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Bucs-Falcons live updates: Tampa Bay earns No. 5 seed

The Bucs will play on the road against the NFC East champion in the opening round of the playoffs.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks for a receiver during the first quarter.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) looks for a receiver during the first quarter. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 3
Updated Jan. 4

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The Bucs clinched the No. 5 seed in the NFC with a 44-27 victory over the Falcons in their regular-season finale Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Tampa Bay (11-5) will play at the NFC East champion (Washington or New York) Saturday at 8:15 p.m. in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Atlanta finished 4-12, falling to the Bucs for the second time in three weeks.

The Falcons, who trailed from the start, closed to 30-27 on Hayden Hurst’s 1-yard touchdown catch with just over 8 minutes remaining.

But Tom Brady scoring passes of 4 yards to Chris Godwin and 30 to Antonio Brown (sandwiched around a Sean Murphy-Bunting fumble recovery) on the Bucs’ next two possessions put the game away.

Brady completed 26 of 41 passes for 399 yards and four touchdowns, extending his single-season club record to 40 — second-most of his career.

Wide receiver Mike Evans became the first player in NFL history to start his career with seven consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons before leaving late in the first quarter with an apparent knee injury.

Brown led all Bucs receivers with 11 catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Godwin added five receptions for 133 yards and two scores.

Ronald Jones rushed for 78 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries after missing the previous two games due to a pinkie injury and being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Inside linebacker Kevin Minter, playing in place of Devin White (reserve/COVID-19 list), had a team-high nine tackles, including six unassisted. Linebacker Lavonte David forced a fumble that was recovered by safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

Here’s how it happened:

Bucs snatch game from Falcons’ grasp

Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) makes a touchdown catch during the first quarter.
Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) makes a touchdown catch during the first quarter. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The Falcons appeared to have the Bucs on the ropes when, trailing by 3, Dante Fowler sacked Tom Brady near midfield to force 3rd-and-12 with time running down in the fourth quarter.

But Brady threw deep to Chris Godwin, who pulled in the 47-yard pass for a first down at the Atlanta 7.

Three plays later, Brady found Godwin over the middle for a 4-yard touchdown and a 37-27 lead with less than 4 minutes to play.

Things looked even better for the Bucs 43 seconds later, when Sean Murphy-Bunting forced a Calvin Ridley fumble that Murphy-Bunting recovered at the Falcons 38.

Antonio Brown’s 30-yard touchdown reception 19 seconds after that gave the Bucs a seemingly insurmountable 44-27 lead with 2:52 remaining.

Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates his 30-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates his 30-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Falcons aren’t going away easily

Atlanta Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst (81) dives for the end zone as he is held by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David.
Atlanta Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst (81) dives for the end zone as he is held by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. [ JASON BEHNKEN | AP ]

For the second time in the game, the Falcons went for a first down on fourth-and-short, and for the second time it resulted in a touchdown.

Hayden Hurst’s touchdown catch on fourth-and-goal from the 1 trimmed the Bucs’ lead to 30-27 with just over 8 minutes remaining in the game.

Brian Hill set up the score with a 62-yard run down the right sideline to the Tampa Bay 4.

Jones, Brown help extend Bucs’ lead

Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates with quarterback Tom Brady (12) after Brown's fourth-quarter touchdown reception.
Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) celebrates with quarterback Tom Brady (12) after Brown's fourth-quarter touchdown reception. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Ronald Jones and Antonio Brown did most of the damage as the Bucs drove 75 yards on 10 plays to extend their lead to 10 points early in the fourth quarter.

Jones ran four times for 24 yards on the drive, including a 3-yard run up the middle that gave Tampa Bay a 30-20 lead just under 4 minutes into the quarter.

Brown caught three passes for 34 yards, taking advantage of his speed on the perimeter to turn short passes into long gains.

Rob Gronkowski drew a 10-yard pass interference penalty.

Bounce costly for Bucs

Atlanta Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen (37) intercepts a pass that was intended for Bucs wide receiver Scotty Miller during the third quarter.
Atlanta Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen (37) intercepts a pass that was intended for Bucs wide receiver Scotty Miller during the third quarter. [ JASON BEHNKEN | AP ]

The Bucs were driving deep into Falcons territory midway through the third quarter when an odd bounce cost them possession. And, ultimately, three points.

Thanks largely to a 46-yard pass from Tom Brady to Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay drove from its 25 to the Atlanta 29.

But what might have been a completion to Scotty Miller to the Falcons 8 wound up being an interception. The ball popped into the air as Miller went to the ground and was corralled by safety Ricardo Allen, who returned it 10 yards to the 18.

The Falcons drove to the Bucs 35, where they faced 4th and 2. Ryan threw incomplete, but Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean was flagged for pass interference, giving Atlanta a first down at the 32.

