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.
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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 victory on 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.”
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 a year ago, 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 (1-2) 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 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 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.”
Peters took responsibility.
”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, 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.
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.
Freeman completed 22 of 32 passes for 180 yards with two interceptions. He rushed for 35 yards on 10 attempts.
Both quarterbacks began the game with turnovers on their team’s first possession. Freeman’s end zone interception cost the Bucs a chance to take a quick lead after Dekoda Watson, starting in place of injured linebacker Quincy Black, sacked Ryan to force the fumble Barber recovered at the Falcons 17.
Freeman threw six interceptions all last season. He’s already thrown four this year, including ill-advised throws to the middle of the end zone each of the past two games.
All that didn’t matter Sunday.
”We’ve lost more close games like that against this team than we’ve won. That was huge for us,” Barber said. ”We’ve had our issues with these guys. We’ve had fourth-and-1s that we didn’t convert, yada, yada, yada. But we got the same situation today, and we found a way to a way to get it done. It was a good effort from all parties.”
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.