For the second straight year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season finale came down to one last score at Raymond James Stadium in the game's waning seconds. Unfortunately, this time it was the visiting Atlanta Falcons who got those final go-ahead points, as Matt Bryant connected on a 37-yard field as time expired to give Atlanta a 34-32 victory.
The Buccaneers lost by eight or fewer points for the seventh time in 2018, including each of their last three contests. Dirk Koetter's Buccaneers were 7-14 in one-score games over the past two seasons. Overall, Tampa Bay concluded the 2018 season with a 5-11 record, including a 4-4 mark at home and a 2-4 record in division games.
"I just told the players: 'close but no cigar' is just what we are right now," said Koetter. "There's a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. It starts with effort and competing hard, and those guys are doing that for sure. [The losses] are all hard. There isn't a loss in my life that was easy. I appreciate the way the guys competed, they competed hard, but that was a microcosm of our season right there."
WR Chris Godwin, who scored the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left in the 2017 finale against New Orleans, caught six passes for 114 yards and two scores on Sunday against the Falcons' defense. The second, a 19-yarder on which he caught a short pass over the middle and fought through an Atlanta defender to just get over the goal line, gave the Buccaneers a 32-31 lead with five minutes remaining.
"That was a great effort," said QB Jameis Winston. "The finish and the drive that he had, he was so determined to get into the end zone."
WR Mike Evans also scored twice among his six catches for 106 yards, marking the first time in franchise history that two players each recorded 100-plus receiving yards and two touchdowns in the same game. Evans output gave him 1,524 receiving yards on the season, breaking the franchise record of 1,422 set by Mark Carrier in 1989. Evans also became just the sixth player in NFL history to surpass 6,000 receiving yards in his first five seasons, joining Torry Holt, Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, Julio Jones and A.J. Green.
Evans' second touchdown, on a scrambling 10-yard throw by Winston started a rally that brought the Bucs back to the lead after they had fallen behind by 11 points early in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay started out strong on both side of the ball and had a 17-point lead late in the first half; however, QB Matt Ryan directed a 75-yard touchdown drive in just 26 seconds just before halftime, starting a 31-3 run.
"To play the first half like we did, then in the third quarter we just kind of ran out of gas there," said Koetter. "We gave ourselves a chance, got back in it, got the lead but just couldn't hold it. We're not far away, the Bucs are not far away, but at the same time we've got to get over the hump here at some point."
Evans and Godwin helped Winston throw for 345 yards and four touchdowns against just one pick that came off a deflected pass. Winston finished the season strong, as he had a 121.7 passer rating on Sunday and a cumulative mark of 97.7 since returning to the starting lineup in Week 12.
"Jameis, I thought, was fantastic today," said Koetter. "He made great decisions with the ball, protected the ball. [He was] unlucky on his interception, unlucky – the ball was on the money and got tipped up in the air. There wasn't anything he could do. He actually got to his number-two receiver there; number-one was covered and he went to his number-two and put it on the money."
Winston got a chance to put the Bucs back on top in the fourth quarter after S Andrew Adams intercepted a pass that Ryan sailed over the head of Justin Hardy as he was pressured by DE Jason Pierre-Paul. Adams' pick was his team-leading fourth of the season and the Buccaneers' only takeaway of the game.
"I was over the top on the right side and my receiver went all the way across the field," said Adams, describing his big play. "My receiver went all the way across the field, I saw the corner go with him so I kind of just read the quarterback and played over the top, making sure the corner was good. We had good pressure on the quarterback, which forced them to make an errant throw. It was a huge play for our team. The defense couldn't hold them in the end but it definitely gave us a chance to win the game.
Pierre-Paul also had the Bucs' one sack of the game, giving him 12.5 on the season, but the Bucs didn't pressure Ryan much throughout the game. Tampa Bay's secondary broke up six passes in the first half, three by Brent Grimes, but Ryan dominated in the second half, finishing with 378 yards on 31-of-44 passing and a 102.3 passer rating. Ryan even caught a touchdown pass from WR Mohamed Sanu on a trick play in the third quarter.
"I thought we struggled today to get pressure with a four-man rush, and the last half of the season we've gotten good pressure with a four-man rush," said Koetter.
