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Falcons are 10-1 — and having fun

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is shoved out of bounds by Buccaneers free safety Ahmad Black  during the second quarter of Sunday's game.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is shoved out of bounds by Buccaneers free safety Ahmad Black during the second quarter of Sunday's game.

TAMPA, Fla. — The Atlanta Falcons escaped a close call for the second consecutive game to remain in the driver’s seat in the NFC, outlasting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium for a 24-23 victory that came down to the wire. Just like most of their games this year.

The Buccaneers had a chance to take the lead on Connor Barth’s partially blocked field goal attempt a few minutes earlier and had a final possession after Falcons kicker Matt Bryant followed suit with his own miss, from 48 yards out, giving the Bucs one final glimmer of hope with 13 seconds remaining.

“They won four in a row, they were hot. Everyone was saying they were the hottest team in the NFC South and they probably were,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez then added: “Just to be able to come in here, in this type of environment and stop their momentum … and to be honest, we could have played a little better, but when you win close games like that, it’s only positive.”

The Falcons moved one step closer to clinching the division with a game-ending interception of Josh Freeman’s deep heave. The Falcons (10-1) host the Saints on Thursday with a chance to avenge their lone loss of this season.

Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 26 of 32 passes for 353 yards for the Falcons. He had one touchdown and an interception. The star of the game, however, was Julio Jones, who had a career-best six catches for 147 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. Ryan exploited a one-on-one matchup with Jones and Buccaneers undrafted rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson, with the Falcons gaining a 17-13 lead in just 11 seconds on a one-play drive.

“Julio made a great play,” Ryan said. “He inside released (Johnson) and just tried to get back to the outside. I tried to throw it down there high and outside so he could make a play on it. He did. He made a great adjustment. That was a really big play for us this game.”

Bucs coach Greg Schiano said giving up those “monster plays” has been a problem for the Bucs’ secondary all season.

“It’s been a bit of our Achilles heel and we’ll get it corrected and we’ll keep getting better at it,” Schiano said.

The Buccaneers’ 32-ranked pass defense in the league was without cornerback Eric Wright, who had been battling an Achilles injury, forcing young, inexperienced defensive backs to contend with the likes of Jones, Gonzalez, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas.

“I can’t really make an excuse for us giving up yards,” Johnson said. “All I can say is that we need to correct the small stuff, go back and get back to it.”

Gonzalez, Ryan’s go-to receiver on third down, caught 5 of 5 passes for 62 yards receiving, including catches of 20 and 16 yards, setting up Ryan’s toss-pitch off right tackle to Jacquizz Rodgers for a 5-yard touchdown.

Rodgers rushed for 49 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown. He caught 2 passes for 30 yards receiving. His 43-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter set up a 3-yard touchdown run by teammate Michael Turner.

Falcons coach Mike Smith said his players wanted to test themselves against the league’s top-ranked rushing defense.

“We challenged our guys,” said Smith. “We wanted to come down there — this is the No. 1 rushing (defense) in all of the NFL — and we wanted to see if we could do it.”

Tampa Bay’s own leading rusher, Doug Martin, struggled to produce against a Falcons defense that had surrendered 130.5 yards per game. Martin rushed for 50 yards on 21 carries, but he did score two touchdowns.

“We knew (stopping Martin) was going to be one of our ‘musts,’ and I thought we did a nice job with our run defense,” Smith said. “I thought we played the run extremely well.”

Notes: Atlanta and Houston are tied for the NFL’s best record at 10-1.… Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon returned to action for the Falcons after injuring his ankle four weeks ago against the Eagles. He recorded six tackles, including one tackle for a loss.

Comments

VSU 1 year, 9 months ago

Way to go Falcons, I was really concerned about this game, but you pulled through. This makes next weeks game against the Saints less important, but if you want to go ahead and beat them that would be cool as well and practically sew up the NFC South with a win.

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Sister_Ruby 1 year, 8 months ago

It's great to know that the Falcons have a great QB on the team again!

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The_Dude 1 year, 8 months ago

Falcons need to go ahead and get that first-round bye so they won't lose in the first round again. A second round loss doesn't look so bad, although they still won't win a playoff game with that sorry defense.

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VSU 1 year, 8 months ago

I don't think their defense is as bad as all that, although they have been suspect lately, but with their offense passing a lot and they score more quickly, their defense is on the field more and gets worn down. Their defense was non-existant in that Saints game a couple of weeks ago, but the Falcons might have still won that game if they had a running back that could get one yard. They had 1st and goal at the one yard line and couldn't put it in. Turner is unstoppable once he gets going, otherwise they hit him one time at the line of scrimmage and his feet move and gets nowhere.

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The_Dude 1 year, 8 months ago

Turner is awful. Rogers needs to be the back on most downs. They need defense and a running back in next year's draft.

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VSU 1 year, 8 months ago

I'm with you, i am getting fed up with Turner. He says he needs to carry the ball a lot to be effective. In other words he needs multiple chances to gain yards to make up for the times he gets stopped at the line of scrimmage. Last night against the Saints he fumbles while moving his legs, late in the game just fall to the ground and protect the ball to run the clock down.

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