With a chance to take their playoff probability above 99%, the Buccaneers made the short trip to Atlanta for a Sunday afternoon Week 15 matchup against the Falcons.
Despite being in a far better position than Atlanta on the whole, Tampa Bay wasn’t without its adversity this week. First, it was Ronald Jones II’s finger injury that hurt his chances to play this week before he was eventually added to the Reserve/COVID-19 list and ruled out for the game. Donovan Smith hit the Reserve/COVID-19 list as well and was ruled out, leaving the Bucs without their starting left tackle. Not to mention, all of the team’s specialists were on the list at one point in the week, though they were activated and cleared to practice on Friday.
The Falcons, for their part, are dealing with their own issues. They are 4-9 this season and have been under the direction of interim head coach—and former Bucs head coach—Raheem Morris since their 0-5 start to the season. It’s promising for the team that it is 4-4 under Morris, but things still haven’t been quite right offensively, and that has led to three losses in the last four games. And while the Bucs came into Sunday’s game dealing with the absence of two key players, the Falcons were missing impact players of their own. Julio Jones, Marlon Davidson, Ricardo Allen and Darqueze Dennard were all ruled out.
With the Bucs coming in at 8-5 and the Falcons sitting at 4-9, it’s no surprise that despite being the visitors at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tampa Bay was a 6.5-point favorite. ESPN’s FPI gave Bruce Arians’ team a 64% chance to get its ninth victory of the season. Still, we’ve seen a number of wild things happen in meetings between these two division rivals over the years, so no one should’ve felt overly sold on this being a runaway win for the Bucs...
It definitely wasn’t a runaway for Tampa Bay, as the team looked like a mess in the first half on its way to a 17-0 halftime deficit. But the Bucs came out firing in the second half and handed it to the Falcons, outscoring them 31-10 over the final 30 minutes to lock up a 31-27 victory. It was another late-game collapse for Atlanta, and it was huge for Tampa Bay to overcome and earn a significant victory that brought a playoff berth much closer.
The Falcons won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff, giving the ball to Dirk Koetter’s offense to start the game. After a Bradley Pinion touchback, Atlanta’s first drive started at the 25. A tackle for loss by Lavonte David and a big stop by Carlton Davis set up an early third down, but Matt Ryan was able to find an open Todd Gurley for 10 yards to move the chains. A missed tackle on that third down proved to be costly, as it took just five more plays for the Falcons to find the end zone. A 23-yard pass to Calvin Ridley and a 27-yarder to Russell Gage helped set up a five-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Gage. With Younghoe Koo’s extra point, the home team had an early 7-0 lead after an eight-play, 75-yard drive that took just 4:26.
The Buccaneer offense started its first possession at the 25, with Tom Brady opening things up with a quick six-yard pass to Antonio Brown followed by a 14-yard connection with Cameron Brate. But after that first down, Tampa Bay stalled. Brady threw an incompletion and Leonard Fournette lost eight yards on a reception, making it so that LeSean McCoy’s 14-yard catch and run left the team short of the sticks on third down. With a 4th & 4 at Atlanta’s 49, Bruce Arians elected to punt. Pinion’s punt set the Falcons up at their own 10 with just over seven minutes to play in the first quarter.
Tampa Bay’s defense got to another quick third down on Atlanta’s second drive, with Jamel Dean coming up to make a nice stop on second down. But on 3rd & 6, Ryan escaped pressure and picked up 16 yards on the ground. After that conversion, former Buc Luke Stocker caught a 25-yard pass to continue the slow start for the Bucs. Todd Bowles’ unit stepped up after that, though, with Devin White and Shaquil Barrett teaming up for a tackle for loss on second down to put the Falcons behind the sticks. After a third-down throw came up short, Sterling Hofrichter dropped a 37-yard punt to Tampa Bay’s 7-yard line. Kenjon Barner was able to get five yards on the return, setting the offense up at its own 12 with 3:32 left in the opening quarter.
