Photos from Buccaneers vs. Falcons at Raymond James Stadium.
Just when it seemed like their playoff hopes might fade to black, the stars came out for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That would be the* Buccaneers'* biggest stars, beginning with rookie QB Jameis Winston and second-year WR Mike Evans, who hooked up on a six-yard touchdown pass with 99 seconds remaining to give the home team a 23-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. On the next play from scrimmage, team captain Lavonte David made short work of Atlanta's final comeback attempt with an interception off Falcons QB Matt Ryan.
The win improved the Buccaneers' 2015 record to 6-6 and brought them into a tie with the Falcons, who they swept for the first time since 2007. That sweep gives the Bucs a head-to-head tiebreaker over Atlanta, and Sunday's win kept them one game behind Seattle for the sixth playoff seed in the NFC. Head Coach Lovie Smith had stressed the critical nature of Sunday's game to the team throughout the week and the resulting victory was as emotionally satisfying as Buccaneer players have experienced in a long time.
"It means a lot," said David. "It means that we're going in the right direction. It's going up. It's where we want to be right now. We've got a rough four-game stretch coming up so we've got to be ready for it. A win like this can probably propel us through the rest of the year but we've still got to take it one game at a time."
Tampa Bay's game-winning drive appeared to be in jeopardy when Winston absorbed a sack near midfield, making it third-and-19 with just under three minutes to play. On the next snap, Winston scrambled out of a collapsing pocket and darted into potential field goal range, though he appeared to be stopped short of a first down. Stunningly, Winston used a hit by LB Justin Durant to pop back to his feet before he was fully down and then continued to run to the Falcons' 23 for 20 yards and a first down.
The play stunned Winston's teammates, both the ones on the field with him and those on the sideline.
"Jameis came alive," said David. "He was having a great game already but that play right there just defines who he is. That right there was the reason why we got him here, his fight, his attitude, his passion for the game. He always wants to win."
Added Evans: "He made, like, seven or eight people miss. It was crazy, I was shocked. If you watch the film I'm just standing there not knowing what was going on. He just made a great play – the play of the game. That's probably the play of the year."
The Bucs faced a third down again at Atlanta's six-yard line with less than two minutes to play. Winston rolled right and threw on the run to Evans, who made a sliding catch just before hitting the sideline. Evans made several critical plays during the game and was eager to have his number called again in crunch time.
"I stepped in the huddle and – verbatim – I said, 'Who wants to score a touchdown,'" said Winston. "Mike Evans said, 'Me, me, me!' So I threw him the ball. It was that simple."
Evans confirmed Winston's account of the pre-snap huddle but admitted that Vincent Jackson and Adam Humphries also chimed in to be targeted. Winston made the right call and executed it to perfection.
"We ran a play we've been working on in practice and we got the look we wanted and Jameis threw a great ball," said Evans. "It was so fast. I just saw Jameis get out of the pocket. He threw it, threw it perfectly, and I just made the play."
Winston finished the game with 227 yards on 18-of-27 passing. He was picked off once, but only sacked once and he also contributed to the Bucs' 166-yard rushing effort. Jackson caught three passes, all of them for 23 yards or more as he finished with a total of 87. Doug Martin led the Bucs' rushing attack with 95 yards on 25 carries and Charles Simms added 56 yards on seven totes.
Winston's one interception came just before halftime on a pass that glanced off Evans' hands. That gave Atlanta good field position to tack on a field goal and take a 9-7 lead into the intermission. Despite having another extremely good day, Martin fumbled at midfield in the fourth quarter to set up a go-ahead touchdown for the Falcons. The Bucs' only takeaway of the game was David's clinching interception, marking the first time in the last two years that Tampa Bay has won a game in which it finished with a negative turnover ratio.
The difference this time is that Tampa Bay's biggest stars stepped up and made the necessary plays at the end of the game to swing a close game in their favor. That happened on a day in which the Bucs played without their two top sack leaders on defense, with both Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith sidelined by injuries. DE Will Gholston helped pick up the slack with two of the team's three sacks of Ryan, and David added 11 tackles and two big tackles for loss to his critical takeaway at the end.
"We wanted it more," said Winston. "Those guys, we just wanted to fight. We kept fighting, never gave up and fought to the end. That's how you finish. Our defense played an amazing game and our offense came up short sometimes. But we kept playing and kept fighting and the defense sealed it again."
The Buccaneers got into Atlanta territory on their first drive on the strength of Martin's strong running, but they didn't score until their second possession. That was a 13-play, 77-yard march that ended in Winston's five-yard touchdown scramble on second-and-goal. TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins' first catch since Week Two got the drive moving with a 15-yard gain and a facemask penalty at the end of a nine-yard Martin run made it first-and-goal.
