The Falcons put forth a fight, but in the end, Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady and dynamic wide receivers Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin were just too much. The Bucs pulled away to beat the Falcons 44-27 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
The Bucs jumped out to a 20-3 lead and then answered with touchdown drives when the Falcons fought back to cut the lead to three points at 23-20 and 30-27.
“I was really proud about how the team fought back in to the game,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said.
The Bucs finished at 11-5 and will be the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs. They were motivated to win and face the NFC East champion to open the playoffs.
The Falcons, who had two key fumbles by running back Brian Hill and wide receiver Calvin Ridley, ended the season 4-12. Coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were fired Oct. 11, after starting 0-5.
The Bucs posted 11 wins for the first time since the 2005 season. For the Falcons, this was their worst season since they went 4-12 in 2013.
The Falcons, who went to Super Bowl LI after the 2016 season, will have their direction reset this offseason.
Brady completed 26 of 41 passes for 399 yards and four touchdown passes. He finished with a passer rating of 119.2. Brown had 11 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Godwin had five catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
“He was able to sit back there, pat the ball, move around with his feet,” Morris said of Brady. “He’s going to scan it as well as anybody in the National Football League. He found the right guy at the right time and he’s going to make the play when you give him that much time.”
In the teams’ first meeting Dec. 20, Ridley caught 10 passes for 163 yards for Atlanta. He was held on Sunday to eight catches for 52 yards.
The Bucs on Sunday amassed 485 total yards to the Falcons’ 385.
“When you come out to play these guys, you know they are going to get yardage,” Morris said. “You have to get the ball back. It’s like playing (Saints quarterback) Drew Brees. ...You have to win on critical downs. You have to win on third downs and you’ve got to win when you’ve got chances to get the ball back.”
Here are the five things we learned from the game:
1. Bucs jumped out early. In the previous meeting, the Falcons jumped out to 17-0 halftime lead. The Bucs rallied in the second half to post a 31-27 win.
On Sunday, the Bucs jumped out to a 20-3 lead and held a 23-10 lead at halftime.
Two Brady touchdown passes, and some sloppy ball handling by the Falcons, helped the Bucs build their lead.
Brady tossed touchdown passes to Godwin and Brown. The Bucs also had a 28-yard field goal by Ryan Succop and a 38-yard field goal after recovering a fumble by Hill.
The Falcons stalled in the red zone and had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo on their first possession. In a game where they knew they’d need touchdowns, they wasted the 13-play, 70-yard drive.
After falling behind 20-3, Matt Ryan scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 20-10 in the second quarter.
The Bucs added a 25-yard field goal at the halftime buzzer.
2. On the move. In the third quarter, the Falcons went on the move.
Tight end Hayden Hurst appeared to fumble, but the play was ruled a catch on Tampa Bay’s 23.
Three plays later, Ryan tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to Russell Gage to make it 23-17.
Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen intercepted Brady, but the offense, with a chance to take a lead, stalled on the 3-yard line and had to settle for a 21-yard field goal to make it 23-20.
The Bucs answered with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a 3-yard run by Ronald Jones.
“It’s disappointing,” Ryan said. “Coming into the year, you always have high expectations and a belief that you’re going to be competing for a championship in January into February. When that doesn’t come to fruition, it’s disappointing. We’re all obviously disappointed with how this year shook out. Hopefully better days are ahead for us.”
3. Antonio Brown shows out. Brown, who caught the game-winning, 46-yard touchdown caught in the previous meeting, was more trouble for the Falcons in the rematch.
Brown caught 11 of 14 targets. Brown’s previous best game was his 93 yards receiving against the Falcons. He caught seven passes in a 46-23 win Nov. 15 over Carolina.
“We tried to get out there and fight even though today wasn’t one of our best showings,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “We had to fight that whole second half so that we could have an opportunity. I just wish we’d finished it a little better.”
4. Hill breaks loose. Ryan stressed that the Falcons needed to run the ball against the Bucs.
They were being stymied until running Hill broke loose for a 62-yard run in the fourth quarter.
The big run set up the Ryan to Hayden Hurst 1-yard touchdown pass to make it 30-27 with 8:19 to play.
The Falcons rushed 26 times for 127 yards and one touchdown.
“You like to see it be more productive,” Morris said. “You like to see it efficiency. You want to get run the ball, let Matt turn around and hand that thing off. Eat up time and keep Tom Brady off the field. Those things come about and they help you win.”
5. Injury report. Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans was lost for the game with a hyper-extended left knee on their second possession.
With under a minute to go in the first quarter, Evans cut inside and his left leg slid through the grass. He dropped a potential touchdown pass and grabbed his left leg.
A few plays earlier, Evans became the first NFL player to have 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first seven seasons.
Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (groin) left the game in the third quarter.
Falcons’ 2021 draft position
(Heading into Week 17 Games)
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
2. New York Jets
3. Miami Dolphins (via Houston)
5. Cincinnati Bengals
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