deep into the fourth quarter. Then, some way, any way, the Falcons would snatch away the game in the final seconds.
It was Jon Gruden picking the wrong quarterback, and it was Morris faking a punt when he should not have. It was Matt Ryan converting on third and 20 and Eric Weems returning a kickoff 102 yards. It was LeGarrette Blount hitting the wrong hole and Derrick Roberson trying to cover a receiver on fourth and 5. Three times, Ryan had directed winning drives against the Bucs. Once, a forgettable quarterback named Chris Redman had done the same.
For the Bucs, there was no horror show quite as chilling as game tapes against the Falcons. Another one of those and you might have suggested the Falcons were in their heads.
This changed that, at least for the day. Yes, the Falcons had another chance at another comeback, but the defense made a stop, and the offense made a drive, and the coach made a gutsy call. The season is still early, but today, who is going to tell the Bucs they can't make a run at the division title?
"I told the team, we didn't come into this season to beat the Atlanta Falcons," Morris said. "We came in to win the division title."
That said, beating the Falcons is a good place to start. After all, the preseason predictions were all about the Falcons and the Saints. If Morris hadn't been so outspoken, no one might have picked the Bucs above third place. After this, perhaps people will look a little differently at the Bucs.
"We had to win this game," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "We knew that."
No, this was not a perfect performance. The offense left a lot of points in the red zone, and in the fourth quarter, the defense looked like a bloodied boxer hanging onto the ropes. But much of the NFL is about winning games that could have been lost, about holding leads that are on the verge of being squandered.
Consider the defense, which gave up 151 yards passing to Ryan in the fourth quarter. He took the Falcons to the Bucs 7 before being stopped on downs. He took them 59 yards in 43 seconds for a touchdown. He took them to first and goal on the 5 with a chance for a late go-ahead score.
Still, the Bucs held on. They stopped a fourth-and-5 play on their own 7. They held the Falcons to a field goal on their last drive.
Then there was the offense. It sputtered much of the day. But with 4:06 to go, the Bucs made sure the Falcons never touched the ball again. They kept the ball the final nine plays of the game.
The big one came on fourth and 1 at the Atlanta 44 with 1:49 to play.
At that point, the world is filled with bad options. Punt, and you put the game into the hands of Ryan and his dangerous receivers. Go for it, and Atlanta is a long putt away from a tying field goal.
Morris decided to go for it. First, however, the Bucs lined up and tried a hard count, which rarely works. This time, it did. The Falcons jumped offside, and the Bucs won the game. If the Falcons had not, Freeman said the Bucs would have called a timeout then gone back out for a quarterback sneak.
In years past, perhaps it is the Bucs who flinch last. In years past, perhaps Ryan pulls out this game. In years past, perhaps the day ends with the Bucs stalking off the field thinking of things that could have been.
Not this time. This time, the Bucs survived. This time, they slew the dragon.
For the Bucs, this was the biggest win in, well, a while. If this season is going to be successful, there will be a few more of these.
"I don't know how you measure wins," Barber said, "we'll just keep stacking them."