Jameis Winston's last pass of 2019 went in the wrong direction and as such the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended up on the wrong side of .500 in Bruce Arians' first season as head coach.
On a record-setting Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons, 28-22, thus finishing their 2019 campaign at 7-9. LB Deion Jones returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the extra period after the Falcons had rallied to tie the game with a pair of late field goals.
The Bucs had won five of seven since the season's midway point and had hoped to finish the year at 8-8 but instead will go into the offseason with consecutive losses, both at home. Tampa Bay was 2-6 in home games in 2019 (including one game played in London) to negate an impressive 5-3 record on the road. And while Winston's 30th interception of the season was the final blow, the Buccaneers also suffered from three missed field goals by rookie K Matt Gay and an inability to get off the field on third down on defense.
"It smells as bad as it can possibly smell, and it will smell that way for a long time," said Arians. "It's a shame. This is a game we talked about all year, of us beating us in all three phases, and we did. It wasn't, 'Hey, he lost the game, fire him.' No, it was offense, defense, special teams. We will not beat ourselves next year."
Winston threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the win, in the process becoming just the eighth quarterback in NFL history to surpass 5,000 passing yards in a season. His final totals of 5,109 yards and 33 touchdowns are both comfortably Buccaneer single-season records and his 19,767 since becoming the first-overall draft pick in 2015 are the second-most for any player in league history in his first five years. But Winston also led the NFL in interceptions in 2019 and knows it's the one thing holding him back from going to the next level.
"If you look at the numbers, I'm balling," he said. "I've got to stop giving the ball to the other team. It's not a trick question. I know if I eliminate those [interceptions], I'm going to be the best, bar none."
Jones's game-winning play was the seventh return touchdown allowed in 2019 by the Buccaneers, who finished -13 in turnover margin. That was the difference for a team that set a team record for points scored and showed marked improvement on defense in the second half.
"You're not going anywhere," said Arians of a team that turns the ball over too often. "You're going home. You're going home if you lead the league in giveaways. You're never going to play in the playoffs, unless you're playing for the Steelers in the '70s."
Winston's 5,000-yard season was one of many notable milestones reached by the team and individual players in the season finale. One of them was much anticipated, as OLB Shaq Barrett recorded three sacks to give him 19.5 on the season, breaking Warren Sapp's 2000 single-season record of 16.5. Barrett got two of his three sacks on Atlanta's game-tying drive at the end of regulation, and his final total is tied for the 13th-most in the NFL in a season since the sack became an official statistic in 1982.
"It's crazy," said Barrett of outdoing one of the Bucs' three Hall of Famers. "But he's got the gold jacket so he did it already. That record was a nice record; he had it for a while, and to be able to take it down means a lot."
In addition, ILB Devin White returned a fumble 91 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to become the first rookie in the NFL with two fumble-return touchdowns in the same season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. That was Tampa Bay's sixth defensive touchdown of 2019, a new single-season record for the franchise. White's return was the longest of a fumble in team history and the seventh-longest score of any kind in Buccaneer annals.
Breshad Perriman was Winston's favorite target and he responded with 134 yards on five catches, including a stunning 24-yard touchdown grab at the back of the end zone just before halftime. Perriman recorded his third consecutive 100-yard receiving game, the first three of his career, as he continued to pick up the slack after the team lost Pro Bowlers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to hamstring injuries in Weeks 14 and 15.
"It shows that he's a [number-]one [receiver]," said Arians. "He came in the last three weeks as a one and played like it. That touchdown in the end zone at the end of the half was huge."
Meanwhile, RB Ronald Jones rushed 11 times for 106 yards, marking the first 100-yard game of his two-year career and the only one by a Buccaneers back this season. Jones actually fumbled on his first carry of the game, which led to an Atlanta field goal and an early 10-0 lead for the visitors, which has become commonplace for the Buccaneers.
"After the fumble, I thought he bounced back and had a hell of a ballgame," said Arians. "Should have won the game for us, the way he was running the ball.
"We found a new way to spot somebody 10 points."
Thanks to the missed field goals by Gay, the Bucs had to protect a six-point lead for most of the second half. Tampa Bay's defense continued its own second-half surge by repelling one Atlanta incursion into scoring range after another. The Falcons only touchdown came on their opening drive and was a gimmick play to tackle-eligible Ty Sambrailo. Matt Ryan completed 30 of 51 yards for 313 yards but was sacked six times and only had three completions over 20 yards.
Atlanta ended up with five drives into the Bucs' red zone and another four that got to the Tampa Bay 32 or closer, but those nine drives only produced four field goals. Of course, that proved to be the difference, with Atlanta kicker Younghoe Koo going five-for-five on field goal tries while Tampa Bay's offense was producing 129 yards in the second half and failing to add to its 22-16 lead. The Bucs went one-for-eight on third down tries in the game while Atlanta was seven-for-18.
"I thought they ran the ball in the middle of our defense a little too well today but, again, we came up with some big stops," said Arians. "The defensive line has played well all year, our front seven has played well all year."
