Incredible Second-Half Surge Nets Crucial Comeback Win in Atlanta
One of the most incredible comebacks in Buccaneers history is also one of the team's most significant victories in a long time, as Tampa Bay rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to beat the Falcons, 31-27, in Atlanta on Sunday. The win, which looked improbable after a lopsided first half, puts the team on the verge of its first playoff berth since 2007.

"It was great poise by everybody," said QB Tom Brady, whose 46-yard touchdown pass to WR Antonio Brown with six minutes left gave the Buccaneers their first and only lead of the game. "Everybody hung in there. We got off to a tough start but found a way to win. The defense came up huge, made some big stops. Offensively, everyone made a bunch of different plays and it was a great win for our team and we're going to have to keep building on it."

The Buccaneers started slowly yet again on, and this time it took an entire half to pick up any speed. But once the Buccaneers put it in gear they didn't slow down the rest of the way, scoring on five straight offensive possessions while the defense forced three three-and-outs and one four-and-out to make the comeback possible.

Brady threw for 320 yards and had touchdown passes to Brown and Chris Godwin in the second half. That passing yardage total ranked as the third-most in any half in franchise annals and the most since Vinny Testaverde had 324 in the second half against Indianapolis in 1988.

The Buccaneers now have three wins this season in which they trailed heading into the fourth quarter, and Brady's presence gives his teammates confidence that the team can come back from any deficit. Sunday's game was reminiscent of Super Bowl LI, in which Brady led the New England Patriots on an historic comeback from a 28-3 deficit to a 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons. "He's just a winner, he knows how to do it," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "He's always been a fourth-quarter player."

Added TE Cameron Brate, who had a season-high 54 yards on four catches: "I think a lot of it his track record, the belief that he kind of inspires in all of us. He's done on the biggest stage – the 28-3 game. All of us, we've seen him do it. We have just a ton of confidence in him and he puts that confidence in us as well. There was really no panic in the locker room."

The win improved Tampa Bay to 9-5 with two games remaining and it needs only one win in the next two weeks to clinch a playoff spot without any help from other results around the league. It was also the second time the Bucs have rallied from a 17-point deficit this season, beating the Los Angeles Chargers, 38-31, in Week Four after falling into a 24-7 second-quarter hole. The only larger comeback in Buccaneers history was a 30-27 overtime win at Kansas City in 2008 that necessitated a rally from 21 points down.

The Bucs' second-half explosion and eventual defensive dominance also made the team look like it could actually be a credible playoff threat if they make the postseason field, though they know they have to play that way for 60 minutes.

"That's the thing – we haven't really put it together all year," said Brate. "Maybe the Panthers game in Carolina; that was probably the most complete game we played all year. We know how talented we are as a team. Just for whatever reason we shoot ourselves in the foot and we can't string together 60 minutes. Yeah, you can win against teams that aren't going to make the playoffs right now but I don't think we'll win too many playoff games spotting teams 17 points. It's going to be something we're going to have to figure out but, yeah, with the guys in the locker room we never think we're out of it."

The Falcons dominated the game in the first half, gaining 261 yards and 16 touchdowns while converting six of 10 third-down tries. Tampa Bay hit halftime with 60 total yards and five first downs, plus just one third-down conversion in five tries. Brady had just 70 passing yards at that point and had been sacked twice and hit or hurried on the vast majority of his drop-backs.

The Buccaneers' defense also started slowly, allowing a touchdown and 121 yards on Atlanta's first two drives. The issue was third-down defense, as each of those two possessions starting with the Bucs forcing a long third down only to see Matt Ryan convert them and begin an extended march downfield. Ryan had 235 of his eventual 356 passing yards before halftime.

Still, the Bucs found a way to make the necessary adjustments at halftime and the offense was nearly unstoppable in the final two quarters. The defense also turned up the heat on Ryan in the second half with all three of their sacks, all by ILB Devin White, including two on third down. The only blemish on either side was a 75-yard touchdown drive by the Falcons on their first possession of the half that could have halted the Bucs' momentum after their own half-opening touchdown drive.

