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Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes, including two to Rob Gronkowski, as the Bucs beat the Falcons 30-17 Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
With the victory, the Bucs (9-3) moved four games ahead of the Falcons, Panthers and Saints (all 5-7) in the NFC South and one step closer to their first division championship in 14 seasons.
Tampa Bay led from the start, driving 75 yards on 13 plays, all passes, on its opening possession to take a 7-0 lead on Brady’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Leonard Fournette.
Brady later threw scoring passes of 3 yards to Cameron Brate and 27 and 11 to Gronkowski. Only Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (112) have teamed up for more touchdowns than Brady and Gronkowski (90).
The Falcons got as close as 20-17 when defensive lineman Marlon Davidson intercepted a Brady pass and returned it 3 yards for a touchdown just before halftime. But Atlanta never truly threatened in the second half.
Brady finished 38 of 51 for 368 yards. Chris Godwin was his top target, pulling in a franchise-record 15 receptions for 143 yards. Earnest Graham and James Wilder previously held the team mark of 13 catches in a single game.
The Bucs sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan five times, including two apiece by Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. Cam Gill had the other sack. Pierre Desir forced a fumble that was recovered by Carlton Davis.
Ryan Succop kicked a 31-yard field goal and made three of four extra-point attempts.
Cornerbacks Jamel Dean (concussion) and Sean Murphy-Bunting left with injuries.
Here’s how it happened:
Sticking with what works
The Bucs went back to the formula that worked so well on the opening possession on a late third-quarter drive — going no-huddle, putting the ball in the air and targeting Chris Godwin and Leonard Fournette, mostly on short or checkdown passes.
An 18-yard pass over the middle to Mike Evans moved the ball to the Falcons 17.
Brady went back to Godwin on the next play, picking up 1 yard to the 16. The catch was Godwin’s 12th of the game — a career high, for 99 yards — but he was injured on the play. He returned after sitting out a play.
The ending was familiar, too, Brady finding tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown, Gronkowski’s second TD catch of the game.
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The score extended the Bucs’ lead 27-17 with 29 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Only Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison (112) have teamed for more touchdown passes than Brady and Gronkowski (90).
No sooner did Pierre Desir enter the game than he made a potential momentum-changing play.
Desir replaced Jamel Dean after the cornerback left with an injury early in the third quarter.
Immediately afterward, Desir punched the ball out of the hands of Falcons receiver Russell Gage after a completion into Tampa Bay territory, and the ball was recovered by fellow cornerback Carlton Davis at the Bucs 37.
Davis was shaken up while trying to tackle Russell Gage on Atlanta’s next possession but quickly returned to the field.
Leading by 10 and backed up deep in their own territory with less than 30 seconds left in the first half, the Bucs handed the Falcons seven points.
Tom Brady’s flare pass for running back Leonard Fournette was intercepted by defensive lineman Marlon Davidson and returned 3 yards for a touchdown.
The score allowed Atlanta to crawl back to within 20-17 at halftime.
The Bucs pass rush scuttled a Falcons drive into Tampa Bay territory just before the end of the first half.
Nose tackle Vita Vea recorded Tampa Bay’s third sack of the half, and inside linebacker Devin White forced a dumpoff pass to running back Mike Davis on third and 6 that resulted in a 3-yard loss.
Defensive end Ndamukong Suh and linebacker Cam Gill had sacks earlier in the half.
When one = six
Though Tom Brady failed to connect with Rob Gronkowski on his first three targets, he made his first completion to the tight end count.
Brady threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to his longtime teammate out of a bunch formation to extend the Bucs’ lead to 20-10 with just under five minutes remaining in the second quarter.
Brady kept the drive alive with a 15-yard completion to Mike Evans on third and eight for a first down at the Tampa Bay 42.
He then hit Chris Godwin for 17 yards on a crossing pattern, Godwin’s eight catch of the half giving the Bucs a first down at the Atlanta 45. A 12-yard completion to Leonard Fournette moved the ball to the 33.
Better late than never
The Falcons didn’t do much with the early downs but converted three long third downs during an early second-quarter drive that resulted in a field goal.
A 29-yard pass from Matt Ryan to tight end Kyle Pitts to the Bucs 26 on third and 9 was the big play.
Ryan later had third-down completions of 19 and 10 yards to Russell Gage to move the ball to the Tampa Bay 1.
