*Sunday's 27-21 win was another nail-biter, with the Falcons requiring a strong fourth-quarter defensive push to hold back the Tampa Bay Bucs' young, surging offense. Key play after key play on defense kept Tampa Bay out of the end zone, culminating in a goal-line stand for the ages. With the win, Atlanta improves to 6-2 and stands alone on top of the NFC South. *
ATLANTA —After he made the play to save the day, first place and possibly more, safety Thomas DeCoud took a bow.
Following his fourth-down goal-line tackle in the fourth quarter, amid his jumping Falcons teammates, DeCoud looked to the Georgia Dome crowd and saluted them with a bend of his waist.
But the feeling of a sure-thing win hadn't always been there during Atlanta's 27-21 victory Sunday, but a near dominant fourth quarter sent the Bucs to second place.
After allowing seven points in the third quarter, the Falcons blanked the Bucs in the fourth quarter, a period in which Tampa Bay has become notorious for mounting comebacks.
Down 21-27 when the quarter began, twice the Buccaneers mounted drives that looked as if they'd land in the end zone and twice Atlanta responded with a defensive stop that demonstrated the resiliency head coach Mike Smithhas said all season that his team plays with.
Early in the quarter, with the Bucs backed up on their own 1-yard line and facing third-and-13, quarterback Josh Freeman connected with rookie wide receiver Mike Williams on a 43-yard pass that appeared to reignite Tampa Bay's offense.
Cornerback Brent Grimes, who was covering Williams on the long strike, struck back two plays later, grabbing another Freeman-to-Williams pass. The corner read the route well and found his redemption for the previous play as he dove in front of Williams who was settling into a spot to receive another first-down pass.
"I had just fallen asleep on a play a few plays before that and I just had to come back and make a play," Grimes said. "I just put that one play behind me and handled my responsibility on the next play. I made a break on the ball and made a play."
Despite allowing two touchdown passes in the first half, the Atlanta defense clamped down in the second and continued to answer with a big play when it mattered most.
On the first possession of the half, facing third down, as Freeman backpedaled away from an unblocked and blitzing Kroy Biermann, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineauxreached up to grab the quarterback's pass. It was the six-year veteran's first interception since 2006.
"They slid away from Kroy and he came through and got pressure on them," Babineaux said. "I thought he was going to get the sack and all of a sudden I just saw the ball up and it was an opportunity to make the play and I went up and caught it."
A few plays before Grimes' redemption, another defensive tackle broke through Tampa Bay's injured offensive line and almost brought down Freeman for a safety. Rookie defensive tackle Corey Peterscouldn't get to the quarterback, but he got his hands on the pass, knocking it down.
"I just thought it was a run so I played the run for a minute," Peters said. "I got off and got to a pass rush and beat the guard. He (Freeman) threw it over my head. If I would have seen it coming I might have had the opportunity to try to get two on it and make a big play, but I'll take a bat down and try to get off the field."
While Atlanta found themselves on the wrong side of a few big pass plays, they played well most of the day. For the second straight week they gave up less than 100 yards rushing (96). One of the touchdowns scored in the game was given up on special teams.
The classic bend-but-don't-break situation presented itself to the Falcons late in the game, when Atlanta's defense once again had to reach deep down to make a critical stop.
When the Falcons were unable to convert Grimes' interception into points, the Bucs took over with 10:05 remaining and appeared ready to mount their fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season. After allowing the Bucs to drive up the field for more than seven minutes, Atlanta found themselves on their own 11-yard line, where they had to defend their goal and their aspirations for first place in the NFC South.
Running back Legarrette Blount rushed up the middle on the third down and was stopped after gaining two yards by linebacker Curtis Lofton.
With the game on the line, Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris decided to roll the dice on fourth down, rushing the rookie Blount off the right tackle, a play the Falcons were prepared for.
"We won the line of scrimmage," Smith said. "… We had great penetration up front. Safety Thomas DeCoud came off the edge, it was a play that had been scouted, something that we had worked on and he made a very good play."
DeCoud read the run and tackled Blount for no gain to effectively end the ball game, give Atlanta the win and take over sole possession of the division.
"We just knew that Blount would run to the strong side," Babineaux said. "Fortunately we were prepared for that play given than we practiced it over and over this week. The opportunity came and our entire defense stepped up and made a play."
The Falcons will break their 24-hour post-game rule this week as they welcome Baltimore to the Georgia Dome on a short week on Thursday. Smith said he and his coaching staff would begin to prepare for that matchup Sunday evening. With both teams at 6-2, Thursday's game will be a matchup of two first-place teams.