A jumbled mess
The strangest play in the game occurred with about 10 minutes left to play. On third and 8 from his 19, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passed down the middle to wide receiver Roddy White for an apparent first down at the 39.
That's when chaos ensued.
Strong safety Jermaine Phillips hit White an instant after the catch, causing a fumble that was recovered by safety Sabby Piscitelli at the Falcons 44. Piscitelli scooped the ball up and was hit after 3 yards, attempting to lateral to linebacker Cato June just before Piscitelli hit the ground.
The ball never reached June, the Falcons recovered the loose ball and Piscitelli was flagged for an illegal forward pass. Meanwhile, backup cornerback Elbert Mack drew a personal foul for a hit on Ryan, who was chasing the play.
The officials tried to sort through the confusion and, after a delay, initially ruled that there were offsetting penalties and that the play would be re-run. Then came another delay, and a corrected ruling: Atlanta accepted the personal foul penalty and declined the illegal forward pass infraction.
White was credited with an 18-yard catch, and the roughing call was enforced from where he made the catch.
"I really don't understand what happened," Mack said. "I turned around and (Ryan) was the first guy there and I was just trying to play hard and play through the whistle. They said it was roughing the passer, but I didn't target him or anything. I hit the first person when I turned around — and it just so happened to be Matt Ryan."
Added Piscitelli: "I was just trying to make a play and trying to score."
The Falcons almost did, driving to a first and goal at the 4. But the Bucs defense tightened up, forcing a third Jason Elam field goal.
Jackson's big hit
It was starting to look as if the Falcons might make a game of it after all. Trailing 17-3 late in the third quarter, beleaguered rookie quarterback Matt Ryan finally got his bearings and drove his offense from its 16 to the Bucs 6, facing third and 6 with a chance to pull within a touchdown.
With 1:39 in the quarter, Ryan handed to speedy tailback Jerious Norwood, who darted left. But 6-foot, 200-pound free safety Tanard Jackson blasted through and tackled Norwood for a 3-yard loss. The Falcons settled for a 27-yard Jason Elam field goal.
"That was a great red-zone play," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "He's a big fella and he makes big plays. It was huge. The red zone is the key to the game."
To the Falcons, Jackson's play was the frustrating exclamation point on a day they mustered only 105 rushing yards — a week after Michael Turner amassed 222 yards and Norwood 93. Asked about how Tampa Bay's defense took away the cutback lanes, committing extra defenders to the run, Turner responded, "When everybody's up there, the line can't block everybody. There's always going to be one or two men free when you have everyone committed to the run like that."
Getting to Griese
The Buc offense seemed poised to put the game away.
Quarterback Brian Griese had moved the team from its 31 to a first down at the 6. But the first two plays resulted in a loss of 3 yards, and on third down from the 9, Griese was sacked from behind by right defensive end John Abraham, causing a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Jason Jefferson.
Instead of falling behind 24-6, the Falcons had new life.
Left tackle Donald Penn couldn't hold a block on Abraham.
"I was running (Abraham) up the field, and Griese (realized) nobody was open downfield and so he had to try to pull it down and run," Penn said. "I have to try to hold my protection longer."