ATLANTA -- One of the many lessons in self-survival that most kids learn growing up is that the best way to deal with the neighborhood bully is to never cower in his presence.
Back down and, more often than not, you'll be knocked down. Show fear and your opponent will show you his best knockout punch. Be the first to blink and you are apt to then spend all day in the dark. Simple axioms for life, typically handed down by a parent the first time their kid comes home with a bloody nose or a blackened eye, but yet seemingly unheeded by most Atlanta Falcons players.
Or at least when they are playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL's reigning ruffians, and a franchise appropriately enough named.
When it comes to pillaging and plundering, and performing most of those unsavory deeds characteristically associated with roving pirate bands, the Bucs have their well-rehearsed act down when facing the Falcons. They demonstrated that again on Sunday, pounding the Falcons by a 31-10 count that, even in its abject disparity, falls a bit shy of evidencing their superiority.
Anyone who reviews the gruesome game films might conclude the Bucs were perhaps serving notice to the rest of the NFL that last week's overtime defeat to Carolina was but an aberration. And the film critics who examine the celluloid close enough will also see an awed Atlanta team that talks about temerity, but mostly performs against the Bucs with the fatal flaw of undeniable timidity.
The league's most notable (and quotable) blowhards, the Bucs blew away the Falcons for a third straight time in their NFC South competition, and the aggregate accounting is now a lopsided 85-26 since the NFL married these two franchises with its 2002 realignment. Assuming that things don't get better anytime soon, and Sunday suggested they actually could get worse, Atlanta might be wise to seek a separation.
"We keep talking about finding a way to beat these guys, but all the talk in the world isn't going to do any good, at least not until we can stand toe-to-toe and slug it out with them," acknowledged Falcons star inside linebacker Keith Brooking.
It has been chic to portray Atlanta as a potential threat to the Bucs, the upstart team that could soon upset the Bucs, and re-arrange the balance of power in the division. But the mere sight of the Bucs, it seems, sets the Falcons to upchucking. And on Sunday evening, after slappin' the Falcons upside the head yet again, the Bucs regurgitated the platitudes they have utilized in the past to explain their recent dominance in the series.
"To tell you the truth," said cornerback Ronde Barber, "sometimes we play better coming back from a loss. We're more focused or something, the coaches get on us pretty bad, and we seem to prepare harder than usual. I mean, I wouldn't want to play us after a loss, and I'm pretty sure (Atlanta) knew early that it wasn't going to be a good day. They talk a lot about being able to play with us. But they're not well, you know."
Yeah, they're not there yet, nowhere close if Sunday was any indication. The Falcons like to use the Bucs as a measuring stick. The Bucs generally break out the whipping stick. In re-establishing themselves as a threat to become just the second team to gain consecutive championships in this era of the salary cap, the Bucs took the Falcons out behind the old woodshed and administered another lesson in comeuppance.
Nary a single Atlanta player following the defeat dared use the continuing absence of quarterback Mike Vick as a viable defense. During the game, well, the Falcons didn't mount much of a defense, either. And the offense, operating again under overmatched replacement quarterback Doug Johnson -- can we now, please, end the myth that there are league teams that will fall all over themselves trying to sign the former Florida star in unrestricted free agency next spring? -- was toothless.
No one was more saucer-eyed, forced to contend with the maelstrom that is the Tampa Bay defense, than Johnson. He might be a player in time, but the fourth-year veteran was starting only his fifth career game and finished with a second straight poor performance.
Johnson tossed three interceptions, all in the second quarter, and he now has six pickoffs in his last two appearances against Tampa Bay. Two of the interceptions came when he had wide receivers, first Peerless Price and then Quentin McCord, open deep up the seam, and badly overthrew them.
The Falcons eked out 136 yards, and 59 of those came in the fourth quarter, when Tampa led by 21 points and mercifully backed off from its suffocating defense. Atlanta averaged a minscule 2.6 yards per snap, and two of its three longest plays were on pass interference calls, the first one pretty much a phantom infraction.
How bad was it for the home crowd, another Georgia Dome sellout, but with lots of fans in the upper deck cleverly disguised as empty teal seats? Well, the biggest rise from the longsuffering Falcons fans came when Atlanta used backup tailback Woodrow Dantzler, a former signal-caller at Clemson, as an option quarterback. Or when the Falcons staff finally remembered that perhaps 2002 first-round pick T.J. Duckett, the alleged power tailback, might be capable of running over some Tampa Bay defenders.
"We came into their house again and made their fans disappear," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "It's kind of getting to be old hat here. Everyone is whooping and hollering and (stuff) at kickoff and then, a couple hours later, it's quiet as a funeral home. I mean, the only people left in the stands at the end were our fans, right? And they came here just knowin' we weren't going to lose a second week in a row. We don't get too accustomed to that losing taste in our mouths."
In fact, one of the trademarks of the new age Bucs, a franchise that once posted a dozen straight seasons of double-digit defeats, is that they are seemingly slump-free. Not since October of 2001, a stretch of 30 games, has Tampa Bay experienced consecutive losses in the same season. You want to talk about bounce-back power? In victories following their losses during the streak, the Bucs have a winning margin of 15.7 points.
Their dismantling of the Falcons was about as complete as a rout can possible be at the NFL level. Resurgent tailback Michael Pittman exhibited brilliant symmetry, notching 82 yards each rushing and receiving, and his 68-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was arguably the contest's most monumental play. The Tampa Bay offensive line, which was soundly criticized for a shoddy outing against Carolina, carved out big creases and once again did not surrender a sack. Brad Johnson was typically efficient, completing 16 of 24 passes for 192 yards, with two touchdown passes and no interceptions.
All of that added up to 18 first downs, 316 yards, 5.1 yards per snap, and a possession advantage of more than 10 minutes. The Bucs, who have struggled with the run, rang up 132 yards, thanks mainly to Pittman and Mike Alstott.
Through it all, the Falcons never attempted to be anything more than rudimentary. Call a game tentatively, Atlanta showed, and players usually perform in like fashion.
"It almost got to the point," said Rice, "where we were wondering if they were even trying to win. I mean, I know you're supposed to stick to the blueprint, but they never tried to open it up and be competitive."
It is on defense, of course, where the Bucs test your manhood, measure your testosterone level, and where Tampa Bay set the early tone.
Borrowing a page from the design the Panthers used last week, the Falcons came out and attempted to establish the run, pounding mighty mite tailback Warrick Dunn into the very teeth of the Bucs' front seven. Most times, unfortunately, Dunn's former teammates just chewed him up and spit him back out. For the opening three quarters, the average yards the Falcons needed on third down -- exclusive of a third-and-goal from the one-yard line, after Atlanta recovered a fumble -- was seven yards.
Permit the Tampa Bay defense that kind of edge, and it will attack the pocket with total disregard for the run, and leave a quarterback shell-shocked. That is precisely what the Bucs did to Doug Johnson and, when he began talking trash to his tormentors, all they did was turn the rack even tighter.
"The guy was actually out there talking smack," said free safety Dwight Smith, who had two interceptions. "I mean, a quarterback, talking smack! To me, that's all frustration. You know you're inside a guy's head then. But with our defense, if you're a quarterback talking smack, all you're going to do it to get yourself smacked that much harder. And we just wanted to go out and knock that guy silly."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.