Ryan found Russell Gage for 11 yards to the 18, and Gage ran around left end for 11 more to the 7. An incompletion and a 4-yard run by Todd Gurley set up 3rd-and-goal at the 3.

But Sean Murphy-Bunting broke up a pass for Laquon Treadwell in the end zone, and the Falcons had to settle for Younghoe Koo’s 21-yard feld goal and a 23-20 deficit with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.

Falcons make it a one-score game

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage (83) makes a catch in front of Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) during the first half.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage (83) makes a catch in front of Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (23) during the first half. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | AP ]

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan came out firing at the start of the second half, throwing on seven of the first eight plays.

He completed six, including passes of 15 yards to Russell Gage and 17 to Todd Gurley, as Atlanta drove from its 25 to the Tampa Bay 12.

After two running plays lost a combined 7 yards, Ryan went back to the air, connecting with Gage on a 19-yard scoring play.

The touchdown trimmed the Bucs’ lead to 23-17 with just under 9 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Bucs lead 23-10 at halftime

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates after catching a pass from quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the first quarter.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates after catching a pass from quarterback Tom Brady (12) in the first quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Back-to-back pass interference penalties against the Falcons allowed the Bucs to squeeze three more points out of the first half before heading to the locker room with a 23-10 lead.

Penalties against A.J. Terrell and Keanu Neal allowed the Bucs to move from their 25 to their 48.

Tampa Bay advanced to the Atlanta 29 on Tom Brady passes of 11 yards to Cameron Brate and 10 to Antonio Brown.

Scotty Miller got open in the end zone on the next play, but Brady’s pass carried Miller out of bounds.

Brady found Tyler Johnson for 16 yards to the 13 and then spiked the ball to stop the clock with 28 seconds remaining in the half.

After a 6-yard completion to Leonard Fournette, Brate slipped in the end zone on a third-down pass, forcing the Bucs to settle for a 25-yard Ryan Succop field goal.

Falcons turn conversion into touchdown

Matt Ryan's quarterback sneak pulled the Atlanta Falcons back to within 20-10 with just under 2 minutes left in the first half.
Matt Ryan's quarterback sneak pulled the Atlanta Falcons back to within 20-10 with just under 2 minutes left in the first half. [ JASON BEHNKEN | AP ]

The Falcons turned a fourth-down conversion into a touchdown in the closing minutes of the first half.

Trailing by 17, Atlanta went for a first down on fourth-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 10. Matt Ryan found tight end Hayden Hurst over the middle for the first down, and Hurst lunged toward the goal line with Bucs linebacker Lavonte David on his back.

The play initially was ruled a touchdown, but Hurst was ruled down short of the goal line following a replay review.

After Todd Gurley was stopped for no gain, Ryan sneaked into the end zone to cut the Bucs’ lead to 20-10 with just under 2 minutes remaining in the half.

A roughing-the-passer penalty against Bucs cornerback Ross Cockrell helped to extend the drive, turning a 7-yard completion to Russell Gage into a 22-yard gain to the Tampa Bay 28.

Bucs get a takeaway

Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) celebrates after his first-half fumble recovery.
Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) celebrates after his first-half fumble recovery. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

An Antoine Winfield Jr. fumble recovery resulted in three more points for the Bucs.

Winfield pulled the ball away from running back Brian Hill after a bad exchange with quarterback Matt Ryan and returned it 39 yards for an apparent touchdown. But Winfield was ruled down following a replay review, giving Tampa Bay possession at the Atlanta 39.

The Bucs moved to the Falcons 25 on a 12-yard pass from Tom Brady to Scotty Miller.

But Brady’s 8-yard completion to Leonard Fournette on third-and-13 was five yards short of the first-down marker, and Tampa Bay was forced to settle for a 38-yard Ryan Succop field goal and 20-3 lead with less than 9 minutes remaining in the second quarter.

Ronald Jones gets involved

Bucs running back Ronald Jones (27) scores during the second half.
Bucs running back Ronald Jones (27) scores during the second half. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The Bucs got running back Ronald Jones involved on their first drive of the second quarter and third of the game.

Jones, who missed the past two games after injuring a pinkie finger and then being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, ripped off a 16-yard run up the middle on his first carry. He followed that run with rushes of 7 and 9 yards, singlehandedly moving Tampa Bay from its 43 to the Atlanta 25.

One play after Chris Godwin was ruled out of bounds on what would have been his second touchdown catch of the game, Antonio Brown pulled in a 25-yard scoring pass from Tom Brady to give the Bucs a 17-3 lead 2-1/2 minutes into the second quarter.

The touchdown pass was Brady’s 38th of the season, adding to his franchise single-season record.

Mike Evans makes history, gets injured

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) stays down in the end zone after injuring his left knee late in the first quarter.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) stays down in the end zone after injuring his left knee late in the first quarter. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Ryan Succop restored the Bucs’ seven-point lead with a 28-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining in the first quarter, putting Tampa Bay ahead 10-3.

