Originally created 12/25/05

Cowboys' victory helps Buccaneers



TAMPA, Fla. - One of the loudest cheers at Raymond James Stadium Saturday afternoon had nothing to do with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Atlanta Falcons.

It came when Dallas' 24-20 victory over Carolina was announced.

The Bucs now lead the NFC South, with next Sunday's home game against homeless and hapless New Orleans as the final step toward winning the division.

When Washington beat the New York Giants, 35-20, it made Atlanta's playoff scenario simple: They had to win to have a chance.

A 27-24 loss in overtime means the Falcons won't be going back to the playoffs this year, but a win Sunday could keep Carolina out of the playoffs.

NUMBERS GAME: With the loss, Atlanta fell to 8-7. The Falcons need a victory next week at home against Carolina for a winning record.

Since the team's inception in 1966, Atlanta has yet to put together back-to-back winning seasons. The team finished the regular season 11-5 last year. More important, the Falcons now are 1-6 against teams with winning records this year and 7-1 against teams with losing records.

- Atlanta now has lost three consecutive games - and four of its past five - at Raymond James Stadium.

The Falcons are 2-3 in the NFC South with both victories against New Orleans, and 5-6 against NFC teams. The NFC record is what will keep Atlanta from winning any possible tie-breaking scenarios next week.

- By not returning a kickoff for a touchdown, Tampa Bay extended its streak. If the Bucs don't score on a kickoff next week, the record will extend to 30 years.

WALKING WOUNDED: DeAngelo Hall's interception at the end of the first half helped the Falcons take a 17-14 lead at intermission. But it came with a price.

Hall, recently selected to play in the Pro Bowl, injured his left shoulder while being tackled after his 65-yard return to the Bucs' 13-yard line.

"It's a mild strain," Hall said. "I tried to cut back (on the return) and a guy hit me from behind. All of his weight and my weight just fell on my shoulder."

Left guard Matt Lehr also left the game with a strained calf.

When offensive guard Kynan Forney limped off the field in the fourth quarter, it forced the Falcons to juggle its blocking schemes. Matt Weiner moved from right tackle to right guard, Barry Stokes replaced Weiner at tackle and Ben Claxton replaced Lehr.

JUST THE STATS: Michael Vick, another Pro Bowl selection, completed 16 of 26 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He also led Atlanta in rushing with 63 yards ... Chris Simms had a monster game at quarterback for Tampa Bay. He was good on 29 of 42 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.

File/Associated PressThe Falcons' Justin Griffith (33) dives for the end zone past the Bucs' Derrick Brooks. Griffith's score wasn't enough for Atlanta.