Tom Brady remained perfect against the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secured their second consecutive sweep of their division foes Sunday with a 30-17 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"Good road win," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "December football. It was great. A lot of guys had to step up and step in."
Brady is now 10-0 as a starter against the Falcons in his career, including the playoffs. On Sunday, he completed 38 of 51 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns and now has a career touchdown-interception ratio of 28-4 against Atlanta, postseason included. Brady hooked up with TE Rob Gronkowski for two scores but most often targeted WR Chris Godwin, who finished with 15 catches for 143 yards. Godwin's catch total set a single-game franchise record, two more than the 13 recorded by RB James Wilder on Sept. 15, 1985 and RB Earnest Graham on Oct. 21, 2007.
"It's cool to be able to set a record…but I think the biggest thing is getting the win," said Godwin. "I really had no idea [about the record] until we were walking off the field."
Brady was intercepted once, and it was nearly a game-changer. With the Bucs leading 20-10 with 27 seconds left in the first half, he tried to throw a flat pass down the line to RB Leonard Fournette but DL Marlon Davidson read the play, undercut the route and walked into the end zone for a three-yard score.
"Poor call, poor execution," said Arians.
That play cut the Bucs' lead to three points at the intermission, but Tampa Bay's defense pitched a second-half shutout and only allowed one offensive touchdown all afternoon.
"I thought it was better in the second half," said Arians. "I thought we settled down a little bit. Early we gave up a lot of stuff off the edge but once we got into a two-score lead we got after the passer."
The victory was Tampa Bay's third in a row and it improved the team's record to 9-3. It was also the Bucs' second straight road win to move their record away from home to 4-0, and it also improved their record against NFC opponents to 6-3. The Buccaneers also defeated Atlanta in Week Two and Tampa and won both games last season. This is the first time since the creation of the NFC South that the Buccaneers have swept Atlanta in consecutive seasons.
The loss for the Falcons dropped them to 5-7, where they are tied with both the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers. Tampa Bay has a four-game lead in the division with five games to play and is close to clinching its first NFC South title since 2007. However, Ndamukong Suh, who had two of the Bucs' four sacks on Sunday, notes that now is not the time to get complacent.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 13 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
"To be honest with you, I'm not calm at all," said Suh. "Yes, we understood that we wanted to win on the road. But we've got to keep our foot on the pedal. We understand where we're at and we talked about it all week."
The Buccaneers' defensive stand after halftime was due in large part to a good amount of pressure put on Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who threw for 297 yards on 30-of-41 passing but did not have a touchdown pass. Ryan was sacked five times – Vita Vea had two like Suh and Cam Gill added one – and hit 11 times. Importantly, both of Suh's sacks and one of Vea's occurred on third down, ending drives. Otherwise, the Bucs' defense had a hard time getting off the field on third down once again, allowing nine of 17 attempts to be converted.
"It was important; we call it situational football," said Suh. "We've got to find ways to get off the field on third down, especially when we've struggled some times on first and second down. It's important for us to get off the field on third down and it's important for us inside to be a part of that. We've got to continue to do that, especially in these next five games."
In contrast, Brady was not sacked and was hit only once despite those 51 dropbacks by Atlanta's 32nd-ranked pass rush. The Bucs' passing game set the tone on the game's opening drive by throwing on every single play of a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive ending in a three-yard scoring catch by RB Leonard Fournette. Godwin caught five passes on that march to hint at what would become a huge day for the fifth-year receiver.
"We felt really good about the protection coming into the ball game," said Arians, noting that the Bucs continued to throw early because the strategy was working. "They really didn't stop us. We felt really comfortable in that regard."
The Week 13 matchup in Atlanta marked the first time that the Buccaneers were able to put all three of their original starting cornerbacks – Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting – on the field together since Week One, following the activation of Davis from injured reserve on Saturday. Davis had a triumphant return with three pass breakups and a fumble recovery and was instrumental in holding star rookie TE Kyle Pitts to just 48 yards on four catches. However, the Bucs' injury problems at cornerback continued as Dean left the game in the second half with a concussion.
The Bucs got the ball first and gained a quick first down on their first play, a 15-yard catch-and-run by Fournette. Two catches by Godwin over the middle picked up another set of downs and got the ball across midfield. Atlanta's defense managed to put the Bucs into a fourth-and-four at the 38 but Brady kept the drive alive by zipping a seven-yard dart into Fournette's stomach. Two more Godwin catches led to two more first downs and a goal-to-go situation at the three. Brady, who threw on all 13 plays on the drive for 75 yards, completed it with a three-yard lob to Fournette, who made a fine over-the-shoulder catch as he ran into the end zone near the right front pylon.
Atlanta converted on their first third down of the game on the next possession, with Ryan finding Olamide Zaccheaus over the middle for six yards. Two plays later, Patterson broke off a 41-yard run over left tackle, breaking multiple tackles along the way. That took the ball down to the 17 and Mike Davis took the next handoff in the same direction for a game-tying touchdown.