The Buccaneers and Falcons combined for more than 900 yards of offense and more than 60 points for the second time this season, following a 34-29 Atlanta win in Week Six that also came down to the game's last play. The problem for Tampa Bay's defense, which had shown marked improvement down the stretch, was third down, as Atlanta converted on six of 13 tries. The Bucs had a chance to give Winston one last chance to win it with about 90 seconds to play but allowed Ryan to complete a 16-yard pass to Julio Jones on third-and-11. That allowed the Falcons to kneel three times before Bryant's final kick, draining the rest of the clock.
"We struggled on third down today," said Koetter. "We had them in third down too often and let them off the hook. They did a good job of getting us to check to zone coverage today. We probably played a little too much two-deep zone and Matt Ryan and those receivers are going to be able to attack that."
Tampa Bay also could have been in a better position to pull the game out at the end if they had succeeded on either of their two-point tries after their last two touchdowns, but came up short. That was true of the Buccaneers many times in both 2017 and 2018 and that kept the team from building on an encouraging 9-7 finish in Koetter's first year at the helm.
The Buccaneers got the ball first but failed to get a first down and punted away from their own 33. Bryan Anger's 59-yard punt flipped the field and the Falcons started their first drive at their own 23. The Falcons got a pair of first downs and moved the ball close to midfield but a pair of pass deflections by Brent Grimes, a holding flag against the Falcons and a near sack by Gerald McCoy led to Atlanta punting it back to the Bucs' seven-yard line.
The Buccaneers followed with their longest drive of the season, by yards, marching 93 yards on 12 plays. A sharp pass to Evans on a post up the middle got the ball close to midfield and Winston converted a third-and-eight with a nine-yard pass out to the left sideline to Humphries against a Falcons blitz. A 16-yard catch by Bobo Wilson took it down to the Falcons' 34 but was followed by a holding call on TE Antony Auclair. Winston got them out of that hole with a pair of completions, including one to Godwin on a fantastic toe-tapping sideline catch, setting up a zone-read handoff to Barber that got six and a first down at the 21. Two plays later, Winston lofted a pretty fade to Evans in the end zone and Evans caught it and got his feet inbounds for the touchdown.
Jordan Whitehead nearly intercepted Ryan's next pass and the Bucs forced another punt when Lavonte David stopped Jones cold one yard short of the sticks with a great open-field tackle. Humphries fair caught the resulting punt at the Bucs' 21. The offense got a first down when Winston took off on a perfect scramble on third-and-nine, directing blockers in front of him and then cutting up for extra yards. However, a third-and-three outlet pass to Jacquizz Rodgers failed when S Sharrod Neasman reacted quickly and dropped the running back a yard short of the goal. The ensuing punt was fair caught at the Atlanta 13.
A well-timed blitz forced a hurried Matt Ryan throw on third-and-two from the 21 and S Andrew Adams dived in front of Mohamed Sanu to deflect the ball away. That led to another punt and possession for the Bucs' offense just three yards shy of midfield. The Falcons nearly picked off Winston's next pass when Evans slipped in his route, but Winston went back to his favorite receiver for an 18-yard gain on third-and-eight. A zone-read keeper for eight yards by Winston and a Barber run up the middle got the ball into the red zone. The drive stalled there when Winston was sacked by Takk McKinley on third down but Santos came on to nail a 36-yard field goal for a 10-point lead.
Atlanta got consecutive first downs to start the next drive on a 12-yard Ridley comebacker and Sanu's 13-yard gain on a tunnel screen. However, Pierre-Paul's sack of Ryan and a personal foul call on G Ty Sambrailo on the next play put Atlanta in to a third-and-24 hole. Ryan tried to hit Jones on a deep out but the pass was broken up. The punt forced the Bucs to start at their own seven for the second time.
The Bucs had to punt it back quickly after DT Grady Jarrett busted through the line to stop Rodgers cold in the backfield for a loss on third-and-one. Atlanta had a chance to mount a scoring drive in the first half but it ended near midfield when Grimes made a diving breakup of a pass intended for Justin Hardy over the middle on third down.