"That's the way we're capable [of playing]; that's the way we should be playing," said Arians of the Buccaneers' 31-point second half. "My comments to the team after the game was, 'If we can play 30 minutes like that, why the hell can't we play 60?' It's frustrating. … I couldn't be prouder of our guys. We talked about it halftime: 'We've got the ball, go make something happen.' I was not real happy that they scored, but then we were able to score [almost] every time we touched it in the second half until the end and finish strong. The defense came alive, we kind of figured it out, and the pass rush got home."

Slow starts on both sides of the ball have plagued the Bucs throughout the second half of the season, even during their victories. They overcame those sluggish openings to win at Carolina in Week 10 and against Minnesota in Week 14 and even made spirited comebacks in narrow losses to Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams in Weeks 12 and 11. On this afternoon, however, things looked bleak until the Buccaneers found a way to drastically turn up their energy level in the second half.

"The big difference is we came out with more energy and we did everything the coaches told us to do," said White, who finished the game with 12 tackles, four tackles for loss and two passes defensed to go with his three sacks. "You've just got to be in the right place at the right time and you've got to play within the scheme."

The Buccaneers likely could not have completed the drastic comeback if not for the fact that they played one of their "cleaner" games of the season. Neither team committed a turnover and the Buccaneers only had one accepted penalty against them, that one on special teams late in the game. That and a rising confidence level across the team kept the Bucs from letting the early troubles snowball into a lopsided loss.

"We're going to have to figure out how to play our best for 60 minutes as opposed to 30," said Brady. "It was a good win by us. Everyone loves winning but we also want to play better, we want to play our best."

The Buccaneers' comeback began with an 80-yard drive that ended in Leonard Fournette's one-yard touchdown run to open the second half. Fournette, starting in place of Ronald Jones, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, ran 14 times for 49 yards and two touchdowns and three catches for 16 yards. He also fought for just enough inches to get the final first down the Bucs needed on the last possession to run out the clock without giving Matt Ryan one more shot.

Brady then led 75 and 76-yard touchdown drives on the Bucs' next two possessions, the first ending in a four-yard scoring pass to Godwin and the second on Fournette's second one-yard TD run. Brady looked frequently to Mike Evans on all of those drives, and the Bucs' star receiver finished with a team-leading six catches for 110 yards.

A 27-yard Ryan Succop field goal tied the game at 24-24 with 11 minutes left in regulation but the Falcons took the lead back on the next drive on Younghoe Koo's 52-yard field goal. Atlanta nearly got seven points out of the drive but rookie S Antoine Winfield made an incredible diving pass break-up in the end zone and White had the first of his three sacks on the ensuing third down.

The Bucs answered with their fifth straight scoring drive, this one set up by a 22-yard punt return to midfield by Kenjon Barner and ending in a 46-yard touchdown pass to Brown on a straight go route. It was Brown's first touchdown since joining the Buccaneers and it came at a perfect moment.

"He has seen it all, done it all, been in so many games, so many situations," said Brown of his quarterback. "To be in combat with him, it's just unbelievable. I'm just grateful to be on the receiving side of it. Late in the game he made a great throw, hit me right in the numbers. I had an opportunity to put the team ahead and it was a great play."

It wasn't over until that first-down call on Fournette's run was upheld. And the Falcons' comeback threat in the waning minutes wasn't quashed until Ross Cockrell, playing because Carlton Davis left the game after halftime with a groin injury, tackled WR Calvin Ridley three yards short of a first down on a desperation fourth-and-18 pass.

Those two plays, one on each side of the ball, were indicative of the complementary football the Buccaneers played – and had to play – throughout an incredible first half in order to overcome a miserable first two quarters "We do dig holes," said Arians. "But we stay disciplined and find a way to win."

Carmen Vitali,, published 21 December 2020