Julio Jones caught two touchdown passes in a span of 26 seconds, Michael Turner ran for two scores and the Falcons used a team-record 42 first-half points to cruise to a 45-24 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday to clinch the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs.
The Falcons (10-6) and Detroit (10-6) are the NFC wild cards. Atlanta, which beat Detroit on Oct. 23, won the tiebreaker with the Lions for the more favorable seeding. The Falcons will play at the winner of Sunday night’s Dallas-New York Giants game in the first round of the playoffs.
“We wanted to play our final regular-season game with a lot of intensity and energy, and I think we did that in all three phases,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Josh Freeman threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half as the Buccaneers (4-12) closed their season with their 10th straight loss, leaving the status of coach Raheem Morris in doubt.
The Falcons led 42-0 when it began resting some of its starters, including quarterback Matt Ryan and Turner, late in the first half.
Tampa Bay, which finished 10-6 last season and started 4-2 this season, is left with its longest losing streak in one season in 34 years. The Buccaneers also lost 10 straight in 1977. They lost 11 straight between the 2008 and ’09 seasons.
Turnovers were a problem for the Buccaneers all season. Freeman began the day tied for the league lead with 19 interceptions before adding three to the dismal total, including one with 1:39 remaining.
Freeman completed 31 of 45 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
With Atlanta leading 42-0, Freeman threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Dezmon Briscoe with about 2 minutes remaining in the first half. Freeman threw a 5-yard TD pass to Briscoe in the fourth quarter.
Tampa Bay’s other touchdown came on Elbert Mack’s 40-yard interception return against Falcons’ backup Chris Redman in the third quarter.
Turner ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yard scoring run late in the first half. The score capped the Falcons’ run of six unanswered touchdowns.
The Falcons led 21-0 after the first quarter and then put the game away with three more touchdowns in the second quarter.
The strong showing was important for the Falcons, who were coming off a 45-16 loss at New Orleans that was the worst loss in four seasons with Smith.
“We had some things we needed to get fixed from the previous game and I’m really proud of the way the guys bounced back,” Smith said.
Ryan was 6 of 9 for 106 yards, including touchdown passes of 17 and 48 yards to Jones in the first quarter.
Rookie Jacquizz Rodgers scored on a 1-yard run for his first career touchdown to start the Falcons’ scoring. Rodgers lost a fumble at the Tampa Bay 2 in the fourth quarter.
After Ryan’s first TD pass to Jones, Dominique Franks’ interception on Tampa Bay’s first down gave the ball back to Atlanta.
On first down from the Buccaneers 48, Ryan again threw to Jones, who fought off safety Tanard Jackson for the catch. Jones then jumped up from the turf, hit cornerback E.J. Biggers with a stiff-arm and then dragged Biggers into the end zone.
Turner had two touchdown runs and Curtis Lofton returned an interception 26 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Matt Bryant kicked a 20-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter after the Buccaneers were stopped on fourth down at their 10.
Turner’s two touchdowns gave him a team-record 50 rushing scores with the Falcons, passing Gerald Riggs’ record of 48.
Roddy White also celebrated a milestone, passing Terance Mathis for the most yards receiving with the Falcons. Mathis had 7,349 yards from 1994-2001. White began Sunday 44 yards behind Mathis and set the mark in the third quarter.