In a season full of long trips, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers only had to make a short hop to Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 12. It was inside that stadium that the Buccaneers really went on some lengthy journeys.
Touchdown drives of 97 and 95 drives helped the Buccaneers build on early lead on the Falcons and a playmaking defense that also went the distance to the game's final minutes allowed the visitors to roll to a convincing 35-22 victory over their division rivals.
"Just great complementary football – hats off to our defense," said QB Jameis Winston. "Our offensive line did an amazing job. I wasn't touched. Our running backs ran the football really, really well. That's a recipe of winning football: great defense, great running game."
Sunday's game marked the first time since at least 1999 that a Tampa Bay offense has put together two 95+-yard drives in the same game, and the Bucs also had scoring marches of 75, 61 and 51 yards. Winston overcame two early interceptions to throw for 313 yards and three touchdowns, and led those lengthy drives with a series of precise downfield strikes to Chris Godwin. Winston also made several key plays with his feet, rushing for 38 yards.
"Really, it speaks to our resiliency," said Godwin of the Bucs twice coming back after falling behind. "We had a really good week of practice and we were able to come in and translate it to the field."
Tampa Bay snapped a two-game Atlanta winning streak and improved to 4-7 on the season, including 3-3 on the road. (A Week Five loss to Carolina in London was technically a home game.) The Falcons dropped to 3-8.
Tampa Bay's defense was equally active, recording six sacks, 13 quarterback hits and an incredible 16 passes defensed. Shaquil Barrett harassed QB Matt Ryan throughout the afternoon and finished with a sack, five QB hits and a forced fumble. Cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean combined for 10 of those 16 passes defensed, one of which was Davis's first career interception. Rookie LB Devin White recorded the first two-sack game of his career.
Ndamukong Suh clinched the win with a six-yard return of a Ryan fumble caused by a Jason Pierre-Paul sack. It was the second time this season that Suh has scored on a fumble return in the fourth quarter to put a road victory out of reach, as he did the same against the Los Angeles Rams in Week Four.
"It's always good when you win," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. "The guys had a good week of practice and paid attention to detail. We know they've got some great receivers and a great quarterback. We gave up some plays but they fought and they played to the end and I thought they made a bunch of plays today."
That helped Tampa Bay limit Ryan and the Falcons' offense, which had scored 55 points over its two-game winning streak, to 337 yards of offense, four of 16 third-down conversions and 4.2 yards per play. Most notably WR Julio Jones, who had been averaging more than 120 receiving yards per game in his career against Tampa Bay, was limited to five catches for 68 yards and no touchdowns.
"We just tried to slow him down, definitely not try to get beat over the top," said Bowles. "We tried to do several things just to make sure the quarterback was uncomfortable and still try to take care of Julio a little bit. Carlton, Bunting, Dean, Edwards – those guys did a great job of preparation. You can't stop Julio. You can try to slow him down as much as possible and that's what we did today."
Atlanta's defense had made a remarkable turnaround after its Week Nine bye, going from giving up the most points per game in the league to allowing a total of four field goals and 12 points in road wins at New Orleans and Carolina. However, the Bucs' offense had little trouble scoring or moving the ball, finishing the game with 446 yards. Atlanta also had 11 sacks in its past two outings but Winston was given outstanding protection; Winston was not sacked and he absorbed only one quarterback hit. He used that primarily to find Godwin, who set a new career single-game high with 184 yards including a career-long 71-yard touchdown catch to complete the aforementioned 97-yard drive. Godwin later added a second touchdown on an acrobatic one-handed catch.
Both Godwin and Mike Evans surpassed 1,000 yards on the season in Sunday's game. It was the first 1,000-yard season in Godwin's three-year career, while Evans has now joined Randy Moss as the only players in league history to open their careers with six straight, 1,000-yard campaigns. Godwin got a much higher total on Sunday in part because Evans was drawing so much attention from the Atlanta defense.
"When they're not doubling him, they're doubling Mike," said Winston. "So Chris showed out."
In addition to his two scoring strikes to Godwin, Winston also connected with 347-pound DL Vita Vea on a one-yard score in the second quarter. Vea, who had provided a key block on Peyton Barber's game-winning touchdown run against Arizona two weeks earlier, came in again as part of a jumbo package but ran out to the right on the trick play. Vea later collected a sack and a pass deflection on consecutive plays to force Atlanta to settle for a field goal on a long fourth-quarter drive.
"It's been coming, man," said Winston of Vea's first career score. "I'm happy that he was able to get open and catch his first touchdown pass. He has great hands. I was very confident. I knew he was going to make a great catch. Even if I made a bad throw he was going to make a great catch."
