Two weeks after needing a wild second-half comeback to beat the Atlanta Falcons the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to hold off relentless Atlanta rally to get the 44-27 victory at Raymond James Stadium and ride into the playoffs on a four-game winning streak. It's the longest winning streak that the Buccaneers have ever had to finish a season and it gave them 11 wins for just the fourth time in team annals.
"We're way, way more confident, especially offensively," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of the team's late-season run. "We've got a grasp of what we're doing offensively. I'm not sure how many times we've punted since the second half of the first Atlanta game. But I'm going to say Atlanta is a quality football team and without those turnovers it would have probably been a six-point game. That's a talented football team. Minnesota's a talented football team. We can't worry about who we played. All football teams can beat your ass on Sunday, so you'd better be ready."
The Bucs were ready, taking the ball to start the game and marching right down the field for a touchdown, which gave them a lead they would never relinquish despite the Falcons' impressive fight. The win improved Tampa Bay to 11-5 and clinched the fifth spot in the NFC playoff field. They will begin the postseason at the home of the NFC East winner, which won't be determined until the end of the Sunday evening Washington-Philadelphia tilt.
Arians insisted the Buccaneers would "play to win," and sure enough the starters remained on the field to the very end. That included Tom Brady, who continued his incredible hot streak with 399 yards and four touchdowns, pushing his final season total to 40 scoring passes. The previous record, by Jameis Winston last year, was 33. Brady and the Buccaneers' offense scored on eight of their 10 possessions, the only exceptions being a fluky interception in the third quarter and the final kneel-down at the end of the game. For the second time this year (also at Carolina, Week 10), the Buccaneers did not punt a single time.
"It was going to be one of those games," said Arians. "[Brady] played fantastic. He's been on fire since the open date. We scored on every possession except that one and the kneel-down. We kicked too many field goals but that wasn't him. He's been fantastic. When we first met, that's really what we talked about, the guys that we have and what he could do with the players that we have. Adding Robby Gronkowski to the mix just helped. I envisioned 40, I really did. When he first signed, I said, 'Okay we'll be a 40 [touchdown] and 10 [interception] team.'"
The potential danger of playing starters, of course, is the loss of a key player or two to injuries. And indeed, that fear was realized during an emotional sequence late in the first quarter. One play after Mike Evans caught a 20-yard pass to surpass 1,000 yards for the seventh straight time, he was targeted on a potential touchdown pass but slipped as he ran onto the end zone turf and sustained an apparent knee injury. Mere minutes after the stadium PA announced that Evans was the first player in NFL history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons he was being helped into the locker room. He did not return to the game but the Buccaneers are hoping his season isn't over.
"It meant the world for him to get that record," said Arians. "And then to have an easy touchdown…the turf was really slick in the end zone and it was just a freaky thing. Knock on wood, we don't think there's any serious damage. We'll know more in the next 245 hours."
The Bucs still took a 10-3 lead one on of Ryan Succop's three fields in three times after Evans' injury but there was a noticeable drop of energy in the stadium after Evans left the field. Eventually, the offense got back into rhythm with Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown making a series of big plays.
"The life in the stadium really just got sucked out of it," said Godwin. "And I think that's when you really see just how important Mike really is to this team, to the organization, to the city. He does so much for everyone around here and seeing him get hurt everyone just kind of felt for that. But as a group I think we did a pretty good job of bouncing back. It took a couple plays there but we realized there was a task at hand and we got back to work. Thankfully, we have a ton of guys that are really talented. We've got a great quarterback, good offensive line. We just went out there and decided to make plays and try to propel us towards the playoffs."
Despite being without their leading receiver for the final three quarters, the Bucs' passing attack kept moving the ball with little resistance, both with downfield throws and underneath routes that turned into big plays. Brown led the team with 11 catches for 138 yard but Godwin was right behind with 133 yards on five catches. They both hauled in a pair of scoring passes.
