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Scenes from Atlanta: Doug Martin finishes on up note, Josh Freeman sets more Bucs marks

Wright stays on sideline

When the Bucs went through the trouble of activating CB Eric Wright from the suspended list Saturday night, it suggested he might play after all.

But Wright ultimately was left inactive Sunday, the Bucs opting to sit him though he was eligible to play after serving his four-game NFL suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy.

The Bucs didn't attribute the decision to anything contract-related, but it can't be ignored that Wright's suspension enables the Bucs to void the guarantees in his $37 million contract. Even Wright acknowledged the possibility.

"That's something we have to visit later, in the next few weeks or so," Wright said.

When the Bucs departed Tampa for Atlanta on Saturday, Wright still was unclear about whether he'd play. He said he performed well in practice last week and that his Achilles' injury has healed.

"I came ready to play," Wright said. "But that wasn't my role (Sunday). I tried to help out on the sideline and support my teammates any way I could. That was my role today. I obviously wanted to play, but I'm glad we at least got the win."

If the Bucs are considering voiding Wright's deal, they perhaps considered the fact that the 2011 collective bargaining agreement enables players to collect up to $1.5 million under the injury-protection benefit if they're hurt in a game that prevents them from playing the following season.

Martin goes out with a bang

It had been several weeks since RB Doug Martin showed some of the sizzle that made him a phenomenon midway through the season.

But in the third quarter, with the Bucs trying to fend off a Falcons rally, Martin did what he does best: bust a big run.

He sliced through a hole on the left side of the line, then with a spin move out of Barry Sanders' repertoire, he bounced off S Thomas DeCoud and into the open field for a 40-yard touchdown run.

"Erik Lorig, our fullback, did a good job of staying on his guy, and (left tackle) Donald Penn did a good job staying on his guy," Martin said. "I was able to get through there and make a move."

Martin finished with 142 rushing yards, his fifth game this season with 100 or more. It pushed his season total to 1,454, second most in Bucs history. His 11 rushing TDs tied for second most by a Buccaneer in a season, and his 12 total TDs were also second best.

Awestruck TE Dallas Clark said of Martin: "I don't know if I've been around a better young running back, or a running back like that in general. Some of the runs he's had this year, you have to remind yourself constantly that he's a rookie. He runs so hard. He's a special player."

The spin move wasn't planned. It was just one of the many plays Martin has made this season that were a result of his feel for the game.

"That was definitely instinctive," Martin said.

Freeman sets Bucs records

For as much as Josh Freeman has been critiqued for some of the worst play of his career in recent weeks, the fourth-year QB put the finishing touches on a career season Sunday.

With 222 yards on 19-of-35 passing, Freeman added some entries into the franchise record book, setting Bucs records for touchdown passes in a career (78) and a single season (27). Freeman also became the first Bucs quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards passing, finishing with 4,065.

The numbers don't mean much to him, he said. But it was meaningful to finish with a win in which he played well, especially after throwing a combined eight interceptions in his previous two games. Of particular importance was Freeman's improved play in the early going, something that enabled the Bucs to take a 13-3 halftime lead.

"We had a lot of success early in the game," he said. "Being able to get that going and keeping it (going) in a game that's back and forth, we feel like if we get in those games, we can outlast the other team and play 60 minutes."

What Freeman will spend the next few months lamenting, however, is the fact that his third full season as a starter will again end without a playoff berth. That's the next step for a quarterback the Bucs think can win for them long term.

"It's what you play for," he said. "If you end the year without winning the Super Bowl, the season can't be considered a success. But we're optimistic. We have a number of pieces and a number of guys we'll get back on the team next season. It's very exciting."

Pass rush finishes strong

Few teams have protected their quarterback as reliably this season as the Falcons, who had given up 26 sacks entering Sunday's game, fifth fewest in the NFL.

But you might not have guessed that considering the assault the Bucs unleashed on QB Matt Ryan, who was sacked only twice but was under duress throughout the game.

The Bucs accomplished the feat without using the endless number of blitzes they'd come to rely on. Instead, they rushed mostly with their primary four defensive linemen, who won enough matchups with Atlanta's blockers to keep Ryan on the run.

"That's it. It was the four of us," DE Da'Quan Bowers said. "Any time you can get pressure on the quarterback with just four guys, it's an amazing feeling."

S Ronde Barber said, "The few (blitzes) we did bring were really run stoppers."

The Bucs haven't consistently pressured quarterbacks for most of the season, entering the game ranked 30th with 25 sacks. Sunday's performance might be a foreshadowing, Bowers said.

