ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons had modest, yet significant, goals during their final dress rehearsal for the upcoming National Football League season. What they got was, however, was even better than hoped.
The team wanted to watch a handful of players who were on the bubble to make the final 53-man roster, they wanted to keep their starting players healthy and they wanted to show improvement in their final preseason game Friday night with Tampa Bay.
And in the process of meeting, if not exceeding, their own expectations, they also found a way to win 36-7 before 44,162 fans inside the Georgia Dome.
"We did improve," said coach Dan Reeves. "That's what we wanted to do."
Starting next Sunday, the games will count. The regular season starts with a road trip to San Francisco - a place where the Falcons haven't won since 1991 - and Atlanta will embark on their 16-game trek with a three-game preseason winning streak.
The important nuggets from Friday night's blowout was the effort of the starters and a running game that bowled over the formidable Bucs for 211 yards.
Quarterback Chris Chandler played the first three series and he hit 5 of 9 passes for 96 yards while leading them to a touchdown and a field goal. The other series ended with his first interception of the exhibition season, and that turnover actually was the fault of wide receiver Terance Mathis, who let a passes slip through his hands.
Mathis atoned for that mistake by catching three other passes for 75 yards - all in the first quarter. Running back Jamal Anderson again showed he has regained the bursts of power and speed from the 1998 Super Bowl season with 25 rushing yards on just six carries. Included in that total was a four-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter.
Atlanta's starting offense scored 10 points and gained 121 total yards in the first quarter against a Tampa Bay defense that was ranked among the top three in the league a year ago.
The Falcons defense was equally-prepared. It spotted Tampa Bay an early touchdown set up by Mathis' tipped ball, then it shut down the Buccaneers the rest of the way. Starting quarterback Brad Johnson threw for 52 yards and Warrick Dunn ran for 30, but Johnson threw an interception to linebacker Chris Draft on the game's opening drive.
Backup quarterbacks Shaun King (2 of 4 for 13 yards and one interception) and Joe Hamilton (5 of 7 for 26 yards and a lost fumble) weren't much better.
Tampa Bay managed on 177 total yards, while Atlanta used practically ever player in uniform to amass 390 total yards.
By the fourth quarter, both teams were using second- and third-team players - many who will not survive the final cuts today and Sunday. Regardless of which offensive line worked, it showed an ability to open running lanes and allow any of the four Falcons quarterbacks that worked enough time to find receivers.
"Our offensive line is definitely more physical than it was last season, or even during the 1998 season," Anderson said. "It seems like they're getting to the linebackers faster, which really helps our running game. I have more confidence in them than ever before, and I think that helps me."
It also helped second-year backup Maurice Smith, who locked up the No. 2 tailback spot with a punishing 89-yard effort on 12 carries that included touchdown runs of 11 and 3 yards, but Ronnie Thomas made the running back rotation interesting by adding 68 yards on 18 carries.
Jake Arians and Jay Feely got plenty of chances to continue their battle for the place-kicking job. Feely had field goals of 38, 40 and 35 yards, while Arians was good on field goals of 23 and 40 yards. Feely kicked two extra points, while Arians made one. Neither missed a kick, although Feely benefited on a running into the kicker penalty on the final play of the first half that allowed him a second chance to make good on a 40-yard attempt.
He missed the first attempt from 40 yards and the officials - all replacement referees working their first game - forgot to penalize Tampa Bay five yards. It didn't matter after Feely was successful on his second attempt from the same spot.
"We have some hard decisions to make," Reeves said.
The victory gave the 35-year-old franchise only its seventh winning record during the preseason. Only once, however, have the Falcons transformed success from exhibition games into success during the regular season, and that came in 1971 when they were 3-2 in the preseason and 7-6-1 in the regular season.
"From Day 1, even in the offseason, our guys came in here with an attitude of we're going to get things done," Reeves said. "That has carried over to training camp and preseason games."