ATLANTA (AP) -- Tampa Bay seized control of the weak NFC South with one of its trademark defensive showings.
Jeff Garcia threw for two touchdowns, Ronde Barber returned a fumble for another score and the Buccaneers' defense completely stifled the Byron Leftwich-led Falcons 31-7 Sunday, another low for a franchise trying to recover from Vick's dogfighting debacle.
Tampa Bay (6-4) allowed just 49 yards rushing, delaying former Bucs star Warrick Dunn from joining the 10,000-yard club, and scored just as many points on defense as the Falcons' inept offense.
With New Orleans and Carolina both losing and dropping to 4-6, the Bucs now hold a commanding two-game lead in the division race with six to play.
"Our defense was awesome," Garcia said. "You can't say enough about the way our defense is playing."
As for the Falcons, all the talk was about quarterback.
In a highly debatable move, first-year Falcons coach Bobby Petrino decided to start Leftwich over Joey Harrington, who led Atlanta (3-7) to a two-game winning streak while the former Jacksonville starter was recovering from ankle surgery.
But, in a decision that caught Harrington off guard, Petrino said he was sticking with Leftwich as the No. 1 signal-caller as long as he was healthy enough to play.
Boy, did that decision ever backfire on the rookie coach. Petrino now sounds as though he might go back to Harrington for Thursday night's game against the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.
"We've got a lot to evaluate in front of us," Petrino said. "We need to take a good look at this video and see who gives us the best opportunity to win the game Thursday. That's what we need to do. When that happens, I can't tell you."
Playing behind a short-handed offensive line, Leftwich had one of the worst games in his career, completing 15-of-28 for 106 yards with two interceptions and two fumbles. Harrington took over late in the third quarter, but it didn't matter much by then with Tampa Bay already leading 24-0.
"To be honest with you, I've never been involved with something like this," Leftwich said. "It's difficult to deal with. It should bother everybody. I know it bothers me. It should make it tough to sleep at night."
Earnest Graham ran for 102 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 31-0. Garcia didn't have to do much with the defense manhandling the Falcons; he completed 10-of-20 for 159 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown to Joey Galloway that got the Bucs rolling.
The only solace for Atlanta was avoiding its first shutout since 2005. Harrington threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Adam Jennings with 1:10 remaining and mostly backups on the field.
The Bucs were up 7-0 early in the second quarter when Leftwich tried to scramble from the pocket on his gimpy ankles and was hit from behind by Greg White, knocking the ball loose. Barber picked it up on one bounce and scooted 41 yards to the end zone without being touched.
At that point, the Georgia Dome crowd broke into chants of "Joey! Joey! Joey!" and booed Leftwich every time he came on the field.
Leftwich certainly noticed the lack of faith, though it was hard to argue with the fans' sentiments.
"Yeah, and it happened pretty early, man," he said. "Things weren't really going bad. As a player, all I can do is play my butt off and try to lead and help this football team win."
Tampa Bay was actually expecting Harrington to start. He completed 16-of-20 for 139 yards after finally getting on the field.
"We were hoping he would get in the game," Barber said. "Our whole game plan was directed at him."
Matt Bryant punched through a 23-yard field goal that made it 17-0 early in the third, and Leftwich's final play was another turnover. Gaines Adams hit the quarterback's hand from behind as he tried to throw, the ball fluttered in the air and defensive tackle Chris Hovan made a juggling interception at the Atlanta 27.
"[Leftwich] held the ball too long a couple of times, and we put pressure on him," Barber said."
Three plays later, Garcia threw off his back foot under pressure and Alex Smith made a leaping catch in the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown, giving the Bucs a 24-point lead and sending what was left of the crowd heading for the exits with nearly 5 minutes still left in the third.
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