The Atlanta Falcons chose not to rest their starters in a Week 17 game that meant nothing to their playoff positioning. However, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose not to let their own season end on a down note, defeating their division rivals in the Georgia Dome on Sunday, 22-17.
Obviously more concerned about keeping their players sharp before an upcoming bye week – an approach that is easy to defend despite the possibility of injury – the Falcons played QB Matt Ryan and company the entire game. That made the final result more satisfying for the Buccaneers, especially on defense as they held the league's seventh-ranked offense to 278 yards and limited the Falcons to their lowest point total of the season. After the game, Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith said he never considered pulling his starters, even after injuries took CB Dunta Robinson and DE John Abraham out of the action.
The victory improved the Buccaneers to 7-9 on the season and snapped a five-game losing streak. Tampa Bay split its season series with the Falcons, who own the NFC's top seed going into the postseason, and finished 3-3 in divisional play. The Falcons finished the regular season at 13-3 and will now get a week off before hosting a divisional playoff game. Sunday's game was Atlanta's only home loss in the regular season.
RB Doug Martin capped his phenomenal rookie season with one of his best games of 2012, gaining 142 yards on 28 carries and adding 18 yards on four catches. That marked the fifth time this season he has gone over 100 rushing yards and the 10th time he has eclipsed 100 yards from scrimmage. He finished just 74 yards shy of the 2,000-yard mark, something only two rookies in NFL history have accomplished.
Martin's 40-yard touchdown run in the third quarter gave the Buccaneers a 12-point lead and the cushion they needed to hold off the Falcons, who played to win until the end. Ryan's only touchdown pass of the game, a seven-yarder to WR Harry Douglas on fourth down, cut the Bucs lead to five points with seven minutes to play. However, the Buccaneers' defense got the final stop it needed in the game's final four minutes, with rookie S Mark Barron breaking up a fourth-down seam pass to TE Tony Gonzalez. Martin then broke off a 24-yard run down to the Atlanta four-yard line to allow the Bucs to run off the rest of the clock.
QB Josh Freeman completed 19 of 35 passes for 222 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and he was not sacked. Freeman hit WR Mike Williams with an eight-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to give the Bucs a lead they would not relinquish. Williams finished with a team-high six receptions for 65 yards. K Connor Barth added three field goals on three attempts, the longest from 48 yards out.
LB Mason Foster led the Bucs' swarming defense with 12 tackles and rookie LB Lavonte David added six stops, a sack, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits and a pass defensed. DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim secured the Buccaneers' other sack of Ryan. The Bucs secured the top spot in the NFL's run defense ranking, holding the Falcons to 65 yards on 16 carries. RB Michael Turner scored on a 17-yard run following an Asante Samuel interception in the third quarter, but Turner gained just one yard on his other six totes. The Bucs' defense also held Atlanta's dangerous starting receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White, to a combined 98 yards on eight catches.
The Buccaneers' defense did not produce a turnover but the special teams did, in effect, when LB Dekoda Watson got his second punt-block of the season in the second quarter. That play set up Barth's second field goal, a 22-yarder, and the Bucs took a 13-3 lead into the intermission.
On the game's opening drive, Atlanta took a downfield shot early, right after a 15-yard Gonzalez catch converted a third-and-seven near midfield, but Leonard Johnson had good coverage on White and it was incomplete. On the ensuing third-and-seven, CB E.J. Biggers leveled White with a hard hit, stopping him a yard short of the sticks and the Falcons punted.
Freeman opened the Bucs' first drive, at their own 10, with two nice rollout passes to Williams for a total of 22 yards and a first down at the 32. It was Martin's turn on the next two plays and his four-yard run and seven-yard catch moved the chains again. Martin then burst through a seam over left guard to gain 19 yards. Three plays later, after another Williams catch made it third-and-two, Freeman tried to hit the same receiver again but Abraham was able to block the pass in the backfield. Barth came on to hit a 48-yard field goal, with P Michael Koenen saving the attempt by pulling a low snap off the turf and getting it down in time for the kick.
