Those Falcons fans who came to Mercedes-Benz Stadium looking for evidence, any evidence, that their team could get stops instead immediately saw the same old thing.
The Buccaneers easily moved 75 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive with lots of short passes, one long run and little resistance. The Falcons could not cover, and they could not tackle. They trailed after less than four minutes.
But, after that series, the Falcons stiffened on defense until the end. Then it looked like the same old thing again as the Bucs, down by five points, moved from their 24 yard-line to the opposite 21-yard line in just 49 seconds.
Quarterback Jameis Winston spiked the ball on first down and passed incomplete on second. With seven seconds left, Winston dropped back as if to pass, but then tucked the ball and ran. He made it to the eight-yard line, where he encountered . . . Julio Jones?
Jones, a wide receiver, was in the game because the Falcons thought for sure that Winston would throw a jump ball to the end zone.
“Instead it was what we call ‘Desperado,’ ” Falcons linebacker Duke Riley said, as in the Bucs were desperate.
As Jones closed in, Winston jumped in the air and threw a lateral to . . . no one, really. The ball bounced on the turf, where teammate Adam Humphries tried to scoop it up near the 5-yard line but bobbled it. Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans corralled the ball, jumped in the air and passed backwards and low to teammate DeSean Jackson near the sideline.
Jackson bent down to pick up the ball at the 6-yard line as Falcons defenders, led by safety Damontae Kazee, closed fast. There was a clear lane between Jackson and the end zone. Maybe he doesn’t score if he catches the ball but he’d have a chance. Instead, it took a weird bounce and squirted through Jackson’s hands out of bounds.
Finally, the game was over, with the Falcons ahead 34-29. Finally, the Falcons got the stop that they couldn’t in close losses to the Saints and Bengals. Finally, they ended their losing streak, at three games.
After three straight weeks of surrender the Falcons had played enough defense to win, if just barely.
“We knew we needed to stop them,” Kazee said. “Enough is enough. The past few weeks we’ve been getting punched in the mouth. We can’t take it no more. We’ve got to fight back. That’s what we had to do today, fight back.”
The Falcons were, as I said, good enough defensively. They weren’t great. It’s even hard to say they were good after they allowed 512 total yards and 8.1 per play(!). That’s even considering that the Falcons have three good defensive starters on injured reserve.
But the Falcons also got two takeaways for the first time since the season opener. The Falcons limited Tampa Bay’s big plays and stopped the Bucs on 4 of 10 possessions (excluding a kneel down) which, again, isn’t great but is above their average.
And the Falcons got that final stop, after one of the wildest plays I’ve seen to end a game.
“It feels good, especially because of all the work we’ve put in,” Riley said. “It’s not like we are sitting around not working hard. It’s great to show the fans that we are not giving up.”
I think the Falcons played closer to their potential on defense than on defense. That sounds strange after they allowed so many yards while scoring 34 points. But Tampa Bay, like the Falcons, is much better at scoring than stopping.
That’s why it’s significant that the Falcons halted the Bucs on three straight possessions in the first half: punt, punt, and Kazee’s interception at the Falcons’ 1-yard line. The Falcons couldn’t convert a first down after that turnover, and a punt gave the Bucs the ball at near midfield.
Stopping Tampa Bay four times in a row was too much to ask. The Bucs moved down the field for another touchdown, and in the same breezy fashion as they did on the opening drive. That TD pulled the Bucs within 21-13 with just 26 seconds until halftime, but the Falcons added a field goal (I told you the Bucs are bad on defense).
The Falcons went three-and-out on their first possession after halftime, then the defense got the ball back with Brian Poole’s interception in the end zone. The Falcons also couldn’t turn that turnover into points. After the Bucs made a field goal to trim their deficit to 24-16, the Falcons punted again.
The teams traded scores from there. The final points by the home team came via Matt Bryant’s 57-yard field goal that made it 34-29 with 1:16 to play. If Bryant missed, then the Bucs would get the ball on the home team’s side of the field needing a field goal to win with about a minute to go.
It was a risky call by Falcons coach Dan Quinn. Hard to blame him, though, for thinking his defense had little chance to prevent the Bucs from driving the field for a winning field goal. The Falcons had what it took to keep the Bucs from scoring a touchdown, even if it wasn’t certain until the ball bounced past Jackson.
“We will wake up tomorrow happy instead of stressed,” Kazee said. “I’ve been depressed like the last three or four weeks, man.”
There were happy times again at the Benz because, finally, the Falcons got a stop when they needed it.