Atlanta countered with a 16-play, 70-yard drive, but Tampa Bay's defense stiffened inside the 10-yard line. Outstanding coverage on second and third-down forced Ryan to throw one pass away and hold on too long on the other, leading to Gholston's sack. Shayne Graham, filling in for the injured Matt Bryant, gave Atlanta three points with a 28-yard field goal. The Falcons cut the Bucs lead to one point on Graham's 47-yarder with one minute to play in the half, and the Bucs tried to use that remaining time to tack on some more points before halftime. That backfired when CB Desmond Trufant intercepted a deflected pass at midfield, giving the Falcons a chance to set up Graham's third field goal, a 52-yarder that put Atlanta on top, 9-7.
The Falcons scored to come out of halftime, as well, driving 63 yards to set up Graham's fourth field goal, a 29-yarder. CB Sterling Moore broke up a near-touchdown pass from Ryan to Jones in the end zone to force Atlanta to settle for three points again. The importance of red zone conversions was highlighted on the following drive when the Bucs marched 82 yards on nine plays for the go-ahead score. Sims' 25-yard run put the ball at the edge of the red zone, and his 10-yard tackle-breaking carry on third-and-one got it to down to the one-yard line. Martin dived over the top from there to put the Bucs back on top, 13-12, after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
Tampa Bay increased its lead to four points just minutes later on Connor Barth's 23-yard field goal. That followed a short drive set up by an intentional-grounding call on Matt Ryan and a 28-yard punt return by Bobby Rainey. Unfortunately, the Falcons took the lead back with 11 minutes to play on a five-yard Ryan touchdown pass to WR Nick Williams following a Martin fumble at midfield.
Additional notes and in-game details:
- QB Jameis Winston scored the game's first points on a five-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. It was Winston's fifth rushing touchdown of the season, which ties for the most in a single-season in franchise history. Steve Young set the mark in 1986 and Shaun King tied it in 2000.. Five career rushing touchdowns is already tied with King (1999-2003), Trent Dilfer (1994-99) and Vinny Testaverde (1987-92) for third-most in Buc annals.
- Tampa Bay's defense dropped QB Matt Ryan three times, all of them before halftime. That's the fourth straight game that the Buccaneers have recorded at least three sacks, the team's longest streak since the 2004 season.
- Lavonte David recorded 11 tackles in the Bucs' Sunday effort, giving him 105 on the season. That marks the fourth time in four seasons that David has eclipsed the 100-tackle mark.
- After a 25-yard kickoff return got the ball out to the 28 on the game's opening possession, Martin broke off a 14-yard run on his second carry for a first down at the 46. Two more Martin carries moved the chains again and got the ball to Atlanta's 44. Unfortunately, the Falcons trapped Martin on the next two plays to set up third-and-12 and a checkdown to Brate picked up only five. The Bucs punted from the Atlanta 41 and just missed downing it the one, instead incurring a touchback.
A quick curl to Jones picked up 12 yards on the Falcons' first play, but the Bucs defended two Freeman runs well to set up third-and-seven at the 35. A well-timed dumpoff to FB Patrick DiMarco worked well enough to move the chains. Three plays later, on third-and-10, CB Alterraun Verner kept tight coverage on WR Justin Hardy and broke up a quick slant to force a punt.
Starting from the 23, Winston got the next drive moving with a 15-yard strike to Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Two more hard-charging Martin runs moved the chains again and Sims caught a shallow out and turned it up the sideline for 18 yards to the Atlanta 33. However, illegal shift and illegal motion penalties wiped out good gains on the next two snaps and put the Bucs into a first-and-20 hole. Winston fired a bullet on the run to Evans for a 14-yard sideline completion and a strong run up the middle made it third-and-one. Martin got just enough push on third down to make it first-and-10 at the 22, and two plays later Martin hit a seam on sweep right and picked up nine. A facemask penalty at the end of the run made it first-and-goal at the six. Two plays later, Winston rolled right, saw nowhere to throw and cut up between defenders for a five-yard touchdown run.
The Falcons got moving quickly with an 11-yard first-down pass to Hardy, and Jones' second catch of the day moved the ball into Buccaneer territory. Three plays later, the Falcons went to a toss-sweep to Freeman out of the shotgun and it worked perfectly for 14 yards to the Bucs' 26. The Falcons moved into a first-and-goal situation when Jones made a juggling catch over the middle at the six to convert a third-and-six. The Bucs denied the next two plays and on third-and-goal Gholston dropped Ryan at the 11 for a sack that forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal.
A holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff forced the Bucs to start at their own eight but another fine sideline catch by Evans made it first down at the 21. Three plays later, on third-and-eight, Winston unleashed a remarkable downfield pass to Jackson between zones. Jackson broke a tackle and headed upfield for a total gain of 36 yards to the Atlanta 41. The drive stalled there but Schum's punt was downed at the eight by long-snapper Andrew DePaola.
Ryan hit Jones on the sideline on first down but Bradley McDougald delivered a hit just in time to jar the ball loose. A one-yard sack by Gholston put the Falcons in a third-down hole but Ryan scrambled out of his end zone and threw on the run to Hardy for 23 yards. Another Ryan-Jones hookup moved the ball across midfield and made it first-and-10 at the Bucs' 37. Alexander's blitz worked to perfection, leading to a 13-yard sack and a Ryan fumble but RB Tevin Coleman recovered for Atlanta on the midfield stripe.
That play brought on the two-minute warning. The Falcons faced a fourth-and-two at the Bucs' 29 after a short pass to DiMarco, and the visitors sent on Graham to try another field goal. Tampa Bay called a timeout with 1:06 left in the half. After the break, Graham hit from 47 to make it a one-point game.
The Bucs tried to use the last minute to get in position for another score, and another impeccable deep out thrown by Winston to Evans made it first down at the 43. However, Evans deflected Winston's next pass and it was intercepted by Trufant on his way out of bounds at the Atlanta 49.
Ryan got the ball to the Bucs' 34 on a series of short passes to the sideline, giving Graham a chance to try a 52-yard field goal as time expired in the half. He made it to give the Falcons a two-point lead at the break.
The Falcons got the ball first to start the second half and had it across midfield less than 20 seconds in thanks to a 25-yard catch over the middle to Jones. A holding call moved the ball back into Atlanta's half of the field and eventually led to third-and-nine at the Bucs' 48. Ryan had time to throw on third down and used it to find Roddy White over the middle for 21 yards and a first down at the 27. The Bucs forced another third-and-seven at their own 11 and Moore broke up a pass to Jones in the end zone to deny Atlanta the touchdown once again. Still, Graham's 29-yard field goal increased the Falcons' lead to 12-7.
Two strong Martin runs got the Bucs a first down to start their next drive but a pass-interference call on Evans set the drive back. Two plays later, Winston stood tall in the pocket to give Jackson time to get deep down the middle for a gain of 29. Sims shot through a seam on the next play to gain 25 more to the Falcons' 20. On third-and-one from the 11, Sims got the call again and spun off a tackle to get all the way down to the one. Lovie Smith appeared to be on the verge of throwing the challenge flag to see if Sims actually scored, but chose to take the first-and-goal situation instead. It worked out when Martin leapt over the top for the go-ahead score on the next play. The Bucs went for two but failed to keep the score at 13-12.
Tampa Bay got the ball right back into scoring territory minutes later thanks to its defense and special teams. After return man Devin Hester was tripped up at the 11 on the kickoff, the Bucs forced a quick third-and-10, then brought a big blitz. Ryan was forced to throw the ball away under pressure and was called for intentional grounding. It was originally ruled a safety but it was eventually determined that Ryan was not in the end zone. On the ensuing punt, Bobby Rainey got back to the Atlanta 34 with a 28-yard return.
Martin's first-down carry from there picked up seven and ended in another facemask penalty, taking the ball down to the Atlanta 13. Another personal foul on Atlanta cut that in half, but the Bucs stalled at the five and had to settle for Barth's 23-yard field goal and a four-point lead.
After a touchback, Lavonte David's second-down TFL on Freeman created a third-and-eight and a blitzing Alexander deflected Ryan's next pass incomplete on the final play of the third quarter. The punt to start the fourth quarter went out of bounds at the Bucs' 36 and Winston hit a sliding Evans near midfield on the next play. However, Martin fumbled on his next carry and the ball was recovered by Atlanta's Ricardo Allen at the Falcons' 45.
Ryan got just enough on a third-and-four scramble to move the chains, then hit Freeman for a 13-yard gain down to the 32. Two plays later, Coleman darted over right tackle for 10 more to the Bucs' 15. TE Jacob Tamme caught a short pass over the middle and broke a tackle to make it first-and-goal at the five and a play-action pass to WR Nick Williams finally put Atlanta in the end zone.
After a quick Buccaneer three-and-out, the Falcons got back across midfield on an 11-yard run by Freeman. However, Tampa Bay's defense got the stop it needed thanks to another tackle for loss by David and a big blitz on third-and-eight that forced Ryan's throw to be just a little too low for Williams to handle. A touchback on the punt gave it back to the Buccaneers at their own 20 with seven minutes to play.