More than just a game for the Bucs

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris talks with corner back Aqib Talib in the third...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris talks with corner back Aqib Talib in the third quarter during their NFL game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota September 18, 2011. (REUTERS/Craig Lassig)

MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:22 AM ET

TAMPA BAY -- Beating the Atlanta Falcons has gone beyond being on the wish list of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- it has become an obsession.

It is just the third week of the NFL season and in the hotly contested NFC South, there is no whiff of desperation hanging over any of the teams.

Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Orleans have all opened 1-1 while in Charlotte, N.C., the Carolina Panthers are 0-2 but are buoyed by the play of rookie quarterback Cam Newton. They've shown they will be nobody's pushover.

While there is no desperation, in Tampa Bay there is a sense of urgency as Sunday's opponent will be the Falcons, last year's division champs.

For the young Buccaneers, beating the Falcons has taken on a Don Quixote-like quest as Atlanta has won the past five contests. That's a stat that has become a boil on the Bucs collective butt.

"I have a big chip on my shoulder about that because we haven't beaten them the last five times," offensive tackle Donald Penn said. "So we have no bragging rights. The last two times we came real close (they lost 27-21 in Atlanta and 28-24 in a December date in Tampa Bay).

"I've been emphasizing to the guys this week that every play is important. We lost twice last year to Atlanta and each game one play made it. That's why I say every play is important. One play can win you or lose you that game because we're very close. Hopefully we can get over that hump and get a win against them."

The two losses to Atlanta definitely left scars as each game came down to a couple of plays.

In the first game in Atlanta, the Bucs dream died when running back LaGarrette Blount was stopped on fourth and one near the goal line late in the game.

In the second game, the Bucs were leading by 10 points at the half but then gave up a 102-yard kickoff return by Atlanta's Eric Weems.

"Two plays away and we are in the playoffs," was the lament of Bucs wide receiver Mike Williams. "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."

A boost in confidence and a little swagger would do the Bucs wonders as they strive to build on last year's 10-6 record.

A victory Sunday would put them in a good position for their next two games which are extremely winnable given that they have the Colts next Monday followed by a road game at San Francisco against a so-so 49ers team.

Then the heavy lifting starts as the Bucs face in order, New Orleans, Chicago (across the pond in London), New Orleans again, Houston and Green Bay. That's a tough gauntlet to run but one that they could approach with confidence with a victory over the Falcons under their belt.

"I think that if I was to say that this game means the same as any other game, I'd be kidding myself," veteran centre Jeff Faine said of the contest. "But at the same time it's a challenging game because it's a big-time game. To beat these guys you have to beat the division champions to get to where we want to be. This is the next step."

But before they take the next step they have to take the first one and that means getting off to a quicker start. They can't keep relying on late-game heroics from quarterback Josh Freeman every week.

For their part, the Falcons, who are coming into the game riding the high of beating the Eagles, know they will be in for a battle.

"We know this week is going to be like the last five games," Falcons coach Mike Smith said earlier this week. "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."

The way Penn has it figured, it should be the Bucs.

"We're one year better, one year smarter, one year more confident," he said. "We're hungry and a year of getting better and a year of gaining confidence is really going to pay off."


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