The Bucs opened their second possession with a one-yard run by Fournette and an eight-yard pass from Brady to Brate, setting up a 3rd & 1. Fournette converted by picking up two, giving the offense some breathing room and a fresh set of downs. But a short run by Fournette on first down and a two-yard catch by Scotty Miller brought up a 3rd & 7, which Brady couldn’t convert. He missed Brown, leading to a second Pinion punt in two possessions.
After the punt, Atlanta took over at its own 26 with two seconds left in the first quarter. A Jordan Whitehead pass breakup ended the quarter with the Falcons up 7-0. It was the Bucs’ fifth scoreless first quarter in the last six games and increased their first-quarter deficit over the last six games to 59-7.
White broke up a pass to start the second quarter, then Ridley couldn’t come up with a deep ball on 3rd & 10. That quick three-and-out was a promising sign for Tampa Bay’s defense after a tough start, and it gave the offense possession at its own 26 after the punt.
The Buccaneer offense yet again looked flat on its opening drive of the second quarter. Pressure forced a first-down incompletion before a seven-yard catch by Mike Evans brought up a manageable 3rd & 3. However, Brady was sacked for a loss of eight, leading to yet another punt. This one took an Atlanta bounce, setting Ryan and his offense up at their 35 with 12:58 left in the first half.
The Falcons quite easily tore the Buccaneer defense apart on the next drive. Brian Hill and Ito Smith teamed up for one first down, then Ryan converted an eventual 4th & 2 before a 13-yard pass to Keith Smith and a 14-yarder to Laquon Treadwell set up a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ridley. That put the Falcons up 14-0 with 7:48 left in the opening half.
Rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn dropped a pass on first down to start the next possession, but Chris Godwin finally got into the action on second down to pick up the first down. A short run by Vaughn and a catch by Rob Gronkowski picked up another first down, then Evans caught a 10-yard pass to move the chains again. But as promising as the drive was looking, it ended with—you guessed it—a punt. An incomplete pass, a one-yard run by Vaughn and another sack shut things down. After the punt, Atlanta took over at its own 11, already leading by 14.
The Tampa Bay defense got Atlanta to another third down on the next drive, but failed to get off the field again. Ryan continued to target Sean Murphy-Bunting, with a seven-yard pass to Ridley bringing up the two-minute warning as the Falcons were trying to add to their 14-0 lead.
Out of the break, Ryan hit Ridley for gains of 14 and 18 yards to the Tampa Bay 45, making it look easy. Ndamukong Suh knocked a pass down on the next play, but a five-yard pass to Smith set up a manageable 3rd & 5 with 1:05 to go in the second quarter. After the Bucs called a timeout, the Falcons converted. A 15-yard pass to Gage was followed by a 12-yarder to Hayden Hurst, getting the ball to the Bucs’ 13. After an Atlanta timeout, Dean made a nice tackle for loss with 33 seconds left, forcing another timeout. After this one, Ryan was flushed out of the pocket for a throwaway to bring up 3rd & 11. A fantastic pass breakup by Davis on third down set up a Koo field goal from 32 yards out, pushing the Falcons’ lead to 17-0 just before halftime.
After Barner brought the ball out on the kickoff, Brady took a knee to head into the locker room with his team down 17-0.
On the first play of the second half, Brady found Brown for a gain of 20 yards, which looked like a spark for a previously lifeless offense. Two plays later, Brady and Brate linked up again for a 14-yard pickup across midfield. Fournette finally picked up some yards on the next play, pushing forward for nine to Atlanta’s 37-yard line. He got another four after that to keep things moving, then Brady hit Evans for 32 yards to the 1-yard line. Evans was a bit shaken up on the play, coming off the field under his own power before Tampa Bay finally found the end zone. Fournette found the goal line for a one-yard touchdown, capping a seven-play, 80-yard drive that took just 3:32.
