The Falcons’ season of despair ended on a high note.
After being disinterested early and stumbling late, the Falcons used a touchdown reception by Matt Ryan and a field goal at the buzzer to defeat the Buccaneers 34-32 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
“Nice way to finish,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said after the game.
Matt Bryant made a 37-yard field after the Falcons kicked away an 11-point lead in an up-and-down game.
“At the end of the day, I just thought the last drive showed so much grit and toughness,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
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With the win, the Falcons closed out the regular season on a three-game winning streak and will finish in second place in the NFC South at 7-9.
The Panthers beat the Saints to also improve to 7-9. However, the Falcons beat the Panthers twice to win the tiebreaker.
The Bucs finished 5-11 and in last place for the third consecutive season under coach Dirk Koetter, who was dismissed after the game.
“It’s always tough against a division team,” Quinn said after the Falcons posted their fifth straight win over the Bucs. “But I’m proud of the team today. Over the past three weeks, the fight and responding like they have.”
Here are five thing we learned from the victory.
1. Ryan can catch, so can Jones and Ridley: In a key play, Ryan handed the ball off to Calvin Ridley, who’d motioned back into the shot gun formation to his right. Ridley went to left and pitched the ball back to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
While all of the ball handling was in progress, Ryan slipped out of the backfield to the right and Sanu tossed a pass for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Falcons a 17-14 lead in the third quarter.
The score capped a 14-play, 75-yard drive.
“We called it twice in practice this week,” Quinn said. “Both times it looked good. When the moment came, sometimes you have to wait until you’re at a spot on the field.”
Ryan enjoyed helping out the team with his hands.
“It was cool to catch my first NFL pass,” Ryan said. “My first NFL touchdown (reception). It took me 11 years, but it was cool. It was fun. It was a good play and fun to be a part of it.”
Falcons wide Julio Jones broke his own record for most 100-yard games in a season with 10. He had nine 100-yard games in 2012. Jones finished the game with nine catches for 138 yards and one touchdown.
Ridley broke the rookie franchise touchdown reception record with 7-yard catch in the fourth quarter. It was Ridley’s 10th touchdown reception of the season. He was tied with former tight end Junior Miller’s mark set in 1980.
“It was fun,” Ridley said of his rookie season. “Definitely could have been a lot better for me as a player (in terms) of things I wanted to get done.”
2. Revamped line: The Falcon opened with a revamped offensive line and it showed early. It took a while to get moving.
Ty Sambrailo, who had been starting at right tackle, started at left guard for Wes Schweitzer, who was out with a back injury.
Ryan Schraeder, who’d been benched for Sambrailo, went back to his starting right tackle spot.
The Falcons were 0 of 5 of third downs in the first half and didn’t score until Ryan connected with Jones for 19-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left in the second quarter.
While working the 2-minute offense, the Falcons moved 75 yards in five plays for the score.
Before that drive, the Falcons were forced to punt five times and never crossed the 50-yard line.
Ryan appeared a little behind on this throws as he was just 7 of 14 for 74 yards before that last drive of the first half.
After falling behind 10-0, the Falcons had a promising drive working and were up to their 48-yard line until Schraeder was called for a false start.
On the next play, first-and-15, Bucs defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul beat Schraeder for a sack. The drive was pushed farther backward when Sambrailo was called for unnecessary roughness.
3. Sack attack: Falcon defensive end Takkarist McKinley had a sack in the second quarter.
It was his first full sack since Game 7 against the Giants on Oct. 11, eight games ago.
The Falcons had four quarterback hits and free safety Damontae Kazee had his seventh interception of the season.
“It was cool to be able to get three wins in a row,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “I think we played together in all of these games. It was pretty cool to see the guys come together and work with each other.”
4. Running back by committee: Running back Tevin Coleman was slowed by a groin injury suffered last week, but started the game.
Coleman was backed up by Brian Hill and Jeremy Langford, who also got limited action. The Falcons rushed 30 times for 109 yards.
Coleman broke loose for a 23-yard touchdown with 44 seconds left in the third quarter. Coleman’s score put the Falcon sup 24-20. It capped a 24-3 run after the Bucs built a 17-0 lead to open the game.
The Falcon finished with more than 100 yards rushing for the fourth straight game.
5. 2019 schedule set: With the second place finish, the Falcons will play the NFC South teams twice, home and away in Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
The will also play the NFC West: Los Angeles Rams (home); Seattle (home); Arizona (away) and San Francisco (away).
They will also play the AFC South teams: Jacksonville (home), Tennessee (home), Indianapolis (away) and Houston (away).
The Falcons also will either play at Minnesota or at home against Philadelphia.