TAMPA, Fla. — No one has led more late game-winning drives during the past five seasons than Matt Ryan, who has kept the Atlanta Falcons flying high with five fourth-quarter rallies this year alone.
Matty Ice did it again Sunday, throwing for 353 yards and overcoming two critical turnovers to stop Tampa Bay’s four-game winning streak with a 24-23 win. Atlanta now has a four-game lead in the NFC South and can clinch the division title next week.
The Falcons (10-1) kept pace with Houston for the NFL’s best record, and Ryan had plenty of help in withstanding a challenge from the Buccaneers (6-5).
“They are playing with a lot of confidence,” said Ryan, who has won seven of his past eight starts against the Bucs. “It’s always been a tough place for us to come play. They play with great effort, and I think they have a good football team.”
Ryan hit Julio Jones for an 80-yard TD midway through the third quarter, but the Falcons found themselves trailing 23-17 after the Bucs marched for a touchdown, then used a sack-fumble to set up a field goal.
Ryan then led a six-play, 64-yard march that Michael Turner finished with a 3-yard TD run that put Atlanta ahead for good with 7:55 left.
Connor Barth missed late a 56-yard goal, and the winning streak that’s helped the Bucs climb back into playoff contention ended when Josh Freeman’s desperation pass fell incomplete on the final play.
“The last drive, that’s something we’ve done before this season,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “I really think that’s a positive for us to be able to come up with plays like that when we have to like that.”
The Falcons will next face the New Orleans Saints at home Thursday night.
“Ten-and-1 is great, but I’ll tell you what I’ve said since the beginning of the season: We’re just jockeying for position,” Gonzalez said. “We just want to put ourselves in the best position, playing the best football. Right around this time is when you want to start gelling as a team and take it on into the playoffs because that’s the most important thing.”
Ryan has also led late marches to beat Carolina, Washington, Oakland and Arizona this season and has put together 21 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since entering the league in 2008 – four of them against the division rival Bucs.
The win stopped the Bucs, who’ve won five or seven following a 1-3 start, from tightening the NFC South standings. Turner also scored a fourth-quarter TD that helped the Falcons overcome six turnovers to beat Arizona 23-19 last week.
Doug Martin scored on a pair of 1-yard run for the Bucs, however the rookie who began the day leading the NFL in total yards from scrimmage was limited to 50 yards rushing on 21 carries.
Barth kicked field goals of 22, 42, and 48 yards, the latter giving the Bucs their six-point lead after cornerback E.J. Biggers sacked Ryan to force a fumble. Ryan threw a second-quarter interception – his sixth pick in two weeks – that led Barth’s field goal that made it 10-10 at the half.
Ryan completed 26 of 32 passes, including four straight on the drive that Turner finished with his TD run. Jacquizz Rodgers had a 5-yard TD run in the first quarter, and Jones finished with six receptions for 147 yards despite playing on a sore right ankle that limited him in practice.
Ryan started the game with 10 straight completions before Ronde Barber’s interception and 28-yard return to the Atlanta 31 led to Barth’s first field goal.
The Falcons drove to the Tampa Bay 4 in the closing seconds of the half, but wasted an opportunity to regain the lead when Matt Bryant hooked a 22-yard field-goal attempt wide left as time expired. The Atlanta kicker missed a 48-yarder with 8 seconds left, giving the Bucs one more chance to pull out what would have been their first signature victory under first-year coach Greg Schiano.
“It was a hard-fought game by both teams, a very physical game,” Schiano said. “But I do think missed opportunities were a big part of it. There were some chances both offensively and defensively, and in the kicking game.”
Freeman finished 19 of 30 for 256 yards, and Vincent Jackson had five catches for 96 yards. A big factor in the loss, though, was Atlanta’s held the Bucs to field goals after each of Ryan’s turnovers, once after Tampa Bay had 1st-and-goal at the Atlanta 3.
“I thought our defense did an outstanding job again. They were put in some tough situations after turnovers,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said, adding that slowing Martin was one of the keys to the game as well.
“We knew it was going to be one of our ‘musts,’ and I thought we did a nice job,” Smith added. “I thought we played the run extremely well, controlled the line of scrimmage. That is an outstanding running back.”