The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were forced to settle for a field goal one too many times on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, and as a result they likely will have to settle for a run at a Wild Card spot over the next five weeks.
The Buccaneers are still very much in the NFC playoff hunt after a 24-23 loss to their division rivals at Raymond James Stadium, but the Falcons took a commanding lead in the NFC South with their 10th victory in 11 tries. The Bucs, at 6-5, are four games back with five to play, although they do get one more crack at the Falcons in Atlanta in Week 17. The loss snapped Tampa Bay's four-game winning streak.
"It was a hard-fought football game by both teams, a very physical game, but I do think missed opportunities were a big part of it," said Head Coach Greg Schiano. There were some chances both offensively and defensively, and in the kicking game…we haven't been making all of them, but we've been making most of them, and today we didn't make enough of them."
Connor Barth's third field goal of the game, a 48-yarder in the fourth quarter, gave the home team a 23-17 lead with 10:33 to play. However, that score came on the heels of a Matt Ryan fumble in Atlanta territory, after which the Buccaneers' offense was unable to pick up a first down. QB Josh Freeman led an efficient offense that picked up six yards per play on the afternoon, but another opportunity in the second quarter left the team wanting more. A trick-play pass by WR Mike Williams to WR Vincent Jackson set up a first-and-goal at the three but the Bucs were unable to punch it in from there, getting three points instead on Barth's 22-yarder.
Atlanta scored the game-winning points on a 64-yard drive keyed by RB Jacquizz Rodgers' 32-yard catch-and-run. The Bucs appeared to get a third-down stop inside the 10-yard line on an incompletion in the direction of WR Harry Douglas, but S Ahmad Black was flagged for defensive holding, creating a first-and-goal that turned into Michael Turner's three-yard scoring run and the game's final points. Tampa Bay drove into Atlanta territory on the ensuing drive but had to settle for Barth's 56-yard attempt, which came up short.
After the game, Schiano said the team considered several other options at that point, including going for it on fourth down or punting it deep into Atlanta territory. However, Schiano said he would make the same decision again, despite Barth's miss on Sunday, citing a 57-yarder the kicker made from almost the same spot on the same field against Washington in Week Four.
"That's a tall order, but I think we have one of the best kickers in the National Football League, and I believe in him," said Schiano.
Freeman's last pass was a 50-yard Hail Mary heave into the end zone that was broken up as time expired. Freeman still managed to complete 19 of 30 passes for 256 yards and a 90.4 passer rating. He was not intercepted for the fourth time in the last five games, but he also saw his streak of 13 straight games with a touchdown pass come to an end. Jackson led the team with five catches for 96 yards and WR Tiquan Underwood added five grabs for 77 yards.
Rookie RB Doug Martin, who came into the week as the NFL's leader in yards from scrimmage, found consistently clogged running lanes and had to fight for most of his 50 yards on 21 carries. However, Martin scored both of the Bucs' touchdowns on one-yard runs and repeatedly turned potential losses into at least short gains.
One week after throwing five interceptions in a narrow win over Arizona, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan completed 26 of 32 passes for 353 yards and one touchdown. He was picked off once by veteran DB Ronde Barber, who set up Barth's first field goal with a 28-yard return, but he consistently found second-year WR Julio Jones for big plays. The biggest play for Jones was an 80-yard touchdown catch on the first play after Barth's second field goal gave the Bucs a 13-10 lead early in the third quarter. Jones finished with six catches for 147 yards.
The Bucs' defense had difficulty getting off the field on third downs, as Ryan and company completed eight of 13 tries (62%), keeping drives alive and punting just one time all day. Ryan was also sacked just once, on a blitz by CB E.J. Biggers that caused the aforementioned fumble.
Barber and LB Lavonte David had eight tackles apiece to pace the Bucs' defense, and each one added a tackle for loss, as well. Biggers finished with six tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss and one forced fumble. Rookie CB Leonard Johnson started in place of injured CB Eric Wright and pitched in with seven stops.
The Falcons got off to a good start offensively, helped by Rodgers' 20-yard run on his first carry of the game. That got the ball into Buccaneer territory, and a surprise draw play to Turner on third-and-seven picked up eight to move it into the red zone. However, DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim was all over a third-down screen pass to Rodgers at the 11 and the Falcons had to settle for Bryant's 31-yard field goal.
The Bucs' offense found an early groove, too, and trumped the Falcons' field goal with a touchdown. A 21-yard pass over the middle to TE Dallas Clark got the ball into Atlanta territory thanks to outstanding blocking against a five-man rush. A great leaping grab by Underwood on a rollout play picked up another 17 to the Falcons' 22, and consecutive Martin runs made it first down at the six. The electric rookie somehow picked up five yards on the next snap on a play that looked like it would be stopped in the backfield. On the next play, Martin took a sweep left, saw that two Falcon defenders had an angle on him to the corner, and cut underneath to score on what was technically a one-yard run.
Consecutive downfield grabs over the middle by Gonzalez and Jones quickly put Atlanta back on the Bucs' side of the field early in the second quarter. Ryan converted another third down moments later with a 16-yard pass to Gonzalez, taking it down to the Bucs' 14, then escaped a near sack and scrambled down to the Bucs' five. With the Tampa Bay defense blitzing off the edges on third-and-one from the five, Ryan took a shotgun snap and flipped a pitch to Rodgers outside the blitz. He made it to the corner for the go-ahead score with 10:25 left in the half.
