One of the most incredible comebacks in Buccaneers history is also one of the team's most significant victories in a long time, as Tampa Bay rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to beat the Falcons, 31-27, in Atlanta on Sunday. The win, which looked improbable after a lopsided first half, puts the team on the verge of its first playoff berth since 2007.
"It was great poise by everybody," said QB Tom Brady, whose 46-yard touchdown pass to WR Antonio Brown with six minutes left gave the Buccaneers their first and only lead of the game. "Everybody hung in there. We got off to a tough start but found a way to win. The defense came up huge, made some big stops. Offensively, everyone made a bunch of different plays and it was a great win for our team and we're going to have to keep building on it."
The Buccaneers started slowly yet again on, and this time it took an entire half to pick up any speed. But once the Buccaneers put it in gear they didn't slow down the rest of the way, scoring on five straight offensive possessions while the defense forced three three-and-outs and one four-and-out to make the comeback possible. Brady threw for 320 yards and had touchdown passes to Brown and Chris Godwin in the second half. That passing yardage total ranked as the third-most in any half in franchise annals and the most since Vinny Testaverde had 324 in the second half against Indianapolis in 1988.
The Buccaneers now have three wins this season in which they trailed heading into the fourth quarter, and Brady's presence gives his teammates confidence that the team can come back from any deficit. Sunday's game was reminiscent of Super Bowl LI, in which Brady led the New England Patriots on an historic comeback from a 28-3 deficit to a 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons.
"He's just a winner, he knows how to do it," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "He's always been a fourth-quarter player."
Added TE Cameron Brate, who had a season-high 54 yards on four catches: "I think a lot of it his track record, the belief that he kind of inspires in all of us. He's done on the biggest stage – the 28-3 game. All of us, we've seen him do it. We have just a ton of confidence in him and he puts that confidence in us as well. There was really no panic in the locker room."
The win improved Tampa Bay to 9-5 with two games remaining and it needs only one win in the next two weeks to clinch a playoff spot without any help from other results around the league. It was also the second time the Bucs have rallied from a 17-point deficit this season, beating the Los Angeles Chargers, 38-31, in Week Four after falling into a 24-7 second-quarter hole. The only larger comeback in Buccaneers history was a 30-27 overtime win at Kansas City in 2008 that necessitated a rally from 21 points down.
The Bucs' second-half explosion and eventual defensive dominance also made the team look like it could actually be a credible playoff threat if they make the postseason field, though they know they have to play that way for 60 minutes.
"That's the thing – we haven't really put it together all year," said Brate. "Maybe the Panthers game in Carolina; that was probably the most complete game we played all year. We know how talented we are as a team. Just for whatever reason we shoot ourselves in the foot and we can't string together 60 minutes. Yeah, you can win against teams that aren't going to make the playoffs right now but I don't think we'll win too many playoff games spotting teams 17 points. It's going to be something we're going to have to figure out but, yeah, with the guys in the locker room we never think we're out of it."
The Falcons dominated the game in the first half, gaining 261 yards and 16 touchdowns while converting six of 10 third-down tries. Tampa Bay hit halftime with 60 total yards and five first downs, plus just one third-down conversion in five tries. Brady had just 70 passing yards at that point and had been sacked twice and hit or hurried on the vast majority of his drop-backs. The Buccaneers' defense also started slowly, allowing a touchdown and 121 yards on Atlanta's first two drives. The issue was third-down defense, as each of those two possessions starting with the Bucs forcing a long third down only to see Matt Ryan convert them and begin an extended march downfield. Ryan had 235 of his eventual 356 passing yards before halftime.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 15 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
Still, the Bucs found a way to make the necessary adjustments at halftime and the offense was nearly unstoppable in the final two quarters. The defense also turned up the heat on Ryan in the second half with all three of their sacks, all by ILB Devin White, including two on third down. The only blemish on either side was a 75-yard touchdown drive by the Falcons on their first possession of the half that could have halted the Bucs' momentum after their own half-opening touchdown drive.
