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Baker Mayfield threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cade Otton with 31 seconds remaining to lift the Bucs to a 29-25 win over the Falcons Sunday in Atlanta that moved them into first place in the NFC South.
Tampa Bay trailed 25-22 after Desmond Ridder’s 6-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion pass to Drake London with 3:23 to play.
But Mayfield responded by leading the Bucs on a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that put them back ahead to stay.
The Bucs were down to their last play when they faced fourth and 1 from their 45. But Rachaad White picked up 2 yards and the first down over left guard. Two plays later, Clark Phillips was called for holding Trey Palmer, giving Tampa Bay another new set of downs at the Falcons 47.
After incompletions to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Mayfield found Godwin deep down the right side for 32 yards and a first down at the 15. He connected with Otton in the end zone two plays later.
The Falcons still weren’t done, driving 71 yards in six plays over the final 31 seconds. But London was tackled by Christian Izien 3 yards short of the end zone on the final play, following a 28-yard reception.
With the win, Tampa Bay (6-7) moved ahead of Atlanta (6-7) in the division race based on the third tiebreaker (common opponents). The teams are tied on the first two tiebreakers (head-to-head matchups and division record).
The Bucs also hold a tie-breaker advantage over the Saints (6-7), who they beat earlier this season.
With two of their final four games against NFC South opponents, the Bucs control their own destiny. Win out, and they will claim their third straight division title and the automatic playoff berth that comes with it.
Until the frenzied final minutes, Tampa Bay’s defense had made the two biggest plays of the game.
A Carlton Davis interception at the Falcons 8-yard line late in the first quarter set up a 2-yard Mayfield touchdown run that put the Bucs ahead 10-3.
An Antoine Winfield Jr. strip sack in the end zone late in the second quarter resulted in a safety that allowed them to go back ahead 12-10.
White’s 31-yard catch and run late in the third quarter extended the Bucs’ lead to 19-10. Bijan Robinson brought the Falcons back to within 19-17 with a 3-yard run early in the fourth.
Chase McLaughlin’s 38-yard field goal pushed Tampa Bay’s advantage to 22-17 with 6:10 to play.
But an acrobatic reception by London on a 45-yard pass from Ridder set up the quarterback’s 6-yard scoring run, and the two connected on a two-point conversion play to put Atlanta ahead 25-22 with 3:23 remaining.
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McLaughlin and Younghoe Koo traded field goals in the first quarter, which ended in a 3-3 tie. McLaughlin kicked a 55-yard field goal on Tampa Bay’s opening drive. Atlanta tied it on Koo’s 20-yarder its first time with the ball.
Koo later missed from 50 and 52 yards.
Falcons and former Gators tight end Kyle Pitts scored on a 36-yard reception early in the second quarter, tying the game at 10.
Mayfield completed 14 of 29 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Godwin caught five passes for 53 yards. Evans was held to one reception for 8 yards, which resulted in a first down.
White rushed for 102 yards on 25 carries and caught two passes for 33 yards and a touchdown.
Winfield led the defense with eight tackles, including four solo stops, a sack and a forced fumble. He pressured Ridder into an incompletion on an early third-down play that might have resulted in a touchdown. He also had an interception nullified by a penalty.
Zyon McCollum had team highs of nine tackles and six unassisted stops, in addition to two passes defensed.
Here’s how it happened.
Change of fortune
The Falcons needed less than three minutes to drive 75 yards for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Drake London gave Atlanta new life with an acrobatic 45-yard reception over Antoine Winfield Jr. to the Tampa Bay 30.
Three Tyler Allgeier runs then netted 24 yards, moving the ball to the 6.
Desmond Ridder kept the ball on the next play, and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka appeared to have him trapped in the backfield. But Ridder escaped down the left sideline and tiptoed down the sideline for a touchdown.
The Falcons went for the two-point conversion, and Ridder connected with a wide-open London in the back of the end zone, giving Atlanta a 25-22 lead with 3:23 remaining.
If it works ...
Taking a cue from the Falcons, the Bucs went to the ground during a mid-fourth-quarter drive.
Chase Edmonds runs of 7 and 15 yards, and Rachaad White carries of 6 and 10 quickly moved the ball from the Tampa Bay 25 to the Atlanta 37.
After a 6-yard pass from Baker Mayfield to Chris Godwin, White picked up 5 and a first down at the 26.
But Mayfield threw deep for both tight end Chris Otton and wide receiver Mike Evans around a 6-yard White run, bringing up fourth and 4 from the 20. The Bucs challenged the incomplete call on Evans, but replays showed Evans’ hand touched out of bounds before his second foot comes down in the end zone.
Chase McLaughlin’s 38-yard field goal extended Tampa Bay’s lead to 22-17 with 6:14 remaining.
