At least for this week.
The Falcons overcame a dismal display on special teams and the boasts of Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, coming up with a huge defensive stop in the closing minutes to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-21 Sunday and take over sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
Michael Turner rushed for 107 yards and two early touchdowns, and the Falcons (6-2) compensated after Roddy White went out for a while with a knee injury. Tony Gonzalez had eight catches and undrafted rookie Michael Palmer scored his first career TD.
"We know how to win," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "This team has done a great job of finishing. When our backs are against the wall, we can find a way to win the football game."
Their backs were certainly against their own goal line when the Buccaneers (5-3) drove down to the Atlanta 2 with less than 3 minutes left, facing fourth-and-1.
Josh Freeman faked a handoff to Ryan Purvis, a tight end lined up at fullback, and then gave it to LeGarrette Blount for a run over right tackle. But safety Thomas DeCoud charged up to stuff the slow-developing play, and Coy Wire finished off Blount to make sure he couldn't stretch out for the first down.
"I told the defensive line, 'Get penetration, get penetration,' and the guys in the back will come up to make the play," linebacker Mike Peterson said.
That's just what happened. The ball went over to the Falcons, who ran out the clock after Turner picked up the necessary first down with three straight runs totaling 14 yards, leaving him with 24 carries and his fourth 100-yard performance in the past six games.
Give the Bucs credit. Morris had proclaimed his team the best in the NFC, and it looked like Tampa Bay might back him up. Micheal Spurlock returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter and Freeman threw a pair of touchdown passes.
The Falcons held at the end, though.
"They're a good football team, make no mistake about that," Morris said. "We were big-time resilient against a big-time team."
The Falcons thoroughly dominated much of the game and Freeman — who had been doing a good job not turning the ball over — had a pair of interceptions. Spurlock was Tampa Bay's most dangerous weapon, also returning a kickoff 66 yards to set up Freeman's first TD pass.
"We lost by a yard," Bucs rookie Gerald McCoy said. "That's what this league is about."
Turner scored on runs of 2 and 10 yards to stake the Falcons to a 14-0 lead. Freeman cut the gap to 17-14 by halftime with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Arrelious Benn and a 58-yarder to Mike Williams.
On the third play of the second half, Freeman threw a wobbly pass under pressure from Kroy Biermann and it landed right in the arms of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. That set up a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Palmer, the first career score for the undrafted rookie.
Matt Bryant added his second field goal, pushing the Falcons ahead 27-14.
Back came the Bucs.
The ensuing kickoff landed between Spurlock and Maurice Stovall in an apparent mix-up. But Spurlock picked up the bouncing ball at the 11, slipped through a hole, somehow stayed inbound when kicker Michael Koenen took a dive at him along the sideline and streaked the rest of the way for the touchdown that again made a game of it.
Trying to seize on that momentum, Tampa Bay appeared to get the ball back when kicker Connor Barth recovered an onside attempt. But the Falcons challenged, and the replay showed that the ball touched Barth's left knee just before it covered the necessary 10 yards, giving it over to Atlanta.
The Falcons got a big scare in the first quarter when White, leading the NFL with 54 receptions through seven games, twisted his right knee making an 11-yard catch along the sideline.
White limped off the field, got treated on the sideline, then went back in the game. His return didn't last long, and he walked slowly to the locker room late in the first half.
After everyone had emerged from the tunnel for the second half, White finally came trotting back out. He made a couple of sharp cuts on the sideline to test the knee, ran on the field after Babineaux's interception and made a crucial catch for first down at the 1.
"I came down kind of funny," said White, who finished with four receptions for 49 yards. "(The medical staff) did some good things for me, put my brace and just see if I can go. I went out there and didn't feel much pain, so I kept going."
Unlike Morris, the Falcons were making no boasts about being best in the NFC.
"We definitely feel good to be number one in our division," Robinson said. "But we won't be determining the best team until (early) next year."
Notes: The Bucs came up on the wrong end of turnovers in a game for the first time this season because of Freeman's interceptions. Tampa Bay had been plus-8 in turnover margin, ranking second in the league. Atlanta didn't have any interceptions or fumbles. ... The Bucs converted 8 of 13 third downs, while the Falcons were 8 of 14. Atlanta also converted its only try on fourth down. ... Blount was held to 46 yards on 13 carries after totaling 192 the two previous games.