The Bucs' rushing attack also had its best day since Week Three, gaining 133 yards. Ronald Jones ran 12 times for 51 yards and scored his fifth touchdown of the season on a spinning four-yard run in the third quarter. Peyton Barber added 32 yards, including some tough clock-killing runs late, and Winston added the aforementioned 38 yards.
The Falcons got the ball first and got three points off the possession on Younghoe Koo's 25-yard field goal. Most of the 68-yard drive came on a 53-yard catch down the middle by TE Jaeden Graham, who was wide open due to an apparent defensive bust. The Falcons got inside the Bucs' 10-yard line but the Bucs held there, with Barrett hitting Ryan on a pair of throw-aways and Davis breaking up a third-down pass meant for Calvin Ridley.
Tampa Bay's first possession didn't go as well. Jones got 11 yards over right guard on the game's first play but Winston's first pass, intended for Evans, went right to Trufant for an interception at Atlanta's 47. The Falcons subsequently got a first down in Bucs territory but then chose to go for it on fourth-and-three at the Bucs' 35. At least, that was initial plan, but Atlanta ended up punting after Graham was flagged for a false start. Ryan Allen's angled punt went out of bounds at the Bucs' three.
The Buccaneers drove the length of the field from there to take their first lead of the game. Winston got the Bucs off their own goal line with a rollout right and a scramble for 12 yards, and three plays later he fired deep down the middle to Godwin. Godwin caught the ball between two defenders, bounced off a tackler at the Atlanta 43 and sprinted the rest of the way for his career-long reception, a 71-yard touchdown.
Tampa Bay's defense was able to force a punt from around midfield on the next drive but Atlanta quickly got the ball back on a De'Vondre Campbell interception at the Bucs' 19. Winston leaped to make the throw on third down but delivered it behind Dare Ogunbowale, who was only able to get one hand on the ball before it deflected to Campbell. This time the Bucs' couldn't prevent Atlanta from getting points off the turnover, as Ryan's eight-yard scramble on third-and-four made it first-and-goal at the five and RB Qadree Ollison ran it in from one yard out on third down.
An exchange of punts gave the ball back to the Bucs one yard shy of midfield thanks in large part to consecutive sacks by White and Barrett. Winston hit Godwin on downfield throws of 22 and 30 yards and then the two hooked up again for a one-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal to give the lead back to the Bucs. Winston had to fit his pass into a small window just across the goal line and Godwin caught it with one hand while falling backward. Gay missed the extra point to the left – his first missed PAT since Week Three – but the Bucs were still up, 13-10, with eight minutes left in the half.
Atlanta pinned the Bucs deep again with its next punt but once again Winston was able to guide the offense the length of the field. Brett Perriman converted an early third down with a toe-tapping sideline grab for 44 yards and Winston found Godwin again for a 26-yarder down to the Atlanta three. Two plays later, the Bucs brought in a jumbo package including Vea and appeared ready to hand it to Peyton Barber to punch it in from the one. Instead, Vea snuck out of the backfield to the right and showed off his hands with an easy catch of Winston's one-yard touchdown pass. Gay misfired for a second time on the PAT to keep the Bucs' halftime lead at nine points.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 12 matchup against Atlanta.
The Buccaneers started the second half with another long touchdown drive, this one including a 24-yard scramble by Winston to convert a third down and a 25-yard run by Jones to get into the red zone. Jones finished it himself with a four-yard touchdown run up the middle, spinning off several would-be tacklers to walk into the end zone. Amazingly, the Bucs' extra point woes continued as CB Kendall Sheffield got around the right edge of the line and dived to block Gay's attempt. S Sharrod Neasman picked up the loose ball and started on a long and winding jaunt downfield but was eventually tackled inside the Bucs' 20.
Davis got the ball back for the Bucs with an interception on a deep pass intended for Ridley – Ryan was hit by Barrett as he threw to cause a bit of a floater – but the offense failed to get a first down and Atlanta got it back at their 44 after a punt. Ryan got the Falcons into scoring territory on the ensuing drive but the Bucs' defense held again and Atlanta settled for Koo's 40-yarder and a 12-point deficit on the scoreboard.
Winston and the Bucs answered right back with a 61-yard drive, more than half of it coming on another downfield catch by Godwin for 33 yards. The drive stalled at the Atlanta 14 but Gay came on to drill a 32-yarder and restore the Bucs' 15-point lead. Atlanta countered with another Koo field goal from 38 yards out but the drive chewed up nearly five minutes on the fourth-quarter clock. Vea's sack and PBU on consecutive plays helped keep the Bucs two scores up.
Atlanta got the ball back with just six-and-a-half minutes to play but Nassib sacked Ryan on first down and the drive ended in just three plays and the Falcons punted from their own 15 out to Tampa Bay's 45 with 5:48 left. Two tough Barber runs up the middle moved the sticks and forced Atlanta to use two of their timeouts.