This time the Bucs were not able to respond immediately, as Freeman absorbed a seven-yard sack on the first play of the drive thanks to a blocking mishap that allowed two defenders to streak in on him untouched. A hands-to-the-face penalty on G Jamon Meredith then erased a 42-yard catch-and-run by Martin and the Bucs eventually had to punt from their own 11 after another Atlanta sack.
That's when Barber grabbed the momentum back for the Buccaneers. On third-and-four at midfield, the cagey veteran started out in coverage of Gonzalez but read a pass down the middle to White and peeled off in time to make a leaping interception on the run. Barber got around the corner for a 28-yard return to the Atlanta 31. The trick-play pass by Williams to Jackson got the ball down to the three but Atlanta's defense held at that point and forced a field goal. Barth knocked it home from 22 yards out to tie the game with four minutes left in the half.
That was plenty of time for Atlanta to retake the lead before halftime, and a quick-hitting slant to White on third-and-inches from midfield picked up 29 yards into the Bucs' red zone. An offensive pass interference call on Jones pushed the Falcons back to the Bucs' 27 but Ryan dug them out of a second-and-20 hole with passes to Jason Snelling and Jones. The Falcons called a timeout with the ball at the Bucs' four and 15 seconds left in the half. A throw to Jones in the back left corner was out of bounds and Da'Quan Bowers' near sack on second down forces a Ryan throwaway. The Falcons settled for Bryant's 22-yard field goal try and he surprisingly hooked it left to keep the game tied going into halftime.
The Bucs opened the second half a bit slowly on offense but Freeman kept the drive alive with consecutive third-down completions to Underwood and Clark. The next third down was a bit tougher, needing 10 yards, but Freeman converted that one too with a deep sideline pass to Jackson for 31 yards. Two quick shots at the end zone from there created yet another third-and-10, and this one proved to be a near-miss as Williams got open at the goal line but Freeman overthrew him. Barth came on to give the Bucs a 13-10 lead with a 42-yard field goal.
That lead lasted 11 seconds. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Ryan threw deep down the right sideline to Jones, who pulled away from Johnson at the last moment, caught the pass, then slipped out of Johnson's tackle attempt to go 80 yards for the go-ahead score.
Freeman tried to answer with his own deep ball to Jackson to start the next drive but it came up short and was nearly intercepted by Asante Samuel. A third-and-10 completion to Underwood came up a half-yard short and the Bucs had to punt. However, the Bucs' defense followed with its first three-and-out of the afternoon and Tampa Bay had the ball back quickly.
The ensuing drive started with consecutive penalties to make it first-and-21 back at the 13, but two plays later Freeman found Underwood wide open down the middle and hit him for a gain of 39 to the Atlanta 44. A tough catch by Jackson in traffic led to a first down at the 30, and he hauled in another one on the left sideline to make it first-and-10 at the 11. Two plays later, Martin dashed right up the middle for 10 yards to the one on the final play of the third quarter.
The Falcons converted another third down on the ensuing drive, but on third-and-one from the Atlanta 44 Biggers timed a blitz around the right end perfectly and hit the unsuspecting Ryan hard enough to jar the ball loose. Gerald McCoy recovered for the Bucs at the Falcons' 36. The offense failed to convert on a third-and-four from the 30, meaning Tampa Bay had to settle for Barth's 48-yard field goal and a 23-17 lead with 10:28 to go.
Rodgers found the left corner on his kickoff return after that score and got the ball out to the Falcons' 36. Rodgers did the work on the first play from scrimmage, too, taking a short pass out into the open and getting 32 yards to the Bucs' 32. The Bucs appeared to get a stop inside the 10 on a third-down incompletion, but Black was called for defensive holding, leading to a first-and-goal at the three. Turner ran it in from there to put Atlanta back up by one with eight minutes to play.
The Bucs fired back, getting into Atlanta territory on a 22-yard catch by Clark that converted a third-and-nine. However, the drive stalled at the 38 and the Bucs elected to give Barth a chance to regain the lead with a 56-yard field goal. The kick came up short and Atlanta was able to run out the final 3:32 with a pair of first downs. The Falcons gambled with a throw on third-and-five from the Bucs' 37 and Ryan hit White on a quick slant to effectively end the game.
- The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive before Sunday's game: CB Eric Wright, RB Michael Smith, S Cody Grimm, LB Najee Goode, C/G Cody Wallace, WR David Douglas and DT Matthew Masifilo. Wright and Grimm were out due to injury.
- The Falcons' seven inactives were: QB Dominique Davis, WR Tim Toone, S Charles Mitchell, G Phillipkeith Manley, G Harland Gunn, DE Lawrence Sidbury and DT Peria Jerry. Mitchell and Jerry were out due to injuries.
- CB Ronde Barber made his 210th consecutive start Sunday, a streak dating back to the 1999 season. With that start, he tied former Oakland center Jim Otto for the seventh longest starts streak in NFL history. In the second quarter, Barber snared the 47th interception of his 17-year career.
- RB Doug Martin scored the Bucs' first points with a one-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter. That was his eighth rushing score of the season, breaking the previous Buccaneer rookie record of seven set by Lars Tate in 1988 and matched by Errict Rhett in 1994. Martin added his ninth rushing touchdown of the year in the fourth quarter.
- WR Tiquan Underwood set a career high in both receptions (5) and receiving yards (77). TE Dallas Clarks 65 receiving yards set a new single-game high as a Buccaneer.