Within striking distance
With Desmond Ridder inconsistent passing the ball, the Falcons handed it to running back Bijan Robinson early in the fourth quarter.
It resulted in a 67-yard touchdown drive that brought Atlanta back within two.
The Falcons got some help from the officials, too.
Tampa Bay’s defense appeared to get off the field early in the drive when Zyon McCollum broke up a pass intended for Drake London on third and 7 from the Atlanta 36.
But McCollum was called for pass interference, giving the Falcons a first down at the Bucs 42.
Two Cordarrelle Patterson runs (William Gholston was injured on the second) netted 6 yards, setting up third and 4 from the 36 with 12:07 to play.
Robinson picked up the first down and more with a 33-yard run around left end to the Bucs 3. The Falcons went right back to Robinson, who picked up the remaining yards on a run over right tackle. Younghoe Koo’s extra-point kick trimmed Atlanta’s deficit to 19-17 with 11:10 remaining.
Carrying the load
Running back Rachaad White did most of the work and, fittingly, took the ball into the end zone during a nine-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that extended the Bucs’ lead to nine points late in the third quarter.
White gave Tampa Bay a spark early in the drive with a 12-yard gain to the Atlanta 45 on a third-and-1 run.
After two Chase Edmonds runs netted 5 yards, the Bucs faced third and 5 from the 40. Baker Mayfield found Mike Evans over the middle for 8 yards and a first down at the 32.
Tampa Bay quickly found itself in another third-down situation, after White ran for a yard and Mayfield threw incomplete for tight end Cade Otton.
White caught a short Mayfield pass and weaved his way 31 yards down the left side of the field for a touchdown, pushing the Bucs’ lead to 19-10 with 4:06 remaining in the third quarter.
Bucs receiver Chris Godwin was in visible pain as he left the field early in the third quarter.
Godwin limped off the field after dropping a pass on a third-and-6 play from the Tampa Bay 13 with just under 10 minutes remaining in the quarter. He returned to the game.
Godwin was questionable for last week’s game against the Carolina Panthers with a neck injury. He played but had no receptions on only three targets. His lone touch resulted in a 19-yard touchdown run.
Outcome’s the same
The Falcons avoided a turnover but ultimately punted the ball back to the Bucs on their opening possession of the second half.
Bijan Robinson got the drive started with an 8-yard burst up the middle to the Atlanta 33. A 6-yard pass from Desmond Ridder to Drake London moved the ball to the 39.
The Falcons briefly appeared to turn the ball over when Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted Ridder at the Tampa Bay 44 and returned it to the Atlanta 47.
But an illegal hands to the face penalty against Carlton Davis nullified the play and gave the Falcons a first down at the Atlanta 44.
The Falcons didn’t get much further.
Ridder threw incomplete for Jonnu Smith, Tyler Allgeier was stopped for no gain, and Winfield stopped Smith after an 8-yard reception, forcing an Atlanta punt.
The Bucs defense continued to impact the game late in the second quarter, putting Tampa Bay back ahead.
With Atlanta backed up in its own end, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. stripped the ball from quarterback Desmond Ridder in the end zone. Falcons fullback Keith Smith fell on the ball, but Patrick O’Connor downed him in the end zone for a safety.
It was the second big play of the half for the Tampa Bay defense inside the Atlanta 10-yard line. Cornerback Carlton Davis intercepted Ridder at the Falcons 8 late in the first quarter, setting up a touchdown.
The Bucs took a 12-10 lead on the safety and got the ball back at their 34-yard line with just over two minutes remaining in the first half.
They were unable to pick up a first down, however, and punted the ball back to the Falcons.
Atlanta drove to the Tampa Bay 34 before Younghoe Koo missed a 52-yard field goal attempt as time expired in the half.
No harm done
The Bucs took a gamble with just under seven minutes remaining in the first half. It didn’t pay off, but it didn’t wind up costing them, either, thanks to their defense.
Facing fourth and 2 from the Atlanta 42, Todd Bowles opted to go for the first down over a 60-yard field goal attempt.
But running back Rachaad White was stopped deep in the backfield by safety Jessie Bates, resulting in a 5-yard loss and turnover on downs at the Falcons 47.
Atlanta was at the Tampa Bay 32 on the next play, following an 18-yard completion from Desmond Ridder to KhaDarel Hodge.
But after Bijan Robinson was stopped for no gain and a Ridder pass to Mack Hollins gained only 4 yards, the Falcons faced third and 6 from the 31.
Calijah Kancey sacked Ridder, resulting in a loss of 1 yard. It turned out to be significant, as Younghoe Koo’s field-goal attempt hit the right upright, leaving the game tied at 10 with 4:20 left in the first half.
The Falcons needed less than three minutes to tie the game after Baker Mayfield’s go-ahead TD run, driving 75 yards in six plays early in the second quarter.
