Bucs Streak Into the Postseason with High-Flying Win over Falcons
Two weeks after needing a wild second-half comeback to beat the Atlanta Falcons the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had to hold off relentless Atlanta rally to get the 44-27 victory at Raymond James Stadium and ride into the playoffs on a four-game winning streak. It's the longest winning streak that the Buccaneers have ever had to finish a season and it gave them 11 wins for just the fourth time in team annals.

"We're way, way more confident, especially offensively," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of the team's late-season run. "We've got a grasp of what we're doing offensively. I'm not sure how many times we've punted since the second half of the first Atlanta game.

"But I'm going to say Atlanta is a quality football team and without those turnovers it would have probably been a six-point game. That's a talented football team. Minnesota's a talented football team. We can't worry about who we played. All football teams can beat your ass on Sunday, so you'd better be ready."

The Bucs were ready, taking the ball to start the game and marching right down the field for a touchdown, which gave them a lead they would never relinquish despite the Falcons' impressive fight. The win improved Tampa Bay to 11-5 and clinched the fifth spot in the NFC playoff field. They will begin the postseason at the home of the NFC East winner, which won't be determined until the end of the Sunday evening Washington-Philadelphia tilt.

Arians insisted the Buccaneers would "play to win," and sure enough the starters remained on the field to the very end. That included Tom Brady, who continued his incredible hot streak with 399 yards and four touchdowns, pushing his final season total to 40 scoring passes. The previous record, by Jameis Winston last year, was 33. Brady and the Buccaneers' offense scored on eight of their 10 possessions, the only exceptions being a fluky interception in the third quarter and the final kneel-down at the end of the game. For the second time this year (also at Carolina, Week 10), the Buccaneers did not punt a single time.

"It was going to be one of those games," said Arians. "[Brady] played fantastic. He's been on fire since the open date. We scored on every possession except that one and the kneel-down. We kicked too many field goals but that wasn't him. He's been fantastic. When we first met, that's really what we talked about, the guys that we have and what he could do with the players that we have. Adding Robby Gronkowski to the mix just helped. I envisioned 40, I really did. When he first signed, I said, 'Okay we'll be a 40 [touchdown] and 10 [interception] team.'"

The potential danger of playing starters, of course, is the loss of a key player or two to injuries. And indeed, that fear was realized during an emotional sequence late in the first quarter. One play after Mike Evans caught a 20-yard pass to surpass 1,000 yards for the seventh straight time, he was targeted on a potential touchdown pass but slipped as he ran onto the end zone turf and sustained an apparent knee injury.

Mere minutes after the stadium PA announced that Evans was the first player in NFL history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons he was being helped into the locker room. He did not return to the game but the Buccaneers are hoping his season isn't over.

"It meant the world for him to get that record," said Arians. "And then to have an easy touchdown…the turf was really slick in the end zone and it was just a freaky thing. Knock on wood, we don't think there's any serious damage. We'll know more in the next 245 hours."

The Bucs still took a 10-3 lead one on of Ryan Succop's three fields in three times after Evans' injury but there was a noticeable drop of energy in the stadium after Evans left the field. Eventually, the offense got back into rhythm with Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown making a series of big plays.

"The life in the stadium really just got sucked out of it," said Godwin. "And I think that's when you really see just how important Mike really is to this team, to the organization, to the city. He does so much for everyone around here and seeing him get hurt everyone just kind of felt for that. But as a group I think we did a pretty good job of bouncing back.

" It took a couple plays there but we realized there was a task at hand and we got back to work. Thankfully, we have a ton of guys that are really talented. We've got a great quarterback, good offensive line. We just went out there and decided to make plays and try to propel us towards the playoffs."

Despite being without their leading receiver for the final three quarters, the Bucs' passing attack kept moving the ball with little resistance, both with downfield throws and underneath routes that turned into big plays. Brown led the team with 11 catches for 138 yard but Godwin was right behind with 133 yards on five catches. They both hauled in a pair of scoring passes.

