ATLANTA. The Falcons hushed up Raheem Morris.
There’s no more talk about Tampa Bay being the best team in the NFC — at least for now.
Michael Turner ran for two early touchdowns and Atlanta made a gutty goal-line stand in the closing minutes to preserve a 27-21 victory Sunday, claiming sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
“Well, we can’t say we we’re the best team right now,” said Morris, the Buccaneers’ brash young coach. “We do not have the least amount of losses, so that would not be an accurate statement this week.”
Give the Bucs credit, though.
They fell behind 14-0 early on and came back. They trailed 27-14 late in the third quarter and made a game of it. If not for LeGarrette Blount getting stuffed by Thomas DeCoud on fourth-and-1 at the Falcons 2, Tampa Bay might have pulled out another close win.
“They play with a lot of heart and desire,” Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said.
But it’s the Falcons (6-2) who now have the division lead all to themselves, one game ahead of the Buccaneers and the defending champion (both 5-3).
There’s not a lot of time to savor the key divisional win. The AFC North-leading (6-2) will be at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.
“In college when we played on a Thursday night, it seemed like we had a bye the week before so we had ample time to prepare,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “Obviously, they have a defense that does a lot of things and they have a lot of talented guys. We are going to have our work cut out for us.”
At least the Falcons are coming off a victory. Tampa Bay had a shot after a pass interference penalty on William Moore moved the ball deep into Atlanta territory. Three more plays later, the Bucs were a yard short of the first down and 2 yards from the end zone.
Josh Freeman faked a handoff to Ryan Purvis, a tight end lined up at fullback, and gave it to Blount for a run over right tackle. But DeCoud charged up to stuff the slow-developing play, and Coy Wire finished off Blount to make sure he couldn’t stretch out for the first down with second effort.
“I told the defensive line, ‘Get penetration, get penetration,’ and the guys in the back will come up to make the play,” linebacker Mike Peterson said.
That’s just what happened. The ball went over to the Falcons, who ran out the clock after Turner picked up the necessary first down with the last of his 24 carries. He finished with 107 yards, the fourth 100-yard performance in the past six games.
Morris, whose team went 3-13 a year ago, wasn’t in the mood to discuss moral victories or finding some good in the down-to-the-wire setback.
“There is no such thing as an encouraging loss. That is a mentally weak statement,” he said. “At the end of the year, there are wins and losses.”
During the week, the Falcons seemed both amused and motivated by Morris’ bold proclamations that his team was best in the conference. Afterward, they acknowledged that he made an already big contest even more fun.
“It’s good for the game,” Peterson said. “Some trash talking … that just put a little more icing on it.”
Freeman threw a pair of touchdown passes, the first of them set up by Micheal Spurlock’s 66-yard kickoff return. Then Spurlock took it all the way to the end zone, bringing back another kickoff for an 89-yard touchdown.
The Falcons thoroughly dominated much of the game and Freeman — who had been doing a good job not turning the ball over — had a pair of interceptions. The Falcons didn’t have any turnovers, marking the first time all season the Bucs gave it away more than their opponent.
Turner scored on runs of 2 and 10 yards to stake the Falcons to a 14-0 lead. Freeman cut the gap to 17-14 by halftime with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Arrelious Benn and a 58-yarder to Mike Williams.
On the third play of the second half, Freeman threw a wobbly pass under pressure from Kroy Biermann and it landed right in the arms of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. That set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Palmer, the first career score for the undrafted rookie. Matt Bryant added his second field goal, pushing the Falcons ahead 27-14.
The ensuing kickoff landed between Spurlock and Maurice Stovall in an apparent mix-up. But Spurlock picked up the bouncing ball at the 11, slipped through a hole, somehow stayed inbound when kicker Michael Koenen took a dive at him along the sideline and streaked the rest of the way for the touchdown that again made a game of it.
Trying to seize on that momentum, Tampa Bay appeared to get the ball back when kicker Connor Barth recovered an onside attempt. But the Falcons challenged, and the replay showed that the ball touched Barth’s left knee just before it covered the necessary 10 yards.
At the end, the Bucs came up just short again.
“We lost by a yard,” rookie Gerald McCoy said. “That’s what this league is about.”