TAMPA — One way or another, Josh Freeman was going to sneak out of Raymond James Stadium with a victory over the Falcons on Sunday.
The Bucs quarterback did a dirty bird dance after scoring his first career touchdown on a 1-yard sneak in the second quarter. But the real celebration came when he faked the same play and drew tackle Corey Peters offside on fourth and inches with 1:49 remaining in the game.
The penalty gave the Bucs a first down, enabled them to run out the clock and clinched a 16-13 win. The victory snapped a five-game losing streak to Atlanta dating to 2008 and left Tampa Bay tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South at 2-1.
The Bucs did it with an inspired effort from their young defense, which forced Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan into three turnovers, two fumbles and an interception, and sacked him four times.
"Matty Ice" could only melt on the sideline after Freeman succeeded in an obvious effort to draw the Falcons offside, allowing the Bucs to consume the final 4:06 of the game.
"There wasn't a play," center Jeff Faine said. "We're trying to get them offside. I thought we did a pretty good acting job in the huddle and on the line. We were making … a lot of calls they heard all day."
"They're in a pickle. They had to get the ball back. And the great thing about earlier in the game, we scored a touchdown on a QB sneak. So they were in a position. We felt pretty good about the play — the no-play."
Freeman wasn't perfect. He passed for 180 yards but also two interceptions, one in the end zone. But considering four of the Bucs' five losses were by a touchdown or less, he figured his team was due for some good fortune.
"It's about time one went our way," Freeman said. "They're a great divisional opponent. I've got a lot of respect for those guys, offense and defense. They're a good team. We'll get to see them again. I'm looking forward to that. But today was our day."
After going 10-6 but missing the playoffs in 2010, Bucs coach Raheem Morris had told his team it has to win the NFC South to guarantee a spot in them.
"I just told the team we didn't come into the season to beat the Atlanta Falcons," Morris said. "We came into this season to win the division. They just happen to be a team that's in our division. We've got to beat those guys just like we've got to beat everybody else in our division and try to win this thing so we can go to the playoffs and then compete for a championship."
Ryan, who has 10 fourth-quarter comebacks on his resume, seemed bent on adding another.
Trailing 16-3, he got the Falcons to within a field goal in the fourth quarter with 10-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez then setting up Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal with 4:06 to play.
Ryan's plan was to attack Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers, who was locked in man-to-man coverage on receiver Roddy White. While White was thrown to 17 times and caught nine passes for 140 yards, he never reached the end zone.
"If you've got Ronde (Barber) and Aqib (Talib) out there, I wouldn't go at them either," Biggers said of his fellow cornerbacks. "I'm serious. If I'm the next guy, I'm going to go at me, too."
But Ryan could not produce another comeback. Safety Corey Lynch, who entered during the third quarter for the injured Cody Grimm, batted down a pass on fourth and 3 from the Tampa Bay 7 with 12:56 left.
Later, Biggers stood up in coverage of White on two passes from the Bucs 15, forcing Bryant's field goal and denying the Falcons a shot at the go-ahead touchdown.
With their lead trimmed to just a field goal, Freeman and running back LeGarrette Blount ran for two first downs to milk the clock. But Morris faced a decision: punt or go for the first down on fourth and inches from the Falcons 44.
"It was kind of like we had a play, but in that particular set, we were going to call timeout if they didn't jump," Freeman said. "Then who knows? We might have gone back and tried to hard-count them again. But we were eventually going to get to a quarterback sneak, so I was kind of living large."
Rick Stroud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.