Falcons pull out another tough victory, 28-24
The Falcons were on life support, again. Special teams jump-started us," said quarterback Matt Ryan, who shook off a horrid day to lead the Falcons to a 28-24 come-from-behind victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Ryan has made it a habit of rallying the Falcons to victory. They improved to 10-2, and this squeaker was their seventh late-game victory this season.
The win allowed them to stay a game in front of New Orleans (9-3) in the NFC South. Tampa Bay, which had a 10-point lead with 10:24 to play, dropped to 7-5.
The Falcons had their struggles. Ryan was off the mark. Wide-receiver Roddy White was thrown off his game by a backup cornerback. The defense didn't tackle well. But, with the game on the line, the Falcons got a lift down the stretch from two of the smaller guys on the team, returner Eric Weems and cornerback Brent Grimes.
The Bucs, with their playoff hopes flickering in the light breeze, forged to a 24-14 lead when running back Earnest Graham threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to John Gilmore.
Fans started to dance in the aisles, wearing their floppy John McKay hats. The late coach was added into the team's Ring of Honor.
On the ensuing kickoff, Weems weaved his way up the right sideline, tiptoed up the sideline before cutting back inside on a franchise-record 102-yard touchdown return to make it 24-21.
"It was our time," Weems said. "We needed a big momentum swing. Guys came out and made great blocks for me. They got me all the way to the end zone."
The defense, which allowed an 100-yard rusher for the first time since the second game of season, needed to be firm. The Falcons defenders forced a punt and Ryan went to work. He missed his first two passes before he connected on four straight and drew a pass interference call.
None of the passes were bigger than the one he threw on third-and-20 from Atlanta's 23. He and White hooked up for 25 yards. "Matt did a good job of putting it in a place where only I could catch it," White said.
Eight plays later, Ryan tossed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on a third-and-3 play to give the Falcons the lead. The defense needed one more stop. Tampa Bay, which was led by LeGarrette Blount's 103 yards rushing, drove to Atlanta's 27. But Grimes stepped in front a pass intended for Mike Williams to end the threat.
"They ran an out route and I just played my technique," Grimes said. "I watched my man, I broke when he broke and just made a play on the ball."
Ryan's late second-quarter interception, which ended a string of 185 straight passes without an interception, helped Tampa Bay tie the score 14-14 at halftime.
The Falcons may have gotten a little too greedy after forcing Tampa Bay to punt. On second-and-10 from Atlanta's 29 with 1:55 left in the second quarter, Ryan's pass intended for Tony Gonzalez was intercepted by Tampa Bay's Sean Jones.
Jones, the former Georgia All-America selection, had a 31-yard return to put the Bucs at the Falcons' 30. It took the Bucs seven plays to score. Williams got open inside of Dunta Robinson on a slant for a 1-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left in the first half.
"Sometimes you have to find a way to win a game when you're not at your best," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We obviously didn't play our best ballgame today."