TAMPA - Brad Johnson already was having a rocky first half when, hoping to avoid a sack during the closing minutes, he tried to throw the ball away.
The game went with it.
Hit as he threw, Johnson floated a pass toward the sideline that was intercepted and returned 41 yards for a touchdown by Juran Bolden. With the Bucs needing a victory to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, Johnson threw four first-half interceptions that led to 24 points in a 30-28 loss.
"Every quarterback is going to go through something like that at some point," Johnson said. "Four bad plays hurt us. Unfortunately, that's part of playing quarterback in the NFL. You've got to be consistent, and those four plays hurt us."
Johnson, who matched his career high of four interceptions against the Lions in 2000, threw three during the final four minutes as the Falcons took a 27-7 halftime lead.
"We made some critical mistakes in the first half in regards to turnovers," coach Jon Gruden said. "My experience in pro football is when you lose the turnover battle, you struggle to win."
The Bucs moved the ball during the first half, gaining 150 yards and nearly matching the Falcons in every category. But four times, Johnson was off the mark.
In the first quarter, he missed Keenan McCardell with a floater and was intercepted by linebacker Keith Newman, who returned it 29 yards to the Bucs 12. Two plays later, Michael Vick hit Alge Crumpler for a 6-yard score and 10-0 lead.
In the second, the Falcons intercepted Johnson on a failed attempt to throw it away, a pass fired high through McCardell's hands and a tipped ball. They quickly converted them into points, scoring on Bolden's return, a 13-yard pass to Brian Finneran and a 38-yard field goal by Jay Feely on the final play of the half.
Four picks, 24 points.
"That's hard to overcome," Gruden said. "What can I say? We missed a couple of throws very uncharacteristically. Brad struggled there for a period in the first half. I'll say this. That was one of the great gut-checks I've witnessed at that position."
As badly as Johnson played during the final four minutes of the first half, he was nearly perfect during the final four minutes of the second. With the Bucs trailing 30-14, Johnson directed scoring drives of 96 and 62 yards. He was a combined 8-of-10 for 138 yards, including a 76-yard score to McCardell.
"Brad's fought back before," tight end Ken Dilger said. "The offensive players have faith in Brad, and he's our leader. Things didn't go well in the first half, but you forget about it and move on to the second half."
Johnson found Karl Williams for a two-point conversion to make it 30-22. After the Bucs recovered an onside kick, Johnson threw an 11-yard touchdown to Jameel Cook. But needing another two-point conversion to tie the score with 27 seconds left, Johnson's attempt was batted down at the line of scrimmage.
"Unfortunately, we kind of helped the cause and put ourselves in that situation in the first half," Johnson said. "It was unbelievable the way the guys fought. Unfortunately, we came up short."
Ironically, it was a day of milestones for Johnson.
He threw four touchdowns to reach a franchise-record and personal-best 26 for the season, eclipsing the 22 he threw last season for the Bucs and the 24 he threw in 1999 with the Redskins. Johnson also set a team record for season passing yards with 3,715, breaking Doug Williams' 22-year-old record of 3,563.
"Outside of two or three throws, (Johnson) played pretty well," Gruden said. "For a period of about five to seven minutes there, he just missed some throws. Balls got away from him. I don't know if it was the weather. I know he did get hit several times throughout the course of the game. We'll study and see his footwork, but it's just too bad."