ATLANTA -- At the start of the season, the public believed the Atlanta Falcons would cruise to the Super Bowl. Then, after their three-game losing streak, some thought the playoffs were out of the question.
Now, the Falcons are one more win away from clinching a spot in the postseason after finishing a season sweep of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by beating them 24-21 at Raymond James Stadium on Monday night.
It wasn't easy, and they almost blew it. Typical. But the Falcons were able to hold on thanks to a ref stumbling to spot the ball and a missed field goal by the Bucs as time expired.
The Falcons had a balanced offensive attack throughout the night. Matt Ryan found Justin Hardy for a 6-yard touchdown in the first quarter. After big runs from Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones finding open holes in the middle of the field, Freeman fumbled near the end zone and tight end Levine Toilolo fell on it in the end zone to put the Falcons up 14-7 in the second.
After Matt Bryant kicked a 57-yard field goal, Freeman cut around the defense on a 32-yard touchdown, which would be the game-winner for the Falcons. Freeman had 126 yards on the ground and 68 receiving yards. It was the best game he's had this season.
"It was vintage Freeman for sure," head coach Dan Quinn said after the game.
"I thought Devonta played extremely well," Ryan said. "Devonta’s a special player. Some nights, some guys become the feature guy of the game and I thought tonight he was that for us."
The Falcons defense faced Jameis Winston for the first time this season. Winston was dealing with a shoulder injury when the two faced each other on Nov. 26. Penalties from the secondary helped the Bucs, and Winston completed a pass to OJ Howard who took it to the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown in the first half.
But Howard was injured on the play, and he wouldn't return. The Bucs suffered several major injuries in the game on both sides of the ball.
But the Falcons defense did its part, as well. Keanu Neal forced a fumble in the first half as Peyton Barber was getting the Bucs close to the end zone. Instead of tying the game at 14, the Falcons were able to move down field and get a two-possession lead from the Bryant field goal.
Mike Evans made a remarkable catch between Ricardo Allen and Desmond Trufant for the Bucs' second touchdown. And on the next drive, Winston evaded defenders to find Adam Humphries for a 16-yard touchdown to make it a three-point deficit.
After Ryan was sacked by Clinton McDonald to force a punt, Winston threw three passes to get the Bucs to the Falcons' 36-yard line with 5 seconds left. Patrick Murray missed a 54-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Falcons the victory.
The Falcons have won five of their last six games. Next week, a rematch at New Orleans where they can clinch the playoffs.