The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone from worst to first — again.
Tampa Bay's 37-3 victory over Atlanta on Sunday clinched the Buccaneers' (9-5) third NFC South title in six years, and first since 2005. The Bucs went 4-12 a year ago, finishing last in the division.
The Bucs experienced a similar turnaround in 2005, when they came off a 5-11 season in 2004 to go 11-5 and win the division.
The Bucs' victory, coupled with Seattle's loss to Carolina, allowed the Bucs to move back into a tie for the No. 3 playoff seed in the NFC, though Seattle owns the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Buccaneers dominated a Falcons (3-11) coming off an awful and emotional week. On Monday their former quarterback, Michael Vick, was sentenced to 23 months in Federal prison on dog fighting charges. On Monday night, Falcons owner Arthur Blank went on "Monday Night Football" and told the nation that head coach Bobby Petrino had assured him that he would be the team's coach beyond 2007.
Less than a day later, Petrino resigned and took the Arkansas job, sparking a powder keg of emotion in the Falcons locker room. Players labeled Petrino a "liar" and a "coward" for leaving without telling them and not finishing the season.
More importantly the resignation appeared to sap the life out of a team that already had little to play for except next year.
Meanwhile the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were busy wrapping up the division title, which sets up a home playoff game the first weekend of January.
Plus, the Buccaneers made history during the victory. Or at least first-year kickoff returner Micheal Spurlock did.
The converted quarterback from Mississippi put an end to one of the league's most infamous streaks with a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter to put Tampa Bay up 14-3.
Spurlock's return was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in Buccaneers history, and it came on the 1,865th return in franchise history.
Spurlock took the kickoff after the Falcons cut Tampa Bay's lead to 7-3 and found great blocking that allowed him to cut toward the Bucs sideline. From there, Spurlock beat one more defender and ran down the sideline for the score, which set off an emotional celebration among most of the special teams contingent at the Falcons 10-yard line.
The Falcons' emotional week, plus the natural rivalry, spilled over into several scuffles in the firs half, including a late hit by Falcons CB DeAngelo Hall that led to a personal foul in the second quarter. Plus, Bucs DE Patrick Chukwurah and Falcons LB DeMorrio Williams drew offsetting personal fouls after a short altercation on the Falcons sideline on an onside kick.
In attendance among the sellout crowd on Sunday was Heisman Trophy award winner Tim Tebow.
The Bucs dominated the Falcons in just about every facet of the contest and veteran corner Ronde Barber set the tone on the game's third play, as he picked off Falcons QB Chris Redman for a 29-yard interception return for a touchdown with just a minute gone in the first quarter. It was Barber's 12th return for a touchdown for his career.
The Falcons responded later with a 33-yard field goal by Morten Anderson to make it 7-3 Bucs. But Spurlock's return seemed to snuff out whatever emotional lift that kick gave the Falcons.
And turnovers kept stifling the Falcons' offense and fueling Tampa Bay's growing lead.
After Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal gave the Bucs a 17-3 lead, DE Gaines Adams sacked Redman and forced a fumble, recovered by DT Jovan Haye at the Falcons 6. Bucs RB Earnest Graham did the honors from the Falcons 1-yard line for his sixth straight game with a touchdown and his 10th of the season, giving the Bucs a 24-3 lead.
The Bucs tried a pooch onside kick on the ensuing kickoff and Bucs S Kalvin Pearson recovered the loose ball. The drive resulted in Bucs QB Jeff Garcia throwing an interception to Hall.
But, one play later Bucs DE Greg White forced Falcons RB Warrick Dunn to fumble and recovered the loose ball with 1:04 left before halftime. That led to another Bryant field goal as time expired at halftime.
Bryant added a 34-yard field goal in the third quarter with 4:08 left after a Jermaine Phillips interception.
Before the game, the Bucs named rookie FB Byron Storer as the starter in place of B.J. Askew, who was inactive due to an ankle injury. It marked Storer's first NFL start.
RB Michael Pittman also played for the first time since the Bucs faced the Falcons in Atlanta on Nov. 18.
And, the game marked the head coaching debut of Falcons interim head coach Emmitt Thomas, who is in his 28th year as a NFL assistant coach after a standout 13-year career as a defensive back for Kansas City.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.