The big play was a 22-yard completion from Desmond Ridder to Drake London to the Tampa Bay 37.
Bucs safety Ryan Neal was injured on the next play, a 1-yard run around left end by Bijan Robinson.
Atlanta went for the jugular following the injury timeout, as Ridder hit tight end Kyle Pitts deep down the right sideline for a 36-yard touchdown that tied the game at 10 with 12:09 remaining in the second quarter.
The Bucs defense made the first big play of the game, setting up Tampa Bay’s first touchdown.
With the Falcons backed up in their own end late in the first quarter, cornerback Carlton Davis jumped in front of a screen pass intended for running back Bijan Robinson and was ruled down at the Falcons 8.
After Rachaad White ran for 6 yards around left end, quarterback Baker Mayfield powered his way over left tackle the final 2 yards into the end zone. Chase McLaughlin’s extra-point kick gave the Bucs a 10-3 lead 3 seconds into the second quarter.
All tied up
The Falcons drove to the Bucs 2-yard line on their first possession before settling for a tying field goal.
It didn’t take Atlanta long to pick up its first, first down, as two short passes from Desmond Ridder to running back Bijan Robinson netted 15 yards, moving the ball to the 40.
With the Falcons facing third and 8 from their 42, Ridder connected with Drake London deep downfield for 26 yards and a first down at the Bucs 32.
Three plays later, Ridder scrambled for 7 yards around right end on third and 5 to give Atlanta a first down at the 20.
After runs by Cordarrelle Patterson and Ridder netted 7 yards, the Falcons faced third and 3 from the 13. Zyon McCollum brought down London after a 2-yard reception, making it fourth and 1 from the 11.
The Falcons went for the first down, and Ridder hit tight end Kyle Pitts on a short out, picking up 2 yards to the 9. Robinson then ran twice for 7 yards, setting up third and goal from the 2.
With Antoine Winfield Jr. applying pressure, Ridder threw incomplete for an open Robinson, and Atlanta sent Younghoe Koo onto the field to kick a tying 20-yard field goal with 1:23 to play in the first quarter.
On the board
The Bucs drove 38 yards in nine plays on their opening possession, resulting in a go-ahead field goal.
Tampa Bay started on the ground, with Rachaad White carrying up the middle for 6 yards.
The Bucs picked up their first, first down on their second play, as Baker Mayfield hit Chris Godwin over the middle for 6 yards to the 37. It was the 500th reception of Godwin’s seven-year career.
After White ran for 2 yards and Mayfield threw to tight end Cade Otton for 5, Tampa Bay faced third and 2 from the 44.
Mayfield threw underneath to David Moore, whose 11-yard reception gave the Bucs a first down at the Falcons 45.
Tampa Bay faced third and 4 two plays later, after Trey Palmer’s sliding, 5-yard catch. Mayfield scrambled for 2 yards, forcing the Bucs to settle for Chase McLaughlin’s 55-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 9:27 remaining in the first quarter.
Bucs aim to finish strong against NFC South
The Bucs understand there’s little margin for error in their bid to win a third straight NFC South title.
“From here on out, every game we play is a playoff game,” coach Todd Bowles said this week, looking ahead to today’s matchup against the division-leading Atlanta Falcons (6-6), who won the earlier meeting between the teams.
“Most of them are division games that we play, so it’s really important to win those division games.”
Today’s game is essentially a must-win for Tampa Bay, with Atlanta holding the tiebreaker edge in head-to-head (after a 16-13 win over the Bucs in October) and divisional record (a 3-0 mark, compared to the Bucs at 2-1).
If the Falcons win, they would for all intents and purposes hold a three-game edge over Tampa Bay with four weeks to go.
“Divisional games are already important,” Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “But where we’re at, it’s extremely important for us.”
Bowles described a stretch in which the Bucs (5-7) will play three of their final five games within the NFC South as a “round-robin” tournament.
“We all play each other, you know it’s going to come down to the end,” he said. “It’s another division game coming up. We had a tough one at our place (against Atlanta), and we have to go down there and try to return the favor.”
Last week’s victory over Carolina was just the second in eight games for Tampa Bay following a surprising 3-1 start to the season.
Atlanta has won two in a row but struggled offensively in its last game. A stout defensive performance secured an ugly 13-8 victory over the Jets.
The Falcons haven’t allowed an opposing touchdown the last two weeks, showing that all the money they spent in the offseason on that side of the line has clearly paid off.
“We’re not doing victory laps,” coach Arthur Smith said. “But it’s another huge game, right? That’s what you want to be in.”
For the Bucs, the surest path to a fourth consecutive postseason berth is the division championship, which would also ensure a home playoff game.
“We just have to make sure we continue to handle business and win our games,” safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said, “because we control our own destiny.”
— FRED GOODALL and PAUL NEWBERRY, Associated Press
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