"When he went out, other guys really stepped up and made a bunch of plays," said Brady. "Chris keeps making plays, Scotty [Miler] did a good job, Tyler [Johnson] made some plays, Gronk (Rob Gronkowski), Cam – everyone. AB, obviously. We've just got to keep it going. We've got a big one next week. It all comes down to one game."

The Buccaneers finished the game with 485 yards just one week after setting a new franchise single-game record with 588 yards in a 47-7 win at Detroit. This marks the first time that Tampa Bay has ever scored 40-plus points in consecutive games. In the 10 quarters since heading into halftime down 17-0 at Atlanta in Week 15, the Buccaneers have racked up 1,429 yards with 16 touchdowns and only one giveaway.

Brady has led 23 drives in that span, with 14 ending in touchdowns, four in field goals, two in punts and two in kneel-downs. The one turnover came in the third quarter of Sunday's win when Scotty Miller tried to make a diving catch and the ball popped up out of his hands when he hit the ground, going straight to Falcons S Ricardo Allen.

"I don't think it's one thing," said Godwin of the offensive explosion. "We're starting to just see the fruits of our labor. I think we're getting the right play calls at the right time, I think we're executing so much better and I think at the end of the day, when the ball's in the air guys are just making plays."

The Falcons kept the game close with 385 yards of their own and scores on four straight drives from the end of the first half through beginning of the fourth quarter. Atlanta closed the gap to three points twice, including a 30-27 score when Matt Ryan hit Hayden Hurst on one-yard touchdown pass with eight minutes to play.

But Brady responded with his second touchdown pass to Godwin to finish a 75-yard drive and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting ended the Falcons' last hopes by stripping the ball from WR Calvin Ridley and recovering the fumble with three minutes to play. Murphy-Bunting also had six tackles and a pass defensed as the Bucs played without top corner Carlton Davis, and the Bucs held Ridley to just 52 yards two weeks after he caught 10 passes for 163 yards in Atlanta.

"It's been a while for me since I've had a big impact play, I would say, but honestly I'm just blessed for the coaches still believing in me and trusting me throughout the year," said Murphy-Bunting. "Because this year I've obviously had my ups and my lows. It just means a lot to me. Each and every game, each and every day, coaches are telling me, 'Let's be that player you are. There's no reason you shouldn't be.'"

Davis wasn't the only key defender missing. The Buccaneers were also without leading tackler Devin White and standout edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, both of whom were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday. Backup nose tackle Steve McLendon was also placed on the COVID list and defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter was out due to a calf injury. That led to Kevin Minter starting at inside linebacker and Anthony Nelson starting at outside linebacker, with CB Ross Cockrell, OLB Cam Gill, ILB Chapelle Russell, DL Khalil Davis, DL Patrick O'Connor, DL Benning Potoa'e and CB Herb Miller all seeing more action than usual.

"Everybody rose to the occasion," said Murphy-Bunting. "Everyone came here, stepped up and did what they had to do. Kevin Minter came in and played a significantly higher role than he's played throughout the year and it was like the beat didn't stop. And you had younger guys – Cam Gill getting in there, 'Deuce' Chapelle getting in there and guys like that. That's all you can really ask for as a coach and as a player, for guys to go in there and battle for each other.

The Buccaneers completed their first season sweep of Atlanta since 2015 and finished 4-2 in division play and 5-3 at home. Most importantly, they head into the playoffs with a full head of steam and a swiftly rising confidence level.

"It's very important," said Murphy-Bunting. "You don't really want to go into the playoffs losing. You want to know what it feels like to win. You want to have that hot hand, you want to just keep it rolling, firing on all cylinders – offense, defense, special teams – and contribute every way you can. Definitely with these last four wins it's a big up for us. We're riding the high horse right now and we just need to continue riding that and keep playing hard and keep playing for each other."

Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 4 January 2021