Bucs and Falcons are used to playing for it all

by Gary Shelton on December 4, 2015 · 2 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Friday, 6 a.m.

They played for a field goal kicker.

They played for a running back.

Heck, once upon a time, they played for a general manager. Winner gets Rich McKay, and don't you wonder what Jon Gruden would have done with him if he had won.

So yeah, here at the biggest Bucs game in years, it figures that it would be the Atlanta Falcons on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Who else would it be?

Once, you might suggest that Green Bay was this team's biggest rival. Then it was Philadelphia, where too many seasons ended in the cold.

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But lately, there has been no game that had the fallout that Atlanta and Tampa Bay has had.

Whether the Falcons were wearing red or black, whether the Bucs were wearing orange or red, this game has mattered. It mattered when the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002. It mattered when the Falcons went to the Super Bowl (and lost to Denver) in 1999.

Ray Perkins' first game as coach of the Bucs was a win over Atlanta. His last game as coach of the Bucs was a win over Atlanta. In the middle, there was a little bit of disappointment.

Sam Wyche had the final chapters of his feud with Jerry Glanville in the Bucs-Falcons series.

It was Leeman Bennett's success with Atlanta that led to his disappointment in Atlanta.

And so it goes. The first time the teams met, Atlanta won 17-0 as the Bucs stumbled along with Gary Huff and Randy Hedman at quarterback. The Bucs' quarterbacks threw five passes to their guys. They threw four to the other guys.

Doug Williams, who enters the Ring of Honor Sunday, showed that he wasn't a stat guy in his first game against Atlanta. He hit only six of 23 for 74 yards. But one of those was the winning touchdown pass to Ed O'Bradovich.

Warren Sapp starred against the Falcons. So did Derrick Brooks, who would smother Michael Vick.

Vinny Testaverde threw for 351 yards for the Bucs against Atlanta. And even Chris Chandler started a Bucs' win in 1997. Of course, he was playing for the Falcons at the time.

But the darndest game they ever played against each other was Dec. 20, 2003, the day that McKay switched teams. McKay had been the Bucs' general manager for nine years, including during the Super Bowl year.

McKay and Gruden irked each other something fierce, however. Gruden would storm through the halls, wondering what genius was responsible for drafting this guy or that one, and McKay would clench. That day, the Falcons won 30-28. On the other hand, McKay would inherit the Vick mess.

It wasn't rare. The Bucs were pretty good, so naturally, the Falcons tried to raid them. Running back Warrick Dunn, for instance, played in 91 games as a Buc and 90 as a Falcon.

Then there was kicker Matt Bryant, who they thought was long in the tooth in 2008. He went to Atlanta, and he's still kicking.

Gruden's last big decision came in a game against Atlanta. His team needed one more win to get into the playoffs, but it lost the other three badly. Against the Falcons, though, his team was going to be in a close game. But at the last second, he decided to go with a sore-armed Brian Griese instead of Chris Simms, who had practiced with the first team most of the week.

The Bucs lost, 13-10.

Now, the teams are in similar situations. The Falcons are 6-5, and a good start has been wasted. The Bucs are 5-6, and a terrible start has been overcome.

Make no mistake, however. For the Bucs, this is a huge game. Lose this one, and they fall to two games below .500, and any further talk of the playoffs would sound silly. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 397 yards that day, but his total has gone down every week since. The Falcons were 6-1 going into the first meeting, but they've lost four in a row.

And so they play. Williams will be there, and McKay. In spirit, maybe Gruden and Perkins and Dunn and Bennett will be, too.

You know. For old-time's sake.

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