The Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed their 2022 regular season with a 30-17 loss to the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After pulling virtually all of their starters – including Tom Brady – the Bucs saw their 17-10 lead at halftime vanish. In a matchup with no impact on playoff standings or seedings, Tampa Bay's in-game substitutions and starting player exits were aimed at reducing risk of injury prior to the start of Wild Card Weekend. After losing by a 13-point deficit to the Falcons, the Bucs finished the regular season with an 8-9 record. Tampa Bay clinched the NFC South crown with a win over the Panthers in Week 17, locking the club into the fourth seed. Despite no playoff implications, the Bucs traveled to Atlanta with the goal of gaining momentum for the postseason. Meanwhile, the Falcons strived to conclude the 2022-23 year on a high note.
"Regardless of who's out there, we're trying to win the game," Todd Bowles described. "We went into halftime with a lead. We should have been able to preserve the lead and try to win the ballgame. We got beat on fundamental stuff with some of the younger guys and we've got to go back to the drawing board with those guys."
The Buccaneers got the ball first and were off to a fast start with Tom Brady at the helm. With a unit that has predominately failed to gain momentum early on, which has forced the Bucs' to become one-dimensional in a perpetual game of catch-up, Tampa Bay produced an encouraging start in Atlanta. Brady hit Godwin down the right sideline for a gain of 17 yards and subsequent gains by both Godwin again and a dirty run by Rachaad White moved the sticks. Following a 17-yard gain on an end-around by speedster Deven Thompkins and a quick pass to Cade Otton over the middle of the field, the Bucs were at the 12-yard line. Two plays later, Brady threw over the top to Kyle Rudolph in the back corner of the end zone for an eight-yard score, capping off a 70-yard drive. The visiting team took an early 7-0 lead.
The game was tied at 10-10 late in the second frame when Brady exited the Week 18 matchup as a precautionary measure, thrusting Blaine Gabbert into action. At the two-minute warning, Gabbert gave the Bucs a 17-10 lead with a three-yard touchdown pass to former Falcons' receiver, Russell Gage.
Brady concluded the game with 13 completions on 17 attempts for 84 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 106.0 passer rating. Chris Godwin, who caught six passes, hit two milestones during the game: he joined Keyshawn Johnson (2001) as the only player in team history with 100-or-more catches in a single season and surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the third time in his career, joining Mike Evans, Joey Galloway and Vincent Jackson as the only players in franchise history with three-or-more 1,000-yard seasons with Tampa Bay. He made a triumphant return following January's surgery to repair a torn ACL/MCL, garnering recognition.
With all of the Bucs' regular starters on the sideline in the second half, things slowed down. In the first two frames, the Bucs put up 184 yards, along with 11 first downs. However, in the second half, Tampa Bay mustered just 38. Gabbert finished the Week 18 matchup with six completions on eight attempts for 29 yards and a touchdown, before Kyle Trask took over under center with eight minutes left in regulation. In his first regular-season debut, the former Florida standout led two drives while going three-of-nine for 23 yards. After brief stints by both Rachaad White and Leonard Fournette in the backfield, the Bucs turned to Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Giovani Bernard. The pair produced 34 and 28 yards from scrimmage, respectively in the divisional clash.
Much like the offensive side of the ball, the Bucs' defense started the ballgame firing on all cylinders. To begin the matchup, the defense forced a quick three-and-out, with Akiem Hicks getting to Falcons' quarterback Desmond Ridder for a sack on third down, followed up by a timely punt on the team's next possession. On the former, Anthony Nelson stopped rookie Tyler Allgeier for a loss of two, linemate Joe Tryon-Shoyinka pressured Ridder into an incompletion and Hicks got home with the aforementioned sack (-8). In the first half, Tampa Bay's defense only surrendered 78 total yards and five first downs. In contrast, Atlanta's first two drives out of halftime resulted in 149 yards collectively and 10 first downs. After forcing several drives of four-or-less plays in the first half, the Falcons cruised to 304 yards on the Bucs' reserves.
The Falcons scored 20 unanswered points in the second half, snapping the Bucs' 17-10 lead. Ridder threw for 224 yards on 19 completions with fellow rookie Drake London as his go-to target. He hit London six times for 120 yards and another first-year player, Tyler Allgeier, paved the way on the ground. The beneficiary ran for 135 yards, plowing his way on the ground with power, eluding tackles. Ridder threw touchdowns to both MyCole Pruitt and Olamide Zaccheaus – the first of his career.
Following halftime, Tampa Bay replaced its starting inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White with K.J. Britt and J.J. Russell. Anthony Chesley and Zyon McCollum came in at cornerback, with Dee Delaney, Logan Hall, Patrick O'Connor and Deadrin Senat also receiving significant snaps for the Bucs. Due to a "lack of bodies" per Todd Bowles, hybrid safety/nickel cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. played every snap, leading the Bucs in tackles with 10. He was consistently around the football and Delaney followed suit with six tackles. The play of the night for the Tampa Bay defense came late in the second quarter. Ridder fumbled, Devin White shot through the middle and recovered the loose ball at the Atlanta 31-yard-line. He returned it nine yards to the 22, putting the Bucs in prime position. Gabbert took over and Tampa Bay capitalized on the gift with a five-play drive, culminating in a Gage three-yard score.