Falcons hold off Buccaneers
Needing to win their remaining games to repeat as NFC South champions, the Atlanta Falcons got their first with a 27-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on Monday.
It was not easy, but the Falcons (9-5) eventually wore down the short-handed Bucs on their home turf. The Falcons' win eliminates the Green Bay Packers (7-7) from playoff contention.
Tampa Bay lost despite a stellar game from Jameis Winston. The third-year Bucs quarterback, who was the number one overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, went 27 of 35 for 299 yards and three touchdowns.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was not great - 17 of 31 for 212 yards with a touchdown and zero interceptions - but the Falcons leaned on their ground game against a depleted Bucs defense. Running back Devonta Freeman, who also caught five passes for 68 yards, ran for 126 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Atlanta got on the board first courtesy of Justin Hardy, who celebrated his 26th birthday with a six-yard touchdown pass from Ryan.
Hardy finished with two catches for 33 yards. The Bucs actually did a good job defending Falcons receiver Julio Jones, limiting him to three receptions for 54 yards. Jones had 12 receptions for 253 yards and two touchdowns against the Buccaneers in a 34-20 Falcons win on November 26. In 11 previous games against the Bucs, Jones has 80 receptions for 1,359 yards and 10 touchdowns.
THE BUCCANEERS RESEMBLE A M.A.S.H. UNIT
The Bucs played without running back Doug Martin, who was a healthy scratch because of a team rules violation. The Tampa defense were also without several injured players - Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (biceps), linebacker Lavonte David (hamstring) and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (hamstring).
The Bucs then lost tight ends Cameron Brate (knee) and O.J. Howard (ankle), guard J.R. Sweezy (ankle), and wide receiver DeSean Jackson (ankle) in the first half. Howard was injured when he was hit while diving into the end zone for Tampa Bay's first score.
Adarius Glanton - David's replacement at linebacker - was carted off the field in the third quarter after injuring his left leg. The defense also had linebacker Devante Bond (stinger), safety Justin Evans (ankle) and defensive end Robert Ayers (stinger) leave the game.
The Bucs (4-10) entered the season with high hopes, but the plethora of injuries this season thwarted playoff aspirations.
WINSTON WAS ONLY REASON IT WAS CLOSE
Winston did all he could to will his team to a win, but he was playing with a makeshift offensive line and lost his top two tight ends. Winston was directing traffic like a sandlot quarterback would do in a pickup game. It actually worked for a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Adam Humphries.
Because the Bucs have Winston, they could have a bounce-back season in 2018 - provided they can stay relatively healthy. While Winston has certainly played poorly at times this season, he showed Monday why he was the top pick in the 2015 draft. He led the Bucs downfield in the final minute for a potential game-tying field goal, but Patrick Murray missed a 54-yard attempt as time expired.
Winston can be a championship-calibre quarterback, but he cannot do it all by himself.
FALCONS WILL NEED RUNNING GAME TO WIN NFC SOUTH
Usually it is Jones who acts as a one-man wrecking crew against the Bucs, but it was Freeman who did most of the damage on Monday. Freeman ran over and around Bucs defenders, including a bruising 22-yard run in the second quarter.
Even Ryan got into the act against the decimated Bucs, with 29 yards on three rushes, as the Falcons ran for a season-high 201 yards on Monday. The Falcons will need that type of balance to knock off the Saints (10-4) and Panthers (10-4) over the next two weeks.