With a 20-yard reception during the drive, Mike Evans became the first player in NFL history to start his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, breaking a record he had shared with Randy Moss.

One play later, Evans dropped what would have been a touchdown pass in the end zone after appearing to injure his left knee. Evans was helped off the field and went to the locker room.

Falcons get 3 points back

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks to pass during the first quarter.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks to pass during the first quarter. [ JASON BEHNKEN | AP ]

The Falcons mounted an even longer drive on their opening possession but came away with four fewer points when the drive stalled three yards short of the end zone.

Atlanta was forced to settle for Younghoe Koo’s 22-yard field goal and a 7-3 deficit with 3-1/2 minutes remaining in the first quarter.

Matt Ryan was 5 of 6 for 58 yards as the Falcons drove from their 27 to the Bucs 3. Running back Brian Hill took a short Ryan pass 26 yards to the Bucs 4.

But two Todd Gurley runs resulted in only a yard, and Ryan threw incomplete on third and goal.

No slow start this time

Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14)  beats Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) for a first-quarter touchdown catch.
Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin (14) beats Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun (54) for a first-quarter touchdown catch. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After going scoreless in the first half of a 31-27 victory over the Falcons two weeks ago in Atlanta, the Bucs wasted no time getting on the scoreboard in today’s rematch at Raymond James Stadium.

Tom Brady threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin as Tampa Bay drove 68 yards on its opening drive to take a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the game.

Brady was 3 of 3 on the drive for 52 yards. In addition to the touchdown pass, he had completions of 12 yards to wide receiver Mike Evans and 11 to tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Running back Leonard Fournette carried three times for 14 yards.

Playoff seeding on the line

Bucs tight end Cameron Brate (84) laughs while clutching a ball during pregame warmups.
Bucs tight end Cameron Brate (84) laughs while clutching a ball during pregame warmups. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

It’s all come down to this: No. 5 or No. 6?

Now that they’ve wrapped up their first postseason berth since 2007, the Bucs’ seeding for the playoffs will be determined by the outcome of today’s game against the Falcons at Raymond James Stadium, and possibly the Rams-Cardinals game in Los Angeles.

Beat or tie the Falcons or have the Rams lose or tie against the Cardinals, and the Bucs will secure the No. 5 seed in the NFC and travel to NFC East champion Washington, Dallas or New York for the first round.

Slip to the No. 6 seed, and Tampa Bay will open the playoffs at Green Bay, New Orleans or Seattle.

In addition to their own game and the one in Los Angeles, the Bucs’ destination for the first round could be determined by the outcomes of some or all of these games: Washington-Philadelphia, Dallas-New York, Green Bay-Chicago, New Orleans-Carolina and Seattle-San Francisco.

So, stay tuned.

But, first, the Bucs (10-5) need to take care of business against the Falcons (4-11), who had them down 17 points in the third quarter two weeks ago in Atlanta before Tampa Bay stormed back to win, 31-27.

Though they have already clinched a spot in the postseason, head coach Bruce Arians said on Monday that the Bucs will continue to play their starters rather than rest them for the playoffs.

That means quarterback Tom Brady will have a chance to add to what Times sports columnist John Romano calls the best numbers of any starting quarterback in nearly a half-century of football in Tampa Bay.

And Brady will have his favorite target available, as well. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been revitalized since Brady talked him out of retirement during the offseason and convinced the Bucs to trade for him.

The Bucs get back running back Ronald Jones, out the past two weeks after sustaining a pinkie injury and then being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

But they will be without linebackers Devin White and Shaquil Barrett, and defensive lineman Steve McLendon, who were placed on the list earlier this week.

In addition, running back LeSean McCoy is in voluntary quarantine and will not play.

Follow our live updates, starting at 1 p.m., as the Bucs aim to complete an 11-5 season and sew up the No. 5 seed in the NFC.

Gameday scene

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A little light reading

Here’s some of our content leading up to today’s game:

Tom Brady has given Tampa Bay a season unlike any in NFL history

NFL playoff scenarios: What’s at stake Sunday for Tampa Bay

Bucs’ Devin White will need luck to be back for playoff opener

Ronald Jones returns: ‘We need to get him going’

Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis still a question mark for Sunday

Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles cleared for Sunday

Rob Gronkowski leaves lasting impression on Bucs

As playoffs near, Bucs running backs seem to have fresh legs, perspective

History says a Bucs triumph in Super Bowl 55 isn’t such a ‘wild’ proposition

Bucs’ playoff path of least resistance likely runs through the East

Though playoffs clinched, Bucs will keep foot on gas vs. Falcons

Long road back home to Super Bowl 55 shouldn’t bother Bucs