TAMPA, Fla. -- Even as Micheal Spurlock broke into the open and turned up the sideline with a clear path to the end zone, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers couldn't be sure one of the most dubious streaks in NFL history was over.
Teammates jumped up and down and urged the former practice squad receiver on, and the roar of the crowd grew louder with each stride. It took 32 seasons and 1,865 tries, but the Bucs finally returned a kickoff for a touchdown Sunday.
"I saw him on the verge of breaking it, he was right in front of me, and I just assumed he would step out of bounds or something would happen," coach Jon Gruden said after Spurlock's 90-yard TD sparked a 37-3 rout of the Atlanta Falcons. "It's almost a snake-bitten play for us."
Ronde Barber returned an interception 29 yards for a score and Earnest Graham rushed for a touchdown in a team-record sixth consecutive game to help Tampa Bay (9-5) win the NFC South for the second time in three seasons.
The Bucs are 5-0 in the division after going 0-6 a year ago. It's the fifth straight season that the team winning the NFC South finished last the previous year.
"Derrick Brooks always tells me: `Today is the day to make history.' And it happened," Spurlock said. "Everybody got their block, I hit it and found the end zone."
The loss was the fifth in a row for Atlanta (3-11). It capped a tumultuous week that began with suspended star quarterback Michael Vick being sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring, a lopsided loss to New Orleans and the abrupt resignation of first-year coach Bobby Petrino.
While some thought Petrino's unexpected departure would give the Falcons something to rally around, things quickly got out of hand in the debut of interim coach Emmitt Thomas. Barber scored on the third play of the game and Spurlock's kickoff return made it 14-3 midway through the opening quarter.
"It's just been an emotional week with everything that has happened. And to try to come out and play a game, I can just tell you it was tough," Atlanta running back Warrick Dunn said.
"We all were supporting each other and trying to go out with a clear mind, have fun and play the game. Sometimes you can do that, and other times you can't."
The Falcons were held to a season-low 133 yards and have been outscored 161-53 during their losing streak.
"The W's and L's are not going to be the most important thing for us in the next two games. We've got to get our character back," Thomas said. "I thought our team lost its character out there, its passion. So what we're going to do is go back as a team, prepare and come out and play professionally."
The closest the Bucs had ever come to scoring on a kickoff was 2001, when Aaron Stecker returned one 86 yards against New Orleans.
Spurlock, promoted from the practice squad Nov. 1, settled under Michael Koenen's kick at his 10. He burst through a huge hole in the middle of the field, then cut up the right sideline to the end zone untouched.
The TD came on Spurlock's 10th return for the Bucs, who have had 141 players run back kicks since the club's inaugural season in 1976.
Before Sunday, Tampa Bay's kickoff returns had covered 37,395 yards, or more than 21 miles.
"Thirty-two years, man, that's a long time to not return a kick for a touchdown," said Barber, who has one of the 10 punt returns for a touchdown in Bucs history. "It was a great feeling that really energized us."
Spurlock's TD and the performance of Tampa Bay's defense, which held the Falcons to 38 yards in the second half, overshadowed the return of Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia, who missed the previous two games with a lower back bruise.
Garcia completed 15 of 25 passes for 105 yards and produced a touchdown and two field goals off three of Atlanta's four turnovers. He also tossed a 1-yard TD pass to Anthony Becht before being replaced by backup Bruce Gradkowski in the closing minutes.
Chris Redman was 4-of-15 for 34 yards in his second start for the Falcons, who have been unable to compensate for the loss of Vick. He was intercepted twice and lost a fumble when he was sacked and stripped by Bucs rookie Gaines Adams to set up Graham's 1-yard TD dive late in the first half.
"It just seemed like everything that could go wrong was going wrong. ... Obviously, we can't point fingers. We just have to move on," Redman said.
"It's very frustrating," Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall added, "when you feel like you prepared to the best of your ability and still get ran up and down and all over the field."
- Graham rushed for 79 yards on 22 carries.
- The Falcons were 0-for-9 on third-down conversions.
- Barber is tied with Deion Sanders, Ken Houston and Darren Sharper for the third most fumble/interception returns for TDs in NFL history with 10. Rod Woodson had 13 and Aeneas Williams 12.