TAMPA - Charles Lee's performance late in the season makes some wonder what the Bucs season might have been like had he been starting all along.
The fourth-year wide receiver, who spent the first two seasons with Green Bay, had 88 yards and a touchdown Saturday with his team-high (and career-high) 10 receptions. In the five games - four starts - since the Bucs deactivated Keyshawn Johnson, Lee has 29 receptions for 373 yards. He had 13 catches for 166 yards in his first three seasons, most of which he spent inactive or on special teams.
What if he had started all season?
"I thought about it, but what's done is done," Lee said. "I'm just trying to make the most of the opportunities I've been getting.
"For the most part, I want to impress my teammates, like, "What's up with this guy? Why hasn't he been playing? He's making plays.' I'm just trying to be that spark for the team, so they can feed off my energy. Like, "Wow!' "
Coach Jon Gruden said Lee has proven "he's a darned good NFL receiver."
The season's "been all right," Lee said. "I'm just doing my job, going out there, running around, trying to catch the ball, trying to block and have a little fun. That's the key part, trying to have fun while I'm out there.
"Like that last drive; just being in the huddle with the guys, looking in everybody's eyes, everybody knowing, "Okay, we're going to get it done.' It's just too bad we came up one play short." Brad Johnson's last pass, the two-point conversion meant for Lee, was batted down.
"He's been tremendous," Johnson said. "I don't think he's dropped a ball. He's run great routes. He's a very dependable receiver. (Whether he returns) is out of my hands. I know I feel very comfortable with him, though."
Lee also wonders about 2004. "This is the National Football League. You never know what'll happen, who's going to come in. Whoever the new (general manager) is, he might decide to go in another direction. I hope I'm here."
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: Johnson's four touchdown passes gave him 26 for the season, raising the Bucs record of 22 he set last season and his personal best of 24 he had with Washington in 1999. It was his second four-touchdown game this season; he did it in a 35-13 win Oct. 12 at Washington. He also set a Bucs season passing record of 3,715 yards, topping Doug Williams' 3,563 yards in 1981.
Johnson's four interceptions matched his personal worst against Detroit in 2000. The Bucs record is seven by Steve DeBerg in the 1986 season opener, a 31-7 loss to the visiting 49ers. OTHER RECORDS, BROKEN AND NOT: Ronde Barber's five tackles set a Bucs season mark for a cornerback of 105, two more than Jeris White in 1978.
Keenan McCardell's 122 receiving yards put him at 1,171 for the season, moving him to fourth on the Bucs all-time list, 5 yards behind Kevin House's 1,176 in 1981. He'll need 252 yards at Tennessee to break Mark Carrier's 1989 record of 1,422. McCardell's 76-yard TD catch tied for the 10th best in team history.
Michael Pittman's combined 105 yards rushing and receiving left him 4 yards shy of his single-season career high of 1,298 yards from scrimmage set with Arizona in 2000.
Tight end Rickey Dudley's first-quarter touchdown catch was his first of the season and 33rd in his eight-year career. Cook's, with 27 seconds to play, was the first touchdown, rushing or receiving in his three seasons.
In other firsts, Martin Gramatica's successful onside kick with 2:20 to play was the Bucs' first since Sept. 27, 1992, at Detroit. They won that one 27-23. Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland got his first forced fumble of the season.
FAMILY AFFAIR: Atlanta cornerback Juran Bolden, a graduate of Hillsborough High, couldn't guess how many family and friends he had at the game.
"At times, it felt like half the stadium," Bolden said.
What he was sure of was every single one cheered when he returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown late in the first half.
"Once I picked it, I knew there was no way they were going to catch me, not with that much daylight," Bolden said. "The only worry was me catching it. I was looking into the sun and it looked like a dot in a hole. But once I caught it, I knew I was taking it to the house."
Bolden helped the Falcons, ranked last in the league in defense, intercept Johnson four times and stifle the Bucs offense until the final four minutes when the Bucs made a furious but futile comeback.
"The key was turnovers," Bolden said. "When you get some turnovers, you see what happens."
OH, THAT EXPLAINS IT: When defensive end Greg Spires was injured, stopping the clock with three seconds remaining in the first half and the Bucs out of timeouts, they were given a fourth. There is no penalty for the extra one, but if a second injury in the final minute of a half necessitates a fifth timeout, a 5-yard penalty is assessed.
PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS: Youngsters from the Improvement League of Plant City, Mayor's Beautification Program, Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee County and Tampa United Methodist Centers, selected based on their academic achievement and positive behavior, were guests of the Glazer Family Foundation.
SQUIB KICKS: During a scrum that broke out at the end of the Bucs kickoff runback after Bolden's interception return for a touchdown, Falcons backup linebacker Artie Ulmer punched linebacker Nate Webster's face mask and was tossed from the game. ... Saturday has not been kind to the Bucs. The loss was their 12th in 17 games and eighth in the past 10 Saturday games. ... The paid attendance was announced at 65,572 but, like Dec. 14 against Houston, there were thousands of empty seats at kickoff - and thousands more before the Bucs began their fourth-quarter rally.