TAMPA, Fla. — Josh Freeman pushed his way into the end zone, scrambled to his feet and flapped his arms in celebration of the first rushing touchdown of his career.
The little bird dance seemed uncharacteristic for Tampa Bay’s usually unflappable 23-year-old quarterback. It also spoke to how much beating the Atlanta Falcons means to a young Buccaneers team that ended three years of frustration against their NFC South rivals with a 16-13 win Sunday.
Tampa Bay’s defense forced three turnovers and sacked Matt Ryan four times in its best performance of the season. Freeman’s 1-yard sneak snapped a 3-3 tie in the second quarter and Connor Barth kicked three field goals as the Bucs (2-1) stopped a five-game losing streak in the series. Four of those losses were by six or fewer points.
“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.”
Tampa Bay won 10 games a year ago, but lost twice to the Falcons with both games being decided in the closing minutes.
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 (1-2) were stopped on downs inside the Bucs 10 early in the fourth quarter. Still, Ryan nearly pulled off another fourth-quarter rally.
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.
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 a final first down when Atlanta’s Corey Peters jumped offside on fourth-and-inches when the Bucs did not plan to snap the ball.
“It was stupid. It was my fault. I take 100 percent of the blame for that,” Peters said. “We went over it over and over again.”
Ryan completed 26 of 47 passes for 330 yards and one touchdown.