As good as that opening drive was for the Bucs to start the second half, they got some bad news as their defense took the field. Carlton Davis was ruled out for the remainder of the game due to a groin injury, making things look even bleaker for an already struggling secondary. Ridley continued to expose that secondary, catching a 13-yard pass on the drive’s first play before later picking up 28. A couple of nice gains by Smith and a 14-yard pass to Gage got the Falcons to the 7-yard line, then Ryan connected with Hurst for a touchdown to push the lead back to 17 for Atlanta.
The Bucs started their next drive at the 25 and quickly faced a 3rd & 5, which they converted thanks to a 26-yard catch and run by Evans. A nice 16-yard catch and run by Fournette got the ball inside Atlanta’s 30, then the Brady-to-Evans connection struck again for 24 yards to the 4. Two plays later, Brady found Godwin for a four-yard score, helping the Bucs get back within 10, making it 24-14 with 3:44 to go in the third.
Tampa Bay’s defense got the stop it desperately needed on the next drive, though it got some help. On a 3rd & 6, miscommunication between Ryan and Ridley led to an incompletion, which resulted in a punt. That set the Buccaneer offense up at its own 24 with a chance to lessen the deficit to just one possession.
Gronkowski made a spectacular catch for a gain of 17 yards on the second play of the next drive, getting things in motion for the offense. After an incomplete pass intended for Tyler Johnson, Brady hit Miller for a gain of 14. The ball popped loose as Miller went down, but his knee was ruled down. The Falcons tried to challenge the call, but it stood after the review. With the ball at Atlanta’s 45, Fournette did a phenomenal job picking up a blitz, which gave Brady a chance to throw the ball Evans’ way. It fell for an incompletion, but two penalties on A.J. Terrell gave the Bucs some big yardage. First, it was a pass interference call, which was a spot foul. But Terrell also grabbed Evans’ facemask, which added 15 yards to the end of the play, giving Tampa Bay a first down at the 17.
An eight-yard pass from Brady to Fournette and another eight-yarder from Brady to Brown got the ball down to the 1, giving the Bucs a 1st & Goal. Brady threw incomplete on first down, but Gronkowski was interfered with. So, that moved the ball a little closer, and Fournette punched it in on the next play. With Ryan Succop’s PAT, Tampa Bay was within 24-21 five seconds before the end of the third quarter. That meant a 21-7 advantage for the Bucs in the quarter, which effectively got them back into the game.
After a touchback, a Shaquil Barrett tackle for loss on first down set the game into the fourth quarter with the Falcons’ lead down to just three.
The Buccaneer defense continued to stand tall to start the final quarter. A second-down drop led to a 3rd & 12, and on that third down, Lavonte David got to Stocker for a tackle for loss. On the punt, there were offsetting fouls, leading to re-kick. It was a net positive for the Bucs, though, as Barner put together a 21-yard return to the 49-yard line.
The Bucs quickly faced a 3rd & 5 on their next drive, but they converted thanks to an 11-yard pass from Brady to Evans, with Godwin setting a great block. On the next play, Brady went to Godwin for nine yards to the 26, bringing up a 2nd & 1. A 13-yard pass to Brown moved the chains again and set the Bucs up in the red zone with a chance to take the lead. Brady missed Gronkowski on first down before hitting Miller for a gain of four, bringing up 3rd & 6 from the 9. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, Brady missed Gronkowski again on third down, leading to a field goal attempt. Succop connected from 27 yards out, though, tying the game at 24-24 with 11:15 to go.
The Atlanta offense came back to life on its next drive, with Ryan finding Smith for 11 yards and Ridley for 33 to get all the way down to Tampa Bay’s 31-yard line. A couple of plays later, Ryan looked deep for Ridley in the end zone, but Antoine Winfield Jr. made a phenomenal play to break the pass up. Then, a Devin White blitz resulted in a sack to push the Falcons back.
However, Younghoe Koo continued to be perfect from 50-plus yards this year, connecting on a 52-yarder to give Atlanta a 27-24 lead with 8:22 left.