"That's the way we're capable [of playing]; that's the way we should be playing," said Arians of the Buccaneers' 31-point second half. "My comments to the team after the game was, 'If we can play 30 minutes like that, why the hell can't we play 60?' It's frustrating. … I couldn't be prouder of our guys. We talked about it halftime: 'We've got the ball, go make something happen.' I was not real happy that they scored, but then we were able to score [almost] every time we touched it in the second half until the end and finish strong. The defense came alive, we kind of figured it out, and the pass rush got home."
Slow starts on both sides of the ball have plagued the Bucs throughout the second half of the season, even during their victories. They overcame those sluggish openings to win at Carolina in Week 10 and against Minnesota in Week 14 and even made spirited comebacks in narrow losses to Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams in Weeks 12 and 11. On this afternoon, however, things looked bleak until the Buccaneers found a way to drastically turn up their energy level in the second half.
"The big difference is we came out with more energy and we did everything the coaches told us to do," said White, who finished the game with 12 tackles, four tackles for loss and two passes defensed to go with his three sacks. "You've just got to be in the right place at the right time and you've got to play within the scheme."
The Buccaneers likely could not have completed the drastic comeback if not for the fact that they played one of their "cleaner" games of the season. Neither team committed a turnover and the Buccaneers only had one accepted penalty against them, that one on special teams late in the game. That and a rising confidence level across the team kept the Bucs from letting the early troubles snowball into a lopsided loss.
"We're going to have to figure out how to play our best for 60 minutes as opposed to 30," said Brady. "It was a good win by us. Everyone loves winning but we also want to play better, we want to play our best."
The Buccaneers' comeback began with an 80-yard drive that ended in Leonard Fournette's one-yard touchdown run to open the second half. Fournette, starting in place of Ronald Jones, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, ran 14 times for 49 yards and two touchdowns and three catches for 16 yards. He also fought for just enough inches to get the final first down the Bucs needed on the last possession to run out the clock without giving Matt Ryan one more shot.
Brady then led 75 and 76-yard touchdown drives on the Bucs' next two possessions, the first ending in a four-yard scoring pass to Godwin and the second on Fournette's second one-yard TD run. Brady looked frequently to Mike Evans on all of those drives, and the Bucs' star receiver finished with a team-leading six catches for 110 yards. A 27-yard Ryan Succop field goal tied the game at 24-24 with 11 minutes left in regulation but the Falcons took the lead back on the next drive on Younghoe Koo's 52-yard field goal. Atlanta nearly got seven points out of the drive but rookie S Antoine Winfield made an incredible diving pass break-up in the end zone and White had the first of his three sacks on the ensuing third down.
The Bucs answered with their fifth straight scoring drive, this one set up by a 22-yard punt return to midfield by Kenjon Barner and ending in a 46-yard touchdown pass to Brown on a straight go route. It was Brown's first touchdown since joining the Buccaneers and it came at a perfect moment.
"He has seen it all, done it all, been in so many games, so many situations," said Brown of his quarterback. "To be in combat with him, it's just unbelievable. I'm just grateful to be on the receiving side of it. Late in the game he made a great throw, hit me right in the numbers. I had an opportunity to put the team ahead and it was a great play."
It wasn't over until that first-down call on Fournette's run was upheld. And the Falcons' comeback threat in the waning minutes wasn't quashed until Ross Cockrell, playing because Carlton Davis left the game after halftime with a groin injury, tackled WR Calvin Ridley three yards short of a first down on a desperation fourth-and-18 pass. Those two plays, one on each side of the ball, were indicative of the complementary football the Buccaneers played – and had to play – throughout an incredible first half in order to overcome a miserable first two quarters
"We do dig holes," said Arians. "But we stay disciplined and find a way to win."