A holding call on Atlanta on the punt and a touchback set Tampa Bay up at its own 30 with 1:42 left before halftime. Winston ate those 70 yards up on exactly three completions, a 15-yarder in the right flat to Humphries and consecutive strikes of 25 and 30 yards to Godwin. The second one went for a score as Godwin made a remarkable catch just barely inbounds near the right front of the end zone.
The Falcons actually got one more shot at scoring in the first half and made the most of it. Starting at his own 25 with just 46 seconds left (but all three timeouts), Ryan completed five straight passes, the longest a 20-yard sideline hit to Hooper that got the ball over midfield. Ryan found Hooper for another 19 yards and then finished the drive with a perfect strike down the middle to Jones for a 19-yard touchdown.
One 25-yard completion to Godwin put the Bucs in position to try a Hail Mary pass as the first half expired but it was broken up in the end zone, keeping the lead at 10 points. Atlanta got the ball first to start the second half and immediately cut into Tampa Bay's lead. Ryan drove the Falcons 75 yards on 14 plays and found the end zone himself on a trick play. Ridley lined up in the backfield next to Ryan and took a handoff heading left before pitching it to Ridley on a reverse. Ridley then pulled up and threw a perfect five-yard touchdown pass to Ryan, who was all alone near the right pylon.
The Bucs answered with a scoring drive of their own but were limited to three points. Evans got most of the yardage on the drive when he caught a short pass and then split two Atlanta defenders to break into the open for a gain of 33 to the Atlanta 33. A third-down pass to Cam Brate was a little too low to corral and the Bucs settled for a 45-yarder by Santos.
View photos from the Buccaneers' Week 17 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons got those points back on the next drive. A pair of penalties on Atlanta and a tackle for loss by Gerald McCoy put Ryan into a third-and-17 spot but he kept the drive moving with a 32-yard strike downfield to Sanu. The Bucs did hold there, however, and the Falcons brought on Matt Bryant to blast a 49-yard field goal with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Atlanta put the ball back in Ryan's hands moments later with the game's first takeaway. Winston threw a hard pass in Evans' direction but CB Desmond Trufant got his hand in the way for a deflection and safety Damontae Kazee swooped in to snag the ball just before it hit the turf. Three plays later, Coleman took a handoff around the right edge and broke through for 23-yard go-ahead touchdown.
The Bucs' offense failed to get a first down on the next drive and, upon getting the ball back the Falcons' 25, Ryan immediately threw a rollout pass to Jones for 37 yards. Another rollout play resulted in a wide-open Logan Paulsen, and Ryan hit the tight end for a gain of 19 down to the Bucs' seven. Ryan ended the drive with a simple seven-yard touchdown pass to Ridley who was all alone near the right pylon.
Now down by 11, the Bucs took their next possession into Atlanta's red zone. After a defensive-holding call on Brian Poole erased a third-down sack, Winston completed his next four passes to get the Bucs into the end zone. After lobbing a 19-yarder to Humphries, Winston went down the middle twice to Brate for a total of 39 yards, the second one on a scramble to his left. On first-and-goal from the 10, Winston scrambled to his right and eventually found Evans for his second touchdown catch of the game. The Bucs went for two but failed, leaving them down five with 8:09 to play.
Tampa Bay got the ball back in Atlanta territory when the defense came up with its first takeaway of the game. Pierre-Paul chased Ryan out of the pocket and forced an off-balance throw that sailed over Hardy and into the waiting hands of Adams at the 47-yard line. Adams got it back to the Atlanta 34, and Winston needed just two plays to get it to pay dirt from there. The first was a 15-yarder threaded to Humphries between two defenders; the second was a deep slant to Godwin that the second-year receiver caught with room to run. Godwin was able to dive for the goal line and just get it in for the go-ahead score. The Bucs once again failed on the ensuing two-point conversion and thus had just a one-point edge with 5:10 to play.
Atlanta got in position for Bryant's kick with a clock-killing 13-play drive that included two Jones catches for 16 yards and four runs by Brian Hill and Jeremy Langford for a combined 37 yards. The Bucs used all three of their timeouts before and after the two-minute warning but Jones' catch on third-and-11 left them unable to keep Atlanta from running out the clock.