Tampa Bay’s offense continued to stay hot when it took the field again, with Brady first hitting Brate for 18 yards before finding Godwin for 13. On the next play, the deep ball connection between Brady and Brown finally surfaced. A beautiful 46-yarder gave the Bucs their first lead of the afternoon. With Succop’s PAT, it was 31-27 with 6:19 to go.
Jamel Dean came up with another tackle for loss to start the next Falcons drive and two plays later, White got to Ryan for his second sack in as many possessions. That pushed Atlanta back to a 4th & 23 with 4:41 left, leading to a punt.
The Bucs went to work on the clock during their next drive, starting with a 17-yard run by Fournette. But after a two-yard run, Brady was sacked, putting the Atlanta defense in a favorable spot with 3:42 left. The Falcons called their last timeout after the sack, and on 3rd & 16, McCoy couldn’t take the screen past the marker. He got 10 yards, leading to a punt by Pinion. A fair catch at the 12 set the Falcons up there with 2:44 to go.
The Buccaneer defense needed one last stop to win the game and it came through. An incompletion on first down and a sack on second—credited to William Gholston—set up a 3rd & 16. Another incompletion brought up 4th & 16 from the 6, and a pass to Ridley nearly moved the chains, but he came up just short. That gave the ball back to the offense with a chance to just run the clock out for the team’s ninth win of the season.
A few runs by Fournette got a questionable first down before Brady took a knee, finishing off a huge comeback victory for the Buccaneers, who improved to 9-5 with the win.
Quick Notes & Stats
- The Bucs got outplayed across the board in the first half, looking like a team playing for a top pick rather than a playoff berth. The Falcons, who came in with nothing to play for, held the advantage in every category, including total yards (261-60), first downs (16-5), total plays (40-24), yards per play (6.5-2.5), time of possession (17:38-12:22) and sacks (2-0).
- Third downs were a big reason for Tampa Bay falling behind 17-0 after 30 minutes. Offensively, the Bucs were 1-for-5 on third downs. The Falcons converted 6-of-10 third downs, as well as their one fourth-down try.
- With 23 completions and 235 yards at the break, Matt Ryan had more completions and passing yards in one half against the Bucs than he did in all of last week’s loss to the Chargers.
- The Bucs were shut out in the first half for the second time this season. That didn’t happen once over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. It was the first time they have been shut out on the road since 2017, which coincidentally came against Bruce Arians’ Arizona Cardinals.
- Per ESPN Stats & Info, this marked the first time a Tom Brady-led team has faced two 17-point halftime deficits in the same season.
- The Bucs picked up more yards on their 80-yard drive to open the second half than they did in all of the first half.
- The second half was all Bucs, as they outscored the Falcons 31-10. And for all of the statistical deficits they faced after one half, they turned things around. Tampa Bay ended up with the advantage in total yards (416-369), first downs (27-23), total plays (66-65), yards per play (6.3-5.7) and time of possession (31:47-28:13).
- Tom Brady ended up having a great day, completing 31 of his 45 passes for 390 yards and two touchdowns. The 390 passing yards were his most in a game since September of 2017, per Buccaneers Communications.
- In the absence of Ronald Jones II, it wasn’t a bad day for Leonard Fournette. He ran the ball 14 times for 49 yards and two touchdowns while catching three passes for 16 yards.
- Mike Evans was the leading receiver for the Bucs, hauling in six passes for 110 yards, averaging 18.3 yards per catch.
- It was a big day for Antonio Brown, who caught five passes for 93 yards and his first Buccaneer touchdown.
- Devin White had a massive day, totaling 12 tackles (10 solo), with four for loss (three sacks) and two passes defended.
- Jamel Dean had two tackles for loss out of his six tackles.
- The Falcons finished the day with three penalties for 28 yards. They once blew a 28-3 lead to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl, making those penalty numbers awfully coincidental.
The Buccaneers (9-5) return to the field on Saturday after a short week, heading to Detroit to take on the Lions (5-9). Kickoff is set for 1:00 p.m.