But after a fumbled snap cost the Falcons 2 yards, they failed to convert the most important third down of the drive, as Ryan threw incomplete for Cordarrelle Patterson in the end zone with Jamel Dean in coverage.
Atlanta had to settle for Younghoe Koo’s 21-yard field goal and a 13-10 deficit with 8:39 to play in the second quarter.
If it ain’t broke ...
Tom Brady targeted Chris Godwin more than any other receiver on the Bucs’ opening drive, and he went right back to him at the start of the second.
Brady’s 25-yard pass to Godwin gave Tampa Bay a first down at the Atlanta 47. Two plays later, Brady hit Mike Evans for 36 yards down the right sideline to the 11. A holding penalty on Duron Harmon moved the ball to the 3.
Just as he did on the Bucs’ first touchdown, Brady rolled to his right, this time finding tight end Cameron Brate in the end zone to give Tampa Bay a 13-7 lead with 4:23 to play in the quarter. Ryan Succop missed the extra-point try.
Can’t corral Cordarrelle
The Falcons matched the Bucs’ 75-yard opening drive with one of their own, needing just six plays to cover the distance.
Cordarrelle Patterson set up Mike Davis’ 17-yard touchdown run by taking a short Matt Ryan pass 39 yards to the Tampa Bay 17.
The teams are tied 7-7 with 6:37 to play in the first quarter.
First things first
Tom Brady threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to running back Leonard Fournette as the Bucs drove 75 yards on their opening drive to take an early 7-0 lead.
Going no-huddle, the Bucs threw the ball on all 13 plays, with Brady completing 11.
Chris Godwin was targeted six times, catching five passes for 55 yards, including a long of 11. Brady also had completions of 16 yards to Mike Evans and 15 to Fournette.
Tampa Bay went for it on fourth and 4 from the Atlanta 38, and Brady found Fournette for 6 yards and a first down at the 32.
Let’s be realistic. The Bucs winning their first division championship in 14 seasons is no longer a matter of if, but when.
At 8-3, they take a three-game lead into this afternoon’s game against the second-place Falcons (5-6) with six to play. A sizable advantage in any season, to be sure.
But especially this year, when the rest of the division is — how to put this delicately? — awful.
Of course, the defending Super Bowl champions are one of the league’s elite teams and would be leading most divisions at this point. But no other team in the NFC South has a winning record, and all three are getting subpar play at the game’s most important position.
And four of the Bucs’ remaining games come against those teams.
Even though they managed to beat Tampa Bay in New Orleans in October, the Saints without quarterback Drew Brees are a shadow of the team that won the division the past four seasons. Brees’ successor, Jameis Winston, sustained a season-ending knee injury in the win over the Bucs.
After turning things over to Trevor Siemian for a few weeks, the Saints benched Siemian in favor of Taysom Hill for Thursday night’s game against the Cowboys. Hill, who entered the game with an ankle injury, tore a tendon in a finger on his throwing hand and threw four interceptions in New Orleans’ fifth straight loss.
Tied with the Saints (5-7) for last place, 3-1/2 games behind the Bucs, are the Panthers (5-7).
Carolina lost do-it-all running back Christian McCaffrey for the season due to an ankle injury and had to bring back quarterback Cam Newton, who crapped out in two seasons with the Patriots after being released by the Panthers, when Sam Darnold suffered a shoulder injury. Newton was benched for P.J. Walker in the fourth quarter of last week’s 20-point loss to the Dolphins.
Meanwhile, the Falcons are in second place only by virtue of having played one fewer game than the two teams behind them in the standings. They have been outscored by more than 100 points (302-199). Their defense allows 27.5 points per game, second-most in the NFL. They rank 23rd in the league in passing yards, and Matt Ryan’s QBR of 89.1 is his worst in seven seasons.
Which leaves the biggest threat to the Bucs’ division title hopes ... themselves. Play to their potential — or even something approximating it — over the next month, and the rest will take care of itself.
With wins today over the Falcons and Dec. 12 against the Bills and a little help elsewhere, the Bucs could clinch the division as soon as next weekend. Three straight wins would give them the title regardless of what anyone else does.
To the victor go the spoils, and in this case that means homefield advantage for the wild-card round of the playoffs, or a possible bye if they finish with the best record in the NFC.
Time to start planning the coronation.
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