The Falcons got into Buccaneer territory on the ensuing possession thanks to a fine 25-yard kickoff return and a 16-yard run around right end by RB Jacquizz Rodgers. A screen to Jason Snelling created another first down at the Bucs' 26, and Ryan absorbed a big hit from a blitzing David a few plays later. While trying to throw the ball away to avoid a sack on the next play, Ryan got flagged for intentional grounding back at the Bucs' 29. However, the officials huddled and picked the flag back up, making it third-and-10. Ryan tried to scramble for the first down but was tripped up by Barber at the 10 and the Falcons brought on Matt Bryant to tie the game with a 28-yard field goal.
Freeman and Jackson just missed on a deep hookup on the first play of the next Bucs' possession, but a 17-yard sideline catch by WR Tiquan Underwood converted the ensuing third-and-eight. Another long third down came up a bit short, however, as TE Luke Stocker's catch was stopped at the Bucs' 45, forcing a punt as the first quarter came to an end.
A high 46-yard punt by Koenen forced a fair catch at the Atlanta nine to start the second quarter. The defense then got a quick three-and-out thanks to CB Anthony Gaitor's solid tackle of Rodgers a yard short of the sticks on a third-and-six pass over the middle.
The Bucs' next possession was an impressive one, as back-to-back catches of 17 and 26 yards by Stocker got the ball into Atlanta territory and a tricky play-action toss to FB Erik Lorig in the left flat picked up 12 more to the Atlanta 11. However, two runs by Martin were bottled up by the Atlanta defense, forcing a third-and-seven from the eight. Freeman converted, however, getting away from a potential sack with a nifty spin move and then firing a laser into the back of the end zone to Williams. Williams caught the pass, tiptoed two feet inbounds and then held on as he went to the ground behind the end zone.
The Falcons' next drive stalled at their own 37, after S Ahmad Black broke up a deep pass intended for Jones and David nearly intercepted a slant to White. Gaitor had strong coverage on a deep seam pass intended for Harry Douglas on third-and-eight, and the incompletion forced a punt. Watson was able to drive TE Michael Palmer back into the path of Bosher's kick and the ball deflected off the back of Palmer's helmet, going out of bounds at the Atlanta 26.
A knifing draw-play run by Martin converted a third-and-two from the 18 and got eight yards down to the 10. The Bucs couldn't punch it in from there but Barth came on to nail a 22-yard field goal to push Tampa Bay's lead to 10 points, 13-3 with three minutes left in the half.
A screen pass to Jones on the first play of the ensuing drive worked extremely well, picking up 28 yards out to the Atlanta 45. The Bucs forced a third-and-one at their own 46, however, and outstanding downfield coverage eventually forced Ryan to throw the ball away. Roscoe Parrish fair caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' nine.
Tampa Bay needed at least one first down to run out most of the remaining 1:41 in the half, but an incompletion and a short Martin run followed by an Atlanta timeout made it third-and-eight with 1:25 still left on the clock. Blitzing S Thomas DeCoud tipped away Freeman's third-down screen attempt in Martin's direction, forcing a punt by Koenen out of his own end zone.
The Bucs' defense came up big to keep Atlanta from closing the 10-point gap before halftime. Sacks by Te'o-Nesheim and David, the latter on what appeared to be a potential Hail Mary pass from Ryan, closed out the half with the visitors still up, 13-3.
And the offense came out of the intermission firing. A brilliant 23-yard pass to Williams between two layers of coverage on the sideline opened the half, and a precise 16-yard strike to Jackson against a third-down blitz led to a first down at the Atlanta 24. The drive stalled there but Barth came on once again to easily nail a 42-yard field goal try and push the Bucs' lead to 13 points.
The Bucs' defense got the ball back quickly but Atlanta ended up with a scoring opportunity when Samuel picked off Freeman's third-down pass and returned it to the Bucs' 21. Two Turner runs right up the gut took care of the remaining yards, as he scored on a 17-yard burst to make it 16-10.
The Bucs' fired right back thanks to Martin and Jackson. Jackson's 26-yard shoestring catch put the ball into Atlanta territory and on the very next play Martin burst through the line, used a spin move to shake one tackle downfield and then broke away for the 40-yard touchdown. The Bucs went for two to try to make it a 14-point lead but a fade pass attempt to Williams was too long.
