The Falcons called their last timeout, stopping the clock with 1:49 remaining to plot a simple strategy to get the ball back with Tampa Bay facing fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 44 on Sunday.
The Buccaneers likely had no plans to snap the ball, so Atlanta’s defenders were told to hold their ground and turn the game over to Ryan, who’s led 14 winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his career.
All that went awry when tackle Corey Peters jumped offside, giving Tampa Bay (2-1) a first down that allowed the Bucs to run out the clock in a 16-13 victory.
“It was 100 percent my fault. I knew not to do it. I guess I got a little excited out there,” Peters said. “It was just stupid. I’ll say it cost us the game. It definitely changed the game. It didn’t give us an opportunity to win.”
Josh Freeman scored the first rushing touchdown of his career and Tampa Bay’s defense forced three turnovers and sacked Ryan four times to end three years of frustration against the Falcons.
The little bird dance that Freeman did celebrating his TD seemed uncharacteristic for Tampa Bay’s usually unflappable 23-year-old quarterback. It also spoke to how much beating Atlanta (1-2) means to a young team that had lost five straight times to their NFC South rivals.
“It’s huge, and it’s about time one went our way. They’ve been really close games since I’ve been here,” the third-year pro 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. We got it done.”
As good as it felt, though, don’t try to tell the NFL’s youngest team that it has arrived.
“I just told the team we didn’t come into the season to beat the Atlanta Falcons. We came into this season to win the division. They just happen to be a team that’s in our division,” Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. “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.”
Tampa Bay won 10 games last season, but lost twice to the Falcons with both games being decided in the closing minutes. When his players convened for training camp, Morris delivered a simple message: The goal this year is to win the NFC South, regardless of how many wins it takes. That will ensure a postseason berth.
The Bucs forced two first-half fumbles with sacks. Ronde Barber intercepted a pass to stop an Atlanta threat just before halftime, and the Falcons were stopped on downs inside the Bucs 10 early in the fourth quarter. Still, Ryan nearly pulled off a fourth-quarter comeback from a double-digit deficit for the second straight week.
The Falcons drew within 16-13 on the 91st TD reception of Tony Gonzalez’s career with just under 10 minutes to go. They drove to the Tampa Bay 5 before Matt Bryant’s 33-yard field goal made it a three-point game with 4:06 left. Ryan and his supporting cast of playmakers never got the ball back.
With Freeman and LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 81 yards on 24 carries, leading the way, the Bucs burned the rest of the clock. Any hope the Falcons had evaporated as Tampa Bay converted its final first down.
“It was a freeze play. They were going to use a hard count,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “We talked about it on the sideline. We didn’t execute as an entire defense. Not one person (should be singled out). That one play didn’t determine the game. There were lots of plays. We just didn’t get it done.”
Ryan, who overcame a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Philadelphia 35-31 the previous week, completed 26 of 47 passes for 330 yards and one touchdown. The Bucs turned one of his two fumbles inside the Atlanta 20 into a field goal, and their last sack reduced the Falcons’ options after their drive reached the Tampa Bay 5.
“We’ve got to do better. Against good football teams, you can’t put yourselves in the hole and try to climb out,” Ryan said. “We’ve got the right guys to do better. We just need to clean up the details.”
Roddy White had nine receptions for 140 yards for Atlanta. Rookie Julio Jones had six catches for 115 yards, including a 49-yarder that set up Ryan’s 10-yard TD pass to Gonzalez, who tied Isaac Bruce for ninth on the NFL career TD reception list. Atlanta’s running game was nonexistent with Michael Turner, who had been averaging nearly 7 yards a carry, being limited to 20 yards on 11 attempts.
“We’re not executing in order to be successful. It’s not just in one phase. It’s across the board,” Smith said.
The Falcons have trailed by double-digits in all three of their games.
“We have not started fast. We have not gotten out of the chute like we want,” Smith said. “Every coach in this league talks about starting fast. One of the things you have to do. We haven’t done it to this point. They’re fighting hard and they have resolve. But we’ve got to start faster.”
“I think we’re a good football team. It’s not all about the offense. We’ve got good players on both sides of the balls. We’re playing hard. We just need to play better,” Ryan said. “I don’t think we’re that far away. In this league, it’s about the small things, the details. We need to sharpen those up.”
Notes: Bucs S Cody Grimm suffered a knee injury in the second half and did not return. … The Falcons were held to 30 yards rushing. The Bucs allowed an average of 156 per game in the first two weeks of the season, 31st in the NFL. … Earnest Graham was Tampa Bay’s leading receiver with seven receptions for 37 yards. … The Bucs beat the Falcons for the first time since a 24-9 victory in Tampa in 2008.