TAMPA — Several hours after his eighth comeback victory in the fourth quarter or overtime, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman turned his attention to the Falcons while on the team's charter flight from Minnesota to Tampa.
"Man, I really want to beat these guys," Freeman told left tackle Donald Penn, who was seated next to him."
Freeman isn't alone. The Bucs have lost five straight to the Falcons, four of them by six points or fewer.
In fact, a year ago the Bucs came within two plays of sweeping the series. But running back LeGarrette Blount was stopped on fourth and 1 near the goal line late in the fourth quarter in a 27-21 loss No. 7 at the Georgia Dome. On Dec. 5, Tampa Bay's 10-point lead evaporated with a 102-yard kickoff return by the Falcons' Eric Weems and Matt Ryan's touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins in a 28-24 defeat at Raymond James Stadium.
"We're like little brother right now," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. "We keep getting beat up, but we're going to keep swinging."
Nemesis was the goddess of retribution in Greek mythology. Every team or player has had one at some point. The Bills have the Patriots, against whom they've lost 15 straight games. Donovan McNabb has Ronde Barber.
The last time the Bucs beat the Falcons, Jon Gruden was head coach, Morris coached the secondary and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was already rumored to be heading to the University of Tennessee (he has been at Southern Cal for two seasons now).
Penn said he couldn't remember the last time the Bucs walked off the field triumphant over the Falcons.
"I don't like anybody in the NFC South, but I have a big chip on my shoulder because we haven't beaten them the last five meetings, and that's tough," Penn said. "You really don't have any bragging rights if you haven't beaten them the last five times. This is a very important game. I know I've got a bad taste in my mouth, and they're not going to come in and lay down either."
Punter/kickoff specialist Michael Koenen played for the Falcons during each of those five wins before signing a six-year, $19.5 million contract this year with the Bucs as a free agent.
Eight of Freeman's 14 wins have come in the fourth quarter or overtime, yet he is merely mortal in those rallies against the Falcons. In the last meeting, cornerback Brent Grimes intercepted Freeman at the Atlanta 19-yard line.
"We definitely stole those victories, but that's football," Koenen said. "It's why everybody watches."
Of course, it's hard to be a nemesis if the other guy doesn't notice. Apparently, the Falcons are not aware of any psychological barrier or unconscious fear.
"We know this week is going to be like the last five games," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It's going to come down to the fourth quarter, more than likely, and the team that makes the plays in the fourth quarter is going to be the team that's going to be fortunate to get the victory."
Last season, the Bucs went 10-6 and failed to reach the playoffs, losing a tiebreaker to the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers. So Morris has convinced his team that the way to ensure a postseason appearance is to win the division.
"Two plays away and we are in the playoffs," receiver Mike Williams said. "We've got to get that together and know that we can play with these guys and get a win.
"It's going to be very 'must-win' for us. … We came out to be in first place in our division, win our division and see what we can do after that. This is the first step towards that."