Additional game details (scoring plays in bold):
The Falcons won the toss and chose to receive to start the game. A tackle-for-loss by Lavonte David helped put Atlanta into an early third-and-nine hole but Todd Gurley broke a tackle on a third-down pass over the middle and got pat the sticks to keep the drive moving. On the next third down, needing just one yard, Ryan dropped back and had tons of time to get through his reads, eventually finding Ridley downfield for a gain of 23 to the Bucs' 32. On the next play, Ryan went downfield again, this time hitting Russell Gage over the middle for a gain of 27. That set up a five-yard Ryan-to-Gage touchdown connection on an out to the left side.
The Bucs started out with a quick pass down the line to Brown for a gain of six and moved the chains on second down with a 14-yard out Brate. However, a throw-away and a screen to Fournette that didn't work at all put the Bucs into a third-and-18 and a screen to LeSean McCoy came up four yards short, leading to a punt.
The Falcons' second drive started at their own 10. Once again the defense forced an immediate long third down, but this time Ryan escaped the pocket and ran for 16 yards. On the next play, misdirection got TE Luke Stocker wide open on the right sideline for a gain of 25 across midfield. However, White shut it down from there, with a pass defensed on first down, a tackle for a loss of Brian Hill on second down and a stop of Gurley well short of the sticks on a third-down pass. The Falcons had to punt and the Bucs got the ball back at their own 12.
The Bucs faced a third-one after an eight-yard catch over the middle by Brate, and Fournette just got past the sticks on a toss-sweep to the right. However, they quickly faced another third down, needing seven this time and a pass to Brown on a crossing route fell incomplete, resulting in another punt down to the Atlanta 26.
A quick reaction by S Jordan Whitehead on a first-down play-action pass allowed him to break it up as the first quarter came to an end. White tipped away Ryan's next pass and the deflection almost went right to Whitehead. Ryan got off a deep corner route to Ridley on third-and-10 but the star Falcon receiver couldn't quite pull in a one-handed pass at the sideline.
The Bucs' third possession started at their own 26. Brady got moved off his spot immediately by a first-down blitz and had to throw it away. After a quick slant to Evans got seven, the Falcons blitzed again and LB Deion Jones got Brady down for an eight-yard sack. The ensuing punt rolled to a stop at the Atlanta 35 with 13 minutes left in the half. Ito Smith converted a third-and-two with a tough three-yard run to the Atlanta 46, but a strong tackle by CB Jamel Dean stopped FB Keith Smith short on a third-and-10 moments later. The Falcons chose to go for it on fourth down from the Bucs' 46 and Ryan scrambled to buy time for a seven-yard pass over the middle to Gage. Two plays later, WR Laquon Treadwell got wide open over the middle for 14 yards, setting up Ryan's 12-yard touchdown pass to Ridley on the next play.
The Bucs got a first down on the next drive on a quick slant to Godwin out of the slot, though RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn had to react quickly to fall on a loose ball after CB Isaiah Oliver stripped it out. An out to Gronkowski got seven yards and two plays later a deep out to Evans moved the sticks again across midfield to the Atlanta 44. However, the end result was another punt after blitzing S Sharrod Neasmen came through untouched and sacked Brady for a loss of nine on the next third down.
The Falcons started again at their own 11 and got a first down as the two-minute warning arrived on a third-down catch by Ridley. After the break, Ryan looked to Ridley two more times for 14 and 18 yards to the Bucs' 45. The Bucs managed to get a third down but Ryan found Gage for 15 to keep the sticks and then connected with TE Hayden Hurst down to the Bucs' 13. Tampa Bay did manage to limit the damage to three points when CB Carlton Davis nearly intercepted a third-down pass in the end zone, with Younghoe Koo coming on to kick a 32-yard field goal.
The Buccaneers got the ball to start the second half and immediately got their longest play of the game to that point on a 20-yard crossing route by Brown. Two plays later, Brady hit Brate over the middle for another 14 yards into Atlanta territory. A power run up the middle by Fournette got nine more and he tacked on four more for a first down at the 33. Brady then threw a perfect dart down the middle of the field to Evans, who absorbed a jolting hit as he came down at the one-yard line. Fournette bulled his way into the end zone on the next play for a one-yard score to cut the lead to 17-7.