"When he went out, other guys really stepped up and made a bunch of plays," said Brady. "Chris keeps making plays, Scotty [Miler] did a good job, Tyler [Johnson] made some plays, Gronk (Rob Gronkowski), Cam – everyone. AB, obviously. We've just got to keep it going. We've got a big one next week. It all comes down to one game."
The Buccaneers finished the game with 485 yards just one week after setting a new franchise single-game record with 588 yards in a 47-7 win at Detroit. This marks the first time that Tampa Bay has ever scored 40-plus points in consecutive games. In the 10 quarters since heading into halftime down 17-0 at Atlanta in Week 15, the Buccaneers have racked up 1,429 yards with 16 touchdowns and only one giveaway. Brady has led 23 drives in that span, with 14 ending in touchdowns, four in field goals, two in punts and two in kneel-downs. The one turnover came in the third quarter of Sunday's win when Scotty Miller tried to make a diving catch and the ball popped up out of his hands when he hit the ground, going straight to Falcons S Ricardo Allen.
"I don't think it's one thing," said Godwin of the offensive explosion. "We're starting to just see the fruits of our labor. I think we're getting the right play calls at the right time, I think we're executing so much better and I think at the end of the day, when the ball's in the air guys are just making plays."
The Falcons kept the game close with 385 yards of their own and scores on four straight drives from the end of the first half through beginning of the fourth quarter. Atlanta closed the gap to three points twice, including a 30-27 score when Matt Ryan hit Hayden Hurst on one-yard touchdown pass with eight minutes to play. But Brady responded with his second touchdown pass to Godwin to finish a 75-yard drive and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting ended the Falcons' last hopes by stripping the ball from WR Calvin Ridley and recovering the fumble with three minutes to play. Murphy-Bunting also had six tackles and a pass defensed as the Bucs played without top corner Carlton Davis, and the Bucs held Ridley to just 52 yards two weeks after he caught 10 passes for 163 yards in Atlanta.
"It's been a while for me since I've had a big impact play, I would say, but honestly I'm just blessed for the coaches still believing in me and trusting me throughout the year," said Murphy-Bunting. "Because this year I've obviously had my ups and my lows. It just means a lot to me. Each and every game, each and every day, coaches are telling me, 'Let's be that player you are. There's no reason you shouldn't be.'"
Davis wasn't the only key defender missing. The Buccaneers were also without leading tackler Devin White and standout edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, both of whom were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday. Backup nose tackle Steve McLendon was also placed on the COVID list and defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter was out due to a calf injury. That led to Kevin Minter starting at inside linebacker and Anthony Nelson starting at outside linebacker, with CB Ross Cockrell, OLB Cam Gill, ILB Chapelle Russell, DL Khalil Davis, DL Patrick O'Connor, DL Benning Potoa'e and CB Herb Miller all seeing more action than usual.
"Everybody rose to the occasion," said Murphy-Bunting. "Everyone came here, stepped up and did what they had to do. Kevin Minter came in and played a significantly higher role than he's played throughout the year and it was like the beat didn't stop. And you had younger guys – Cam Gill getting in there, 'Deuce' Chapelle getting in there and guys like that. That's all you can really ask for as a coach and as a player, for guys to go in there and battle for each other.
The Buccaneers completed their first season sweep of Atlanta since 2015 and finished 4-2 in division play and 5-3 at home. Most importantly, they head into the playoffs with a full head of steam and a swiftly rising confidence level.
"It's very important," said Murphy-Bunting. "You don't really want to go into the playoffs losing. You want to know what it feels like to win. You want to have that hot hand, you want to just keep it rolling, firing on all cylinders – offense, defense, special teams – and contribute every way you can. Definitely with these last four wins it's a big up for us. We're riding the high horse right now and we just need to continue riding that and keep playing hard and keep playing for each other."
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 17 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
Additional game details (scoring plays in bold):
The Bucs went right to Evans on the game's first play, as he faked a go route and came back to snare a 12-yard sideline pass. Two Fournette runs made it third and inches at the Atlanta 47 and Brady moved the chains with a quick sneak up the middle for two more. Brady then threw a tight end screen to Gronkowski for another first down at the Atlanta 34. Fournette got five more on first down and then Brady went for the jugular, lofting a perfectly-placed lob over LB Foyesade Oluokun into Godwin's hands in the end zone. Godwin caught the ball around Oluokun as he backed into the end zone and stayed just inbounds.
