Tampa Bay's resilience will be tested as the Buccaneers strive to rebound from the team's first loss in a month and remain in playoff contention.
Sunday's one-point loss to the Atlanta Falcons stopped a four-game winning streak, but was not nearly as costly as it could been for the Bucs. Three other clubs pursuing what would be the second NFC wild-card position also hurt themselves with losses over the weekend.
Tampa Bay (6-5) remains tied with Seattle and Minnesota, one game ahead of New Orleans (5-6). Washington and Dallas also are 5-6.
If the playoffs started this week, the Seahawks would be the second wild card because of a better conference record.
"That's the way this league is. People who are supposed to win don't and that leaves the door open," linebacker Adam Hayward said Monday. "We've just got to take care of our business, the next game coming up, and the ones after that."
The road ahead figures to be difficult, beginning Sunday at Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos (8-3). The Bucs also have road games against the Saints and Falcons, as well as home dates against Philadelphia and St. Louis remaining on the schedule.
The challenge got a little tougher Monday when Tampa Bay's porous pass defense took another hit. The NFL suspended cornerback Eric Wright four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
The Bucs are first in the NFL in run defense, but last against the pass, yielding 315.5 yards per game.
Wright, who signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract with the Bucs as a free agent in March, was disciplined for using Adderall — the same drug cornerback Aqib Talib also was suspended for using this season. Talib was traded to the New England Patriots last month while serving his four-game ban.
With Talib no longer on the team and Wright sidelined by an Achilles tendon injury, coach Greg Schiano started former seventh-round draft pick E.J. Biggers and undrafted rookie free agent Leonard Johnson at cornerback against the Falcons on Sunday.
Ryan teamed with Julio Jones on an 80-yard TD play against Johnson, helping the NFC South leaders improve to 10-1 with a 24-23 victory. Jones finished with six receptions for 147 yards.
The Bucs will face Manning next, and also will be tested by Drew Brees and Ryan for a second time down the stretch.
"That's life in the NFL," Schiano said of the challenge that lies ahead for a secondary that also includes rookie safety Mark Barron and the unit's lone veteran, safety Ronde Barber, who's in his 16th season.
"We're going to practice, meet and prepare and then we're going to go out to Denver and play the best game we've played all year," Schiano added. "Where that stacks up against Denver and Peyton Manning, I only control half of that. We're going to do our best to make sure we do our best."
The Bucs have won five of their past seven games to climb into playoff contention following a 1-3 start. Although Minnesota is the only team they've beaten that has a winning record, none of the team's losses has been by greater than a touchdown.
The club's confidence continues to grow, despite Sunday's disappointing result against the Falcons, who share the NFL's best record with Houston.
The outcome might have been different if the offense got into the end zone instead of settling for a pair of field goals after the defense forced two turnovers.
"Every time you lose, you question whether or not you could have gotten more points on individual drives, no matter what the situation was. But the bottom line is we didn't score enough points to win," quarterback Josh Freeman said.
Tackle Donald Penn said Tampa Bay more than held its own against Atlanta, which trailed 23-17 before Ryan led his fifth fourth-quarter winning drive of the season.
"The fact of the matter is we're a better team than them and we lost, and we know that," Penn said. "They made one or two more plays, and we lost."
Freeman is confident the team will put the narrow loss to Atlanta behind it and get ready for the Broncos, who've won six straight.
"I think we'll be just fine. I think guys will go in and go to work and continue to do their job," the fourth-year pro said.
"I think we have a very strong team," Freeman added. "We hate to lose. It's tough, but we have a great group of guys, great coaches, and we're going to get prepared to take this team to Denver."
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