The Falcons answered right back with a quick drive into Bucs territory, with 28-yards coming on a toe-dragging sideline catch by Ridley. A 14-yard catch down the right seam by Gage made it first-and-goal and the next play was a seven-yard touchdown strike to Hurst, restoring Atlanta's 17-point lead.
The Bucs faced a third-and-five early on the next drive but Brady had time in the pocket to find a wide-open Evans out to the left, leading to a 26-yard catch-and-run. Fournette then juked his way to a 16-yards gain on a first-down pass. Two plays later, Brady avoided a sack and ranged right before throwing a 24-yard pass to Evans down to the four. Two plays later, Brady threw a four-yard strike to Godwin on a quick slant to make it a 10-point game once again.
Tampa Bay's got a much needed three-and-out after that score and got the ball back at their own 24 with three minutes left in the third quarter. Gronkowski made a remarkable 17-yard catch over LB Foyesade Oluokon on the left sideline and two plays later WR Scotty Miller slid for a catch and then got up for a gain of 14. The ball ended up on the turf and was recovered by Atlanta but the play was ruled down by contact. The Falcons challenged the play but it was upheld because Miller's knee was down before the ball came loose. On the next play, Evans drew pass interference and facemask penalties, taking it down to the 17. Eight yard passes to Fournette and Brown made it first-and-goal at the one, and a play-action pass to TE Rob Gronkowski drew a pass interference flag for another half-yard. That was close enough for Fournette, who was just able to power it over the line to make it a three-point game with seconds left in the third period.
The Buccaneers' defense responded with a second-straight three-and-out, keyed by tackles for loss by David and Shaq Barrett. Kenjon Barner got 22 yards after fielding the ensuing punt to let the Bucs start a yard shy of midfield. Brady converted an early third-and-five with an out to Evans that the receiver turned up for a gain of 11. Brady followed with strikes of nine yards to Godwin and 13 to Brown to create a first down at the 13. The drive stalled at the nine, however, so the Buccaneers brought in Ryan Succop for a game-tying 27-yard field goal with 11 minutes left in regulation.
The Falcons found their groove again on offense, with Ryan starting the next drive with completions of 11 yards to Smith and 33 to Ridley. Winfield made an incredible diving break-up in the end zone to deny a touchdown on second down and White came in untouched for an eight-yard sack. The Falcons took the lead back on a 52-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo.
Brady got the next drive started with an 18-yard pass right down the middle to Brate and two plays later Godwin turned a bubble screen into 13 yards and a first down on the other side of midfield. Brady then looked up top to Brown, who had gotten several steps on CB Tyler Hall and hit him in stride for the 46-yard go-ahead touchdown.
The Buccaneers got another three-and-out to follow, with White once again ending it with a third-down sack, this one costing Atlanta 11 yards back to their 12. The Falcons were at least able to flip field position with a 57-yard punt that had a holding penalty tacked on the end.
Back at their 27, the Bucs got an immediate first down on Fournette's 17-yard run. After another two-yard run, the Falcons called a timeout with 3:48 left in regulation. Brady ran a play-action fake on second down but Atlanta wasn't fooled and he was dropped for a sack of eight yards. A dump-off to Fournette got 13 yards but that was three to few and the Bucs had to punt from just across midfield. Bradley Pinion it down to the 13 with 2:45 left.
Will Gholston pushed center Alex Mack into Ryan on second down of the ensuing drive, resulting in another sack for White that made it third-and-16 at the six. Ryan was then pressured into a desperation throw-away on third down. The Falcons had to for it on fourth down and Ryan did manage to get the ball into Ridley's hands but Cockrell was able to drag him down three yards short, turning it over on downs.
The Buccaneers were able to run the final 2:02 off the clock without giving the ball back, but it wasn't without some drama. Fournette ran the ball three times and on the third carry, needing two yards, he dragged tacklers down to the nine, extending the ball over the line to gain at the last moment. The measurement from the chains was within a link and awarded a first down, and the play was reviewed and upheld. One more kneel-down ended it.