The Falcons moved the ball relatively easily on their first drive, too. Ryan found Russell Gage over the middle to convert an early third down and a 12-yard catch-and-run by Ridley got the ball across midfield and to the Bucs' 42. An underneath handoff to Todd Gurley on third-and-three caught the Bucs off guard and gained five yards for a first down at the 30 and then Brian Hill was wide open in the left flat for a short pass he turned into 26 yards down to the four. Minter stopped Gurley for no gain on first down and then Gurley fumbled the handoff on second down but was able to recover. Ryan tried to hit RB Ito Smith on third-and-goal but missed and the Falcons sent out Pro Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo to hit a 22-yard field goal.
Brady went to Evans on the second play of the next drive, hitting him on the left sideline for 14 yards. The Bucs brought out a jumbo unit on the next play but Brady faked the handoff and got off a 23-yard completion to Antonio Brown on the opposite side. Brady then found Evans over the middle for the record-setting catch of 20 yards, down to the 11. Unfortunately, Evans couldn't hang on as he injured his knee trying to catch a pass as he crossed the goal line and had to go into the locker room. After two more incompletions, the Bucs settled for Succop's 28-yard field goal and a 10-3 lead with seven seconds left in the first quarter.
The Bucs' defense got a quick stop on the next Falcons drive. DL Will Gholston hurried Ryan into an incompletion on second-and-six and Minter's well-timed blitz forced Ryan to quickly throw it away on third down. Hill drew a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing punt when he slung Jaydon Mickens down by his facemask, giving the Bucs a fine drive start of their own 43.
Jones got his first carry of the game to start that drive and shot up the middle for a gain of 16. He got seven and nine more on the next two snaps, making it first down at the Falcons' 25. Godwin nearly made another fantastic touchdown grab two plays later but couldn't quite keep his second foot from catching some sideline paint. Brady had to scramble right to extend the play on third down but then found Brown in the end zone for the 25-yard score. Brown made a nice leaping catch on the run to pull it in.
The Falcons turned the ball over on their next drive. Ryan hit Gage on a deep out to convert the first third down but on the next play Hill dropped the ball and Winfield, who had been run-blitzing from the back side of the play was there to catch it in the air. It initially appeared that the rookie also had a 39-yard fumble return for a touchdown but the review showed that he was touched while his knee was briefly down.
Thus, the Bucs started their fourth drive in Atlanta territory, at the 39. A crossing route to WR Scotty Miller was good for 12 yards to the 25 two plays later but the drive stalled after that and Succop came on to drill a 38-yarder for a 20-3 Bucs lead.
The Falcons got the ball moving on the ensuing possession with an 11-yard pass to former Buccaneer TE Luke Stocker and an encroachment penalty on Ndamukong Suh. Gurley got just enough on a third-and-one plunge to make it first down just short of midfield, and a roughing-the-passer flag on a blitzing Ross Cockrell took the ball all the way down to Tampa Bay's 28. A quick pass out to Ridley on the right side created another first down at the 16. The Bucs forced Atlanta into a fourth-and-four from the 10 but the Falcons went for it and converted on a crossing route to TE Hayden Hurst that got the ball to within inches of the goal line. Two plays later, Ryan snuck it over the line for the touchdown to make it 20-10 with a little less than two minutes remaining in the half.
The Bucs managed to use those last two minutes to tack on three points. Consecutive pass-interference calls quickly got the ball to midfield and quick-hitters to Cam Brate and Brown took it down to the 29. The Bucs got a first down at the 13 on a 16-yard catch by rookie WR Tyler Johnson then rushed up to spike the clock dead with 29 seconds left. The Bucs couldn't quite punch it in, though, and settled for a third Succop field goal as time expired, this one a 25-yarder.