Godwin made a dazzling catch over S Richie Grant two plays into the next drive for 25 yards to get the ball back into Atlanta territory. Two plays after that Brady looked off the safety for a long time before suddenly launching a ball down the right sideline to Mike Evans, who managed to get two toes down for a 36-yard gain down to the 11. A defensive holding call on safety Duron Harmon, who was covering Gronkowski, made it first-and-goal at the two and Brady found Brate on the next play after faking a handoff and rolling out to his right. Ryan Succop banged the extra point off the right upright, so the Bucs' lead with 4:23 left in the first quarter was 13-7.
The Bucs got the game's first stop on the Falcons' second possession. After gaining one first down, Atlanta faced a third-and-four at their own 43 and excellent coverage downfield allowed the pocket to eventually collapse on Ryan, who was sacked by Suh. Giovani Bernard fielded the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 20 and was immediately buried by Zaccheaus. The Falcons followed with their own first defensive stop, though it took Brady missing a wide open Gronkowski in the middle of the efield on third and nine to force Bradley Pinion's punt.
A diving last-second breakup of a pass intended for Pitts by Davis and a false start put Atlanta into a third-and-10 hole early in the next drive but Ryan was able to pull out of a near-sack by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and was able to get off a running 19-yard completion to Russell Gage. Ryan then converted a third-and-nine with a 29-yard completion to Pitts on the right sideline. After getting a first down at the Bucs' 14, Ryan absorbed an eight-yard sack by Gill but Davis got 11 back on a run up the middle. Atlanta got a first-and-goal at the one after a roughing-the-passer call on Anthony Nelson but the Bucs managed to limit the drive to three points. Ryan fumbled the snap on second down to push it back out to the three and Jamel Dean broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Patterson. Younghoe Koo came on to hit a 21-yard field goal to cut the Bucs' lead to 13-10.
After a surprising drop by Gronkowski on second down to start the next drive, Brady and Evans hooked up on a precise deep out for 15 yards to keep the drive moving. Brady erased a holding call a few snaps later with a 17-yard dart to Godwin on a deep crossing route, then hit Fournette for 12 more down to Atlanta's 33. Three plays later, on third-and-five, Brady stood in the pocket for an extra beat before delivering a strike over the middle to Gronkowski that allowed the big tight end to rumble into the end zone untouched.
Vea dropped Ryan for a loss of eight to start the Falcons' next drive but the home team was saved from a three-and-out by a defensive holding call on Carlton Davis on third-and-14. With 1:10 left in the half, Gage ran out of bounds with a nine-yard catch to make it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 43. That's where the defense held strong, with ILB Devin White getting to Ryan on a third-down blitz to force a desperate dump-off to Davis that lost three yards. Atlanta punted it down to the Bucs' seven with 44 seconds remaining.
Two plays later, disaster struck as Brady tried to throw a quick pass out to Fournette down the line of scrimmage to the right and Davidson jumped it for an easy pick-six.
Atlanta got across midfield on their first drive when a scrambling Ryan found Gage cutting across the middle on third-and-13 and hit him for a 20-yard gain. However, Desir came up from behind to poke the ball out and Davis recovered for the Bucs at their own 37.
The Bucs didn't do anything with it, with Brady missing on a third-down deep shot to Evans, but at least were able to punt it down to Atlanta's 16. The Falcons used six plays to grind out two first downs up to the 37, then got across midfield on a spinning, tackle-breaking catch-and-run by Gage down to the 43. After an impressive pass break-up by Davis in front of Pitts, Suh ended another drive with his second sack on third-and-seven, leading to a punt that was fair caught at the 13.
Two catches each by Godwin and Fournette and a great run by Fournette to convert a third-and-one got the ball to midfield and Fournette bounced off several tacklers to get 11 yards on his next grab. The Bucs then faced a third-and-seven and Evans moved the chains with an incredible catch of a hard pass low and out in front of him for 18 yards. On third-and-four from the 11, the Bucs isolated Gronkowski on the right side in man-to-man coverage and he beat S Erik Harris off the snap and loped into the end zone to catch a perfect back-corner fade.
Tampa Bay's defense followed that with a very well-timed three-and-out, capped by Vea's second sack of the game on third down. The Bucs got the ball back at their own 31 after the punt and Brady hooked up with Gronkowski down the middle for a 15-yard gain. However, the drive stalled near midfield and the Bucs punted it back with 11 and a half minutes remaining in regulation.
Atlanta regained possession at its 17 and quickly got 20 yards on a dump-off to Davis. An offensive holding call helped put the Falcons into a third-and-14 hole but Ryan kept it going with a 17-yard strike downfield to the Atlanta 49. On third-and-two from the Bucs' 43, Ryan tried to scramble forward but was hit from the side by Will Gholston. Ryan managed to get a weak throw off as he went down but that resulted in an intentional grounding penalty. Now facing a fourth-and-12, the Falcons elected to punt with 7:30 left and the ball went out of bounds at the Bucs' nine.
From there, the Bucs mounted a long and time-consuming drive, highlighted by Godwin's 36-yard grab. Godwin later moved the sticks on an underneath handoff that gained nine yards down to the 19. Fournette then ran for nine yards on third-and-13 to get down to the Atlanta 13, setting up Succop's 31-yard field goal. Atlanta got the ball back with 1:43 left and drove down the field against a defense designed to kill the clock. After Davis nearly intercepted a sideline pass with two seconds left Ryan was left to throw one more pass into the end one that was dropped by Gage.