"I think we put some good film out there despite the five-game losing streak," he said. "There's a lot to build off of. We see what we're capable of doing."

DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim registered a sack, as did LB Lavonte David on one of the few blitzes used. Most of the six hits on Ryan came from defensive linemen, including Bowers, DT Gerald McCoy and DE Michael Bennett.

"We've been through ups and downs," DT Roy Miller said. "We wanted to go out there and put our identity out there. It wasn't there for the last few games. We just wanted to go out and fight and put it on film. We needed to do it for each other and for the coaches."

Big decisions looming

Ronde Barber and his family gathered outside the visitors' locker room at the Georgia Dome, and something about the whole scene seemed final. Barber and his wife and two daughters posed for pictures with Barber's parents and friends, raising questions about whether Barber might have played his last game. The Bucs safety, in his 16th season, said he hasn't made a decision on returning, which is likely true. But because the decision involves others — do the Bucs want him back and how much will they pay him? — he is preparing himself for anything. "If it is (the last game), it is," said Barber, 37. "I've always been all right with that." Barber, who moved to safety this season after 15 years at cornerback, is on a year-to-year agreement with the Bucs. That means the club will have to decide whether it wants him back, what his role will be and how much to pay him before the sides can proceed. Another player who is in limbo is TE Dallas Clark, who will become a free agent in March and hasn't committed to anything yet. "I haven't even thought about that," he said. "We'll see what the options are, and we'll go from there and make a reasonable response for myself and my family. Whatever else happens, it's been a heck of a run with this team. We left a lot out there, which is unfortunate, but there are a lot of positives coming back next year with this team." Clark, 33, answered the biggest question about him: Could he stay healthy? He played in all 16 games, catching 47 passes for 435 yards.

Falcons play to win

It's a question that can be endlessly debated, but the Falcons made an emphatic decision when it came to playing their regular players in a game that was mostly meaningless.

With the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs already sewn up, the Falcons still played QB Matt Ryan and all their starters against Tampa Bay, exposing them to injuries that could impact their availability for the playoffs.

CB Dunta Robinson suffered a possible concussion in a collision with Bucs RB Doug Martin, and star DE John Abraham sustained an ankle injury that coach Mike Smith believed to be minor.

Did the coach even consider sitting his starters?

"Absolutely not," Smith said. "We've said from the very beginning that we're going to play this game to win. I think we did that. We just didn't get it done."

It could be argued the Falcons played without a great deal of energy given the fact that nothing was at stake, but Smith rejected that thinking.

"You get 16 opportunities," he said. "You want to go out and play your best. To go out there and not play your best and try to win is counter­intuitive to guys in that locker room and it's counterintuitive to us as football coaches. I know there are different philosophies with that and it flips back and forth, but we're paid to go out and try and win football games."

Capping a comeback

WR Mike Williams had another strong showing, leading the team in receptions (six) and receiving yards (65), including an 8-yard touchdown. It was his ninth TD reception, tied for third in franchise history for receiving TDs in a season.

2013 Bucs opponents

Along with the annual home-and-home with NFC South teams, the Bucs next season face each team from the NFC West and AFC East. And because they finished fourth in the NFC South, they face the fourth-place team from the NFC East and NFC North. Times and dates will be announced in April.

Home Away

Falcons Falcons

Panthers Panthers

Saints Saints

Cardinals Rams

49ers Seahawks

Bills Patriots

Dolphins Jets

Eagles Lions

Quick hits

• Among Sunday's unsung heroes was LB Dekoda Watson, who pushed the man blocking him (TE Michael Palmer) backward into the path of Matt Bosher's punt, which bounced off Palmer's back and out of bounds at the Atlanta 26. The play set up a field goal that gave the Bucs a 13-3 halftime lead.

• The Bucs came close to earning the title as the worst pass defense in NFL history, but that honor still belongs to last season's Green Bay Packers. By giving up only 238 passing yards Sunday, Tampa Bay yielded 4,783 on the season, 13 better than last year's Packers.

• Connor Barth's three field goals gave him 28 on the season (tied for third most in a single season in franchise history) and 123 points (fourth most in a season).

Single-season records

Among the single-season records set Sunday by the Bucs: most TDs scored (44), most points scored (389), most net yards (5,820), most net passing yards (3,983) and fewest rushing yards allowed per game (82.5).

Scenes from Atlanta: Doug Martin finishes on up note, Josh Freeman sets more Bucs marks 12/30/12 [Last modified: Sunday, December 30, 2012 11:10pm]
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