The Falcons got the ball first to start the half and marched into Buccaneers territory on a succession of underneath throws. Gurley's 17-yard catch-and-run took it down to the Bucs' 23 and a Laquon Treadwell catch on the left sideline made it first down at the 12. Consecutive tackles for loss by Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul forced the Falcons into a long third down but Ryan got it back and more with a 19-yard touchdown strike to Gage.
The second half started out well for the Bucs' offense, for at least one play, as Brady faked a handoff on the first play and threw a deep post to Godwin. Godwin caught the ball over the middle, stepped out of a tackle and added a long run down to the Atlanta 29 for 46 total yards. The Bucs quickly faced a third-and-10 from that spot, however, and then disaster struck. Brady found Miller over the middle but as the receiver tried to make a diving catch he hit the ground and the ball popped up and straight into the arms of Falcons S Ricardo Allen. The Falcons got possession of the ball at their own 18.
The Falcons quickly got out to their own 45 on short passes against aggressive Buccaneer blitzing. Hill then bounced a carry outside and got up the sideline for nine yards into Tampa Bay territory. After an eight-yard catch by Gage on third-and-10, the Falcons went for it on fourth-and-two from the 35, though they first tried to draw an offside flag and then used a timeout. Jamel Dean broke up the pass to Ridley over the middle but was flagged for pass interference, keeping the drive alive. David forced a fumble by Hill on the next play but the Falcon back was fortunate enough to have the ball bounce back to him. On third-and-10, the Bucs brought a big blitz but Ryan had no trouble getting off an 11-yard out to Gage. An end-around to Gage took it down to the seven, but the Bucs managed to hold Atlanta to three points. Rookie OLB Cam Gill got a pressure and a tackle on first and second down, and on third-and-goal Murphy-Bunting broke up a goal-line pass intended for Treadwell. Koo came on to hit a 21-yard field goal to close the Bucs lead to three points with 30 seconds left in the quarter.
The Bucs got a quick first down then moved across the midfield stripe with consecutive runs of nine and eight yards by Jones. Consecutive completions to Brown picked up 20 more down to the Falcons' 27. Gronkowski drew a pass-interference call two snaps later to make it first down at the 17. Another quick tunnel screen to Brown got the ball down to the three as Brown eluded several tacklers to get a big gain. Jones got the call on first-and-goal and darted quickly behind a block by Alex Cappa to get in for the score. The Bucs improved their lead to 30-20 with 11 minutes left in regulation.
The good feelings didn't last long for the Bucs as Hill got around the corner on the second play of the next drive and sprinted all the way down to the Tampa Bay four-yard line for a gain of 62. The Bucs got three stops to make it fourth-and-goal but the Falcons went for it and scored easily when Hurst snuck off the line and into the back of the end zone for a one-yard touchdown.
Brady got the Bucs to midfield with an 18-yard laser to Gronkowski but took a sack two plays later to make it third-and-12 from the Bucs' 46. With plenty of time to throw, Brady eventually launched a rainbow down the right sideline and Godwin leapt over Allen to haul it in for a gain of 47. One Jones run and a throwaway led to third-and-goal from the four and Brady eventually found Godwin running right to left for a touchdown that restored the Bucs' 10-point lead with four minutes left.
Cam Gill and Ndamukong Suh greeted Ryan with a sack to start the next drive but the Falcons quarterback got off a deep out to Ridley for 18 yards and a first down. On the next play, Ryan dumped it off over the middle to Ridley but Murphy-Bunting was able to strip the ball and recover it, returning it two yards to the Falcons' 28. After an eight-yard Jones run made it third-and-two, Brady found Brown open in the right flat and the speedy receiver took it to the sideline and up for a 30-yard score that essentially put the game away.
The Falcons got the ball back with three minutes to play and had to try to make something happen but were forced into a fourth-and-sixth from the 29. Ryan tried to hit Gage down the middle of the field but Minter had good coverage and the ball hit him in the back to end the drive. The Bucs took over on downs and ran three straight Brown end-arounds to get it to the two-minute warning. After the break, Brady was able to kneel it out for the win.