Tampa Bay's defense followed that with an encouraging three-and-out, thanks to DE Michael Bennett's leaping break-up of a rollout pass on third-and-inches from the 29. Roscoe Parrish's 14-yard punt return got the ball back to the Bucs' 25 and a four-yard Martin run brought the third quarter to an end. The drive ended shortly after the teams switched sides, however, thanks in part to a holding call against T Donald Penn, the first accepted penalty on the Bucs in the game.
The Falcons got the ball back in great field position, at their own 40, but David had great coverage on an attempted downfield seam pass to Gonzalez. Atlanta couldn't get any farther than their own 45 and punted away with under 13 minutes left in regulation.
After a touchback, Freeman tried a sideline pass to Jackson but it was nearly intercepted by Robert McClain. The Bucs couldn't move the chains and ended up punting it back with just one minute run off the clock, with the Falcons once again taking over near midfield.
This time, Atlanta turned that field position into points, driving 52 yards for a touchdown. The Bucs' second penalty of the day was a crucial one, as a defensive holding call on Ronde Barber erased a Da'Quan Bowers sack that would have made it third-and-20. A 13-yard screen pass to Rodgers made it first-and-goal at the Bucs' eight. A pass breakup in the end zone by Leonard Johnson helped make it fourth-and-goal at the seven, but Ryan found Douglas on a fourth-down pass near the right pylon to make it a 22-17 game with seven minutes to play.
Jackson's second shoestring catch of the day allowed the Bucs to convert an early third down on the drive and keep the clock running. However, a third-down slant to Williams was broken up and the Bucs had to punt from their own 35 with four minutes to play. A 55-yard punt by Koenen at least pushed Atlanta back to their own 19 but the Bucs' defense still needed one more stop.
The Falcons faced a quick third-and-one at their 28 and Ryan unsurprisingly went to Gonzalez on a short route in the flat to move the sticks. Ryan went for it on the next play, deep down the right sideline to White, but Johnson was there to break it up. Gerald McCoy pressured Ryan on his next pass and it was nearly intercepted by Biggers near the left sideline. Gaitor broke up a third-down seam route to Douglas to force Atlanta into another fourth-down try, and this one was broken up by Barron just before it could be hauled in by Gonzalez.
Taking over on downs, the Bucs immediately got down to the Atlanta four on a 24-yard run by Martin. The Falcons didn't use their timeouts and two more Martin runs brought the game to an end.
- The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive before Sunday's game: CB Eric Wright, RB Michael Smith, LB Jacob Cutrera, G Roger Allen, WR Chris Owusu, DT Corvey Irvin and DT Matthew Masifilo. Allen was out due to injury.
- The Falcons declared the following seven players inactive: QB Dominique Davis, CB Chris Owens, S William Moore, C Joe Hawley, G Phillipkeith Manley, G Harland Gunn and DT Travian Robertson. Moore and Owens were out due to injury.
- S Ronde Barber made his 215th consecutive start on Sunday, tying him with former Minnesota Vikings DT Alan Page for the sixth-longest streak in NFL history.
- QB Josh Freeman's eight-yard TD pass to WR Mike Williams in the second quarter was his 27th of the season, establishing a new single-season record for the Buccaneers. The mark had been set at 26 by Brad Johnson in 2003. That same scoring toss was also the 78th of Freeman's career, setting a new franchise record. Vinny Testaverde held the previous mark with 77.
- WR Mike Williams came up four yards short of his first 1,000-yard season but still set a new career high with 996. He caught six passes for 65 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.
- The Buccaneers' offense got enough yardage through the air and overall to set a pair of single-season franchise records. The old team marks for most total net yards (5,456 in 2008) and most net passing yards (3,805 in 2003) both fell as the Bucs finished the 2012 season with 5,820 and 3,983, respectively.
- The Bucs also set a team record for points scored in a season, finishing with 389. The previous mark was 388, established in 2000.
- WR David Douglas was active for the first time this season and saw the first regular-season game action of his NFL career. He first entered the game in the second quarter during the Buccaneers' 64-yard touchdown drive.
- Connor Barth scored 10 points on one extra point and three successful field goals in three tries. That allowed him to finish the season with 123 points, the fourth-highest individual total in franchise history.
- TE Luke Stocker set a single-game career high with 50 receiving yards, catching three passes on the afternoon.