The Falcons won the toss to start the game and elected to receive, and they made the most of it with a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game. It was mostly a methodical march into Buccaneers territory – no gains more than 10 yards and two neutral-zone infractions against the Bucs – but Atlanta reached into its bag of tricks for the final 35 yards. Sambrailo checked into the game as an eligible receiver and lined up outside right tackle Kaleb McGary, and when Sambrailo sprinted off the line and down the field he was left uncovered. Ryan hit him over the middle and he rumbled the last 20 yards untouched.
It went from bad to worse very quickly as the Buccaneers' first play from scrimmage was a turnover. Jones took a handoff over left guard but fumbled it forward and it was recovered by Jones at the Tampa Bay 29. The Bucs' defense limited the damage to a field goal but Atlanta still had a 10-point lead nine minutes into the contest.
The Bucs' next drive started with a nice 37-yard gain by Perriman, who adjusted to beat the defender to the ball down the left sideline and into Atlanta territory. However, the drive stalled at the 31 and Gay pushed his 49-yard field goal try wide to the right.
An exchange of punts swung the field position in Atlanta's favor but the Buccaneers' defense got another stop when Ndamukong Suh stood up FB Keith Smith for a loss of one on a fourth-and-one run at the Tampa Bay 32. That set the Buccaneers up for a nine-play, 67-yard touchdown drive that included two more big catches for Perriman, the second one picking up 24 yards to the Tampa Bay seven. Peyton Barber ran it down to the one on first-and-goal but the next two plays failed and the Bucs went for it on fourth down. Winston found Cam Brate right on the goal line out to the left to make it a three-point game five minutes into the second quarter.
Barrett got his record-breaking sack on the ensuing drive and the Bucs appeared to get a quick stop in Atlanta territory but a third-down pass breakup by Carlton Davis was erased by a roughing-the-passer call on Vita Vea. That pushed the ball across midfield, and a lowering-the-helmet call on Andrew Adams later added another 12 yards down to the Bucs' 11. The Bucs held there, however, with Ryan forced into three straight scrambling incompletions, and the Falcons settled for Koo's second field goal, a 33-yarder to make it 13-7 with five minutes left in the half.
The Falcons got another prime scoring opportunity just moments later when Winston's pass intended for Justin Watson down the left seam was intercepted by S Ricardo Allen, who returned it to the Bucs' 19. However, it was the Bucs who scored next, as three plays into the next drive, Pierre-Paul hit Ryan's arm as he was starting to throw, causing a fumble that White scooped up on one hop and streaked 91 yards untouched for the go-ahead touchdown.
Ryan got the ball back with three minutes left in the half and used two of them to get the Falcons back on top. A scrambling 29-yard strike to Jones was the big play but the defense held again in the red zone when Jason Pierre-Paul's second sack prevented Ryan from getting off a third-down throw. Koo came on to drill a 45-yarder to make it 16-14 in the visitors' favor.
That lead didn't even last to halftime as Winston directed a 76-yard touchdown drive in just five plays and 47 seconds. A 31-yard dart to Perriman somehow split three defenders and got the ball down to the Atlanta 24, but that wasn't even the most remarkable hookup between Winston and Perriman on the drive. That came two plays later when Winston scrambled right and, with defenders in his face, lofted a deep ball to the back right corner of the end zone. Perriman was there and he out-leapt LB De'Vondre Campbell for the ball, coming down with both feet inbounds. The Bucs went for two and Winston ran it in for a 22-16 halftime lead.
The Bucs also got the ball to start the second half and Jones got that drive started off right with a tackle-breaking 33-yard run to the Atlanta 43. This scoring opportunity came up empty, though, when Gay hit his 44-yard field goal try wide to the left. Midway through the third quarter, the Bucs got into scoring range again when Winston went deep to Perriman another time and the play drew a 33-yard pass-interference flag on Isaiah Oliver. Actually, it didn't immediately draw a flag, but Arians challenged the ball and won, making it first down at the 22. However, this one ended the same way as Gay missed a 34-yard field goal just out to the left.
Atlanta took the ensuing drive into Tampa Bay territory as the fourth quarter arrived but the Bucs thwarted that scoring opportunity, too, with a trio of stops on the edge of the red zone. DL Will Gholston stopped RB Qadree Ollison for no gain on third-and-one and, went the Falcons left their offense on the field for fourth down, Gholston deflected a pass at the line intended for Freeman.
The Bucs committed two penalties after taking possession and thus ended up punting it back from their own 17. Atlanta's next drive reached the Bucs' 25 but once again was shut down shy of the end zone. Koo's fourth field goal, a 43-yarder, trimmed Tampa Bay's lead to three points with 6:27 remaining.
Atlanta got the ball back one more time with three minutes to play and despite two more sacks by Barrett were able to tie the score as the fourth quarter expired. Barrett's second sack put the Falcons into a third-and-12 at their own 41 but Ryan scrambled out of pressure and bought time for Justin Hardy to get wide open in the middle of the field for a 21-yard gain. The Falcons got down to the Bucs' 15 but Ryan was forced into three incompletions and Koo came on for a 33-yard game-tying field goal as the clock ran out.
The Bucs won the toss in overtime but only got to run one play before Jones jumped a pass intended for Brate.