The Falcons dropped to 2-3, while the Bucs improved to 3-2.
The Falcons battled back from a 21-point deficit to make it a one-score game late in the fourth quarter with a surprise two-point conversion.
The Falcons forced two third downs, but the Bucs were bailed out by questionable calls on cornerback A.J. Terrell and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
On third-and-4 from Tampa Bay’s 43 with 3:18 to play, Brady tossed an incomplete pass but got a first down when Terrell was called for defensive holding of wide receiver Mike Evans.
“It’s something that I can’t control what they call,” Terrell said. “They just called it in a clutch situation when we were trying to get off the field.”
The feisty Falcons kept battling.
On third-and-5 from Atlanta’s 47, Jarrett broke through for an apparent sack of Brady for a loss of 10 yards. He was called for roughing the passer with 3:03 to play. The Bucs picked up an additional first down and ran out the clock.
“I don’t throw the flags,” Brady said when asked about the roughing-the-passer call.
Falcons coach Arthur Smith, who didn’t want to get fined by the league office, didn’t directly address a question about those two penalties.
“There was a lot of things we could have done,” Smith said. “Proud of our guys. They fought back. They always do. Gave us a chance. I have look at it. There are things we can do better. See what we can do to coach better.”
Some of the Falcons, including owner Arthur Blank, were irate about the calls.
“From my vantage point, it was a bad call,” Falcons cornerback Casey Hayward said.
Referee Jerome Boger was questioned about the play from the Pro Football Writers of America in a pool report.
“What I had was the defender grabbed the quarterback while he was still in the pocket and unnecessarily (threw) him to the ground,” Boger said. “That is what I (made) my decision based upon.”
It was the Falcons’ fifth one-score game, as the defending NFC South champion Bucs took over sole possession of first place in the division with the victory.
The Falcons could never get much going through three quarters as Brady and the Bucs took their time dissecting the Falcons’ defense.
The Falcons entered the game with 35.6% of their offense unavailable. Running back Cordarrelle Patterson (340 yards rushing, 28 yards receiving) and tight end Kyle Pitts (150 yards receiving) had combined for 518 total yards of the Falcons’ 1,451 yards entering the game.
Patterson had accounted for three of the 10 touchdowns entering the game, so they were without 30% of the touchdown output.
“That’s the reality, everybody deals with it,” Smith said. “That’s our job. Control what you can control. We’re going to get the guys ready that can play.”
Patterson was placed on injured reserve after having knee surgery last week. Pitts suffered a hamstring injury and was held out of practice all week.
The Falcons couldn’t immediately replace their production and trailed 13-0 at halftime.
After an exchange of punts to open the game, the Bucs went on the move.
The Bucs pushed the ball down to the Falcons’ 15-yard line. On fourth-and-1, Jarrett blew up his double-team block and made room for outside linebacker Ade Ogundeji and safety Jaylinn Hawkins to stuff running back Leonard Fournette. They also had some help from defensive end Ta’Quon Graham on the play.
The Falcons cobbled together a nice drive that included a 16-yard run from Mariota on third-and-9 from their 32. Three plays later on third-and-7, a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Drake London was nullified by a holding penalty on center Drew Dalman.
The Falcons completed a pass for 10 yards on third-and-17 and were forced to punt.
The Bucs went on a 13-play, 88-yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Fournette.
After stopping the Falcons, the Bucs added a 21-yard field goal from Ryan Succop to make it 10-0.
With 1:18 left in the second quarter, Avery Williams had a nice 30-yard kickoff return and Mariota connected on a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. The Falcons also benefited from a roughing-the-passer call on Tampa Bay defensive tackle Vita Vea to get down to the Bucs’ 25.
After an incompletion, Mariota was sacked for an 8-yard loss. After another incompletion on third down, kicker Younghoe Koo missed a 52-yard field-goal attempt wide right.
After Koo’s miss, the Bucs zipped down the field 32 yards in 20 seconds to get Succop in range for a 44-yard field goal at the buzzer to make it 13-0 at the half.
The Falcons had the ball to start the third quarter and had another promising drive stalled by penalty.
On third-and-6 from the 22, Mariota completed a pass to running back Tyler Allgeier for 17 yards, but left guard Elijah Wilkinson was called for illegal man downfield to wipe out the play.
The drive stalled after former Falcons defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, who was drafted in the third round (90th overall) of the 2018 draft, got his first NFL sack.
The Falcons were forced to punt, and Brady drove the Bucs 74 yards over 11 plays and tossed a two-point conversion to Russell Gage to put the Bucs up 21-0.
Brady connected with Evans for a big 40-yarder in the drive. Fournette scored from 1 yard.
With the Falcons’ offense unable to sustain drives, the battle for first place was essentially over.
But the Falcons managed to pull things together just in time to give them a shot.
The Falcons added an 8-yard touchdown run by Williams in the fourth quarter. With 4:38 left, Zaccheaus scored on a 19-yard touchdown and Mariota tossed a two-point conversion to KhaDarel Hodge to make it 21-15.
The Falcons suffered a couple of key injuries in the game as inside linebacker Mykal Walker left with a groin injury and did not return. Rookie Troy Andersen took over for Walker.
Walker said he’s getting an MRI on Monday but was hopeful that his injury was not serious.
Also, Ogundeji left the game with a shoulder injury. He returned to the game.
Earlier in the game, Hayward needed medical attention. He left the field under his own power and later returned.
On the Falcons’ last scoring drive, London landed awkwardly and had his right knee checked by the medical staff. He said his knee was fine.
“I’m proud of our guys; we never think we’re out of the fight,” Smith said.
The Falcons will host the San Francisco 49ers at 1 p.m. next Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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The Bow Tie Chronicles
Atlanta Falcons 2022 NFL schedule
Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26
Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27
Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23
Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20
Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15
Oct. 16 vs. San Francisco, 1 p.m.
Oct. 23 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Oct. 30 vs. Carolina, 1 p.m.
Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.
Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.
Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.
Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.
Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD
Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.
Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD