Falcons KO Bucs to stay in NFC South chase
TAMPA, Fla. — Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn had a psychological game plan before his team faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night at Raymond James Stadium.
Quinn showed the Falcons a tape of the furious boxing trilogy between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward.
“I wanted to remind them what a division game would be for us,” Quinn said. “It’s like a fight.”
And it was.
The Falcons couldn’t score a knockout, but they went the distance and held off the Bucs 24-21 to remain within one game of the NFC South Division lead.
The defending NFC champion Falcons (9-5) never trailed, but it wasn’t clinched until Tampa Bay kicker Patrick Murray was wide right on a 54-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
The Falcons would win the division title if they defeat the New Orleans Saints (10-4) on Sunday and the Carolina Panthers (10-4) on Dec. 31.
The Bucs (4-10), who entered the game without three injured defensive starters, had six more players ruled out after getting hurt Monday night.
“I commend them for the way they played,” Quinn said. “I appreciated the toughness displayed on both sides. Having (injuries) like that, it requires you to battle. Their players stepped up and battled.”
Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said, “We fought and fought. It wasn’t enough.”
Trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter, the Bucs pulled within a field goal on Jameis Winston’s 16-yard pass to Adam Humphries with 4:07 to play.
The Falcons tried to run out the clock, but quarterback Matt Ryan was dumped for a 3-yard sack by Bucs defensive tackle Clinton McDonald on third-and-9.
The Bucs had one more opportunity. Winston (27 of 35 for 299 yards and three touchdowns) completed three consecutive passes, driving Tampa Bay from its 29-yard line to the Atlanta 36. However, Murray was unsuccessful in his attempt to force overtime.
Quinn praised Atlanta’s rushing attack, which produced 201 yards and was led by Devonta Freeman (22 carries, 126 yards). Freeman’s 32-yard touchdown run on third-and-2 with 7:58 remaining proved to be the winning margin.
“We thought there would be some opportunities for Devonta tonight,” Quinn said. “Our running game responded big time.”
Freeman added a team-high five receptions for 68 yards.
Ryan was 17 of 31 for 212 yards but also chipped in with 29 rushing yards on three key carries.
“We knew this would be a tough one and every yard would be hard-earned,” Ryan said. “It was a physical, tough game, one of those nights where you just had to move the sticks.
“Devonta was doing a great job running downhill and finishing his runs. Every game presents a different way to win, and we found that formula tonight.”
Freeman didn’t play in the previous game against the Bucs, a 34-20 victory at Atlanta, because he was out due to a concussion.
“Whatever I can do to help this cause, I’m going to do it,” Freeman said. “I still feel like we haven’t played our best game, but we’re getting better and we’re playing better at the right time of the season. This wasn’t easy. Tampa gave us all we could handle.”
In the third quarter, the Bucs pulled within 17-14 on Winston’s 42-yard pass to Mike Evans, who outfought two defenders in the end zone. Tampa Bay preserved that three-point deficit when Will Gholston blocked Matt Bryant’s 33-yard field-goal attempt.
The Falcons led 17-7 at halftime, pulling away with a 10-point second quarter.
Atlanta gained its advantage when tight end Levine Toilolo recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown after Freeman lost the ball at the 1-yard line.
The Bucs tried to answer, but Peyton Barber lost a fumble at Atlanta’s 5-yard line, and Falcons defensive tackle Dontari Poe recovered.
The Falcons tacked on a 57-yard field goal by Bryant with 3:12 remaining in the half for a 17-7 lead.
Atlanta opened the scoring with Ryan’s 6-yard pass to Justin Hardy.
On the ensuing drive, Tampa Bay pulled into a 7-7 tie with Winston’s 30-yard scoring pass to rookie tight end O.J. Howard, who sustained a game-ending ankle injury on the play.
NOTES: Before the game, the Bucs knew they would be without DT Gerald McCoy (biceps), LB Lavonte David (hamstring) and CB Vernon Hargreaves (hamstring). Hargreaves missed his fifth straight game. Also inactive for Tampa Bay was RB Doug Martin, the team’s leading rusher, for what was termed violation of team rules. However, the Bucs sustained a flurry of new injuries Monday night, losing TE O.J. Howard (ankle), S Justin Evans (ankle), OL J.R. Sweezy (ankle), WR DeSean Jackson (ankle), LB Adarius Glanton (leg) and S T.J. Ward (concussion) for the game. Howard, Jackson and Sweezy were each wearing boots afterward. ... The Falcons were without RB Tevin Coleman (concussion) and G Andy Levitre (triceps). ... Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden (2002-08), who won Super Bowl XXXVII, was inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor at halftime. Gruden worked the ESPN “Monday Night Football” broadcast of the Monday game. ... Falcons players wore a No. 60 decal on the back of their helmets to honor linebacker Tommy Nobis, the initial first-round pick of the Atlanta franchise in 1966. Nobis died on Dec. 12.