By Adesina O. Koiki
TAMPA, Fla. – To make sure his Atlanta Falcons knew what type of fight they would be up against on Monday night, head coach Dan Quinn showed the team a video of an actual fight.
You could say then that, at the end of their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons went the full 12 rounds and won by a majority decision on the judges’ scorecards.
Devonta Freeman rushed for 126 yards and the game-winning score in the fourth quarter as the Falcons survived their trip to Tampa, a 24-21 win over the Buccaneers that wasn’t decided until Patrick Murray’s 54-yard field goal to tie the game went wide right on the final play of regulation.
Atlanta (9-5) now is on the cusp of clinching a playoff spot for a second consecutive season, as a win in either of their final two games will assure a postseason bid. Wins in both games – on the road against New Orleans and at home against Carolina – and the Falcons will win the NFC South.
While games with the Saints and Panthers, both with 10 victories and on their way to playoff berths, promise to be slugfests, Atlanta had to survive every punch thrown by the division-rival Buccaneers on Monday, who did not give an inch despite their now 4-10 record.
“Earlier this week, at the end of the week in fact, we showed an old fight,” said Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. “[It was] one of my favorites, of Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward. The reason we wanted to show the team that fight in particular is I wanted to remind them what a division game is, and that it’s going to go all the way down. We thought heading into this it would be a fight, and it for sure was. “
If a boxing-like brawl has to be won on the gridiron, the best way to achieve it is to establish the running game, something the Falcons did to the tune of a season-high 201 yards on the ground. Freeman proved to be the bell cow, as his rushing total accounted for just his second 100-yard game of the season.
“We had a sense this was going to be a big night for him,” said Quinn about Freeman’s performance. “In fact, we talked about that before the game. We thought he’d have his opportunities and if he could get onto the next level, to the second level, and to a linebacker, a safety or a corner, make sure he had a plan in how he wanted to finish.”
With the game tied at 7-7 late in the first quarter, Freeman had two consecutive big plays, a 15-yard run followed by a 29-yard reception on a screen pass up the middle. The impressive Falcons drive that was almost all Freeman-driven ended with the ball in Freeman’s hands.
On second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Freeman got the handoff from quarterback Matt Ryan but fumbled right as he was about to plunge into the end zone. Fortunately for the Falcons, the ball bounced into the end zone and was recovered tight end Levine Toilolo, giving the Falcons a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Freeman did end up carrying the ball into the end zone later in the game, going on a 32-yard jaunt into the end zone midway through the fourth quarter to give Atlanta a 24-14 lead.
“Finished this time,” said Freeman after the game. “It was all about just finishing – trying to do whatever it takes to finish. That’s what it was all about.”
Tampa Bay was far from finished however, as quarterback Jameis Winston led the Buccaneers on a 10-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Adam Humphries to cut Atlanta’s lead to 24-21 with 4:07 remaining.
The Bucs got the ball back after forcing a Falcons punt just after the two-minute warning, then drove to the Atlanta 36-yard line with five seconds left. Murray then came onto the field to attempt a 54-yard field goal that would have forced overtime, but the kick was pushed to the right.
In defeat, Winston, who missed the Bucs’ first matchup against the Falcons in Atlanta with a shoulder injury, was impressive in completing 25-of-37 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. His opposite number, Ryan, completed 17-of-31 passes for 211 yards and a first-quarter touchdown pass to Justin Hardy. Both quarterbacks did not throw an interception.
The Falcons will play their final road game of the season on Sunday, Dec 24 when they head to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to take on the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints, with kickoff set for 1 PM EST.