TAMPA, Fla.. Down 10 points with just over 10 minutes to go, the streaking Atlanta Falcons didn’t flinch.
With Matt Ryan on their side, it’s easy to understand why.
Eric Weems scored on a 102-yard kickoff return and Ryan finished yet another fourth-quarter comeback with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins that gave the Falcons a 28-24 victory over the on Sunday.
The third-year pro has led 13 winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his career, six this season.
Atlanta (10-2) retained sole possession of first place in the NFC South over second-place New Orleans (9-3).
The Falcons won despite Ryan throwing two interceptions — the team’s first turnovers in five games — and being outgained 325 yards to 290.
Ryan also led a winning field goal drive in the final minute last week in a three-point win over .
He rejects the notion, though, that Atlanta is playing like a team of destiny.
“I don’t think anybody buys into that too much. We know that in this league, there is a lot of talent on each football team and anything can happen any given Sunday,” Ryan said. “We’re a confident team for sure, and we believe in ourselves, but we always know we’re going to face tough opponents, regardless of who we’re playing against, especially when you’re on the road.”
Matty Ice, as Ryan has come to be known, kept the winning march alive with a 25-yard completion to Roddy White on third-and-20. The Falcons also benefited from a third-down pass-interference call and another costly penalty on the Bucs for a horsecollar tackle.
“The mindset was the same. We felt like we could go down the field and score,” Ryan said. “We’re confident in that situation. We’ve been in those situations a number of times this year. … Nobody panicked because we understand that we can make plays when we need to.”
Rookie LeGarrette Blount rushed for 103 yards and fullback Earnest Graham threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to John Gilmore for Tampa Bay (7-5), which is 7-0 against teams with winning records and 0-5 against opponents with winning marks.
“We felt like we really outplayed them for most of the game, but it’s the NFL,” Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman said. “You have to find a way to win in the fourth quarter nearly every week, and today we weren’t able to do that.”
Ryan completed 18 of 36 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns. The pair of interceptions were his first since a 39-32 win over Cincinnati on Oct. 24.
Atlanta built an early 14-7 lead with Michael Turner scoring on a 5-yard run and Ryan throwing a 17-yard TD pass to Ovie Mughelli.
Tampa Bay turned Sean Jones’ interception into a touchdown to pull even in the closing seconds of the first half. Ryan’s second turnover led to another TD — fullback Earnest Graham’s 2-yard pass to John Gilmore — that put the Bucs up 24-14.
Twenty-one seconds later, the Falcons were back in the game.
Weems took the ensuing kickoff 2 yards deep in his own end zone, slipped past two diving tacklers as he made his way to the sideline at about 25, then somehow stayed in bounds as he headed up the sideline in front of the Atlanta bench and ran into the clear.
“That was huge. An unbelievable change of momentum,” Ryan said.
“We played all four quarters,” Weems added. “It’s never over with us.”
Freeman was 19 of 38 for 181 yards and one touchdown for the third-place Bucs, who fell three games behind Atlanta in the division.
Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris didn’t take solace in the NFL’s youngest team playing the Falcons tough for the second time in a month.
“I think a good or great team, they go out and finish games,” Morris said. “We’re not going to wait until we become a veteran team to go out and try to finish games. We’ve got to do it the next four weeks.”
NOTES: The Bucs wore orange throwback jerseys from their expansion days in the late 1970’s, and the team’s first coach, John McKay, was inducted into the franchise’s Ring of Honor at halftime. McKay’s son, Rich, is the Falcons president and was Tampa Bay’s general manager when the club won its only title eight years ago. … Atlanta won an earlier meeting this season, 27-21.