The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have won a game, but they also may have lost the team's heart and soul.
In the Buccaneers' 44-27 win over the Atlanta Falcons that clinched the five-seed in the NFC and guaranteed a first-round playoff game against the Washington Football Team, Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans, who had just gotten his 1,000-yard receiving season on the play prior, looked to badly injure his knee on the very next play in which he dropped a sure touchdown pass in the end zone.
Head Coach Bruce Arians said after the game that he doesn't think the injury is serious, and that the team will know more tomorrow.
Tom Brady became the oldest player in NFL history to throw 40 touchdowns in a season with four TD passes on the day, two to the seemingly rejuvenated Antonio Brown, who may now have a big opportunity with Evans being down, and the other two the the always reliable Chris Godwin.
The Bucs continued where they left off to open the game, and it seems that Tampa Bay has put to rest its recent trend of starting games slowly. A smooth 7-play 68-yard drive in only 3:54, ending in a 29-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Godwin, mismatched against Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun down the left sideline.
The Falcons used an offense all game that predicated on what the Bucs' defense would give them. They answered the Tampa Bay touchdown with a drive of their own, a combination of short passes and effective runs. But their drive stalled at the 4-yard line, and Younghoe Koo 22 yard FG put Atlanta on the board.
Mike Evans reached the 1,000 yard mark on a 20-yard reception on the next drive and dropped a sure touchdown the next play, in which he injured his knee, and ended up sitting out the rest of the game.
The drive stalled after Evans' injury, and the Bucs matched the Falcons FG with a 29-yarder from Ryan Succop.
On the next Buccaneer drive, they went up 17-3 on Brady's second touchdown pass of the game, a 25-yarder to Brown that ended a 6-play 57-yard drive in only 2:14. Brown streaked in front of a wide open Scotty Miller to snare the pass from Brady, who showed his pocket savvy in evading the rush and rolling out to his right.
The Falcons committed the game's first turnover as a bad exchange between Falcons QB Matt Ryan and RB Todd Gurley resulted in a fumble, recovered by Bucs' DB Antoine Winfield Jr. at the Atlanta 39. A short drive stalled, and Ryan Succop added a 38-yard FG to put the Bucs up 20-3 with 8:44 left in the first half.
Th Falcons cut the Bucs' lead to 20-10 on a 1-yard sneak by Ryan in the second quarter, and the Bucs tacked on three more on a 25-yard Ryan Succop FG before the half, taking a 23-10 lead to the locker room.
The Falcons opened the second half with a nice drive, dinking and dunking the ball down the field with short passes into the flat. On a 3rd and 17 from the Tampa Bay 19, Ryan found Russell Gage Jr. for a touchdown, closing the Bucs lead to 6, 23-17.
Tampa Bay looked as if they were in cruise control on the next drive, starting with a 46-yard completion to Godwin on first play, but two plays later, Brady threw a bullet to Scotty Miller, who bobbled the ball and left the ball up in the air for Falcons' CB Ricardo Allen, who picked it off. It was the first interception of Brady in five weeks, but obviously, not his fault.
The Falcons drove down the field after the turnover, attacking the weak Buccaneers secondary with short passes, doing what they did all game, even converting a fourth down on a pass interference penalty on Jamell Dean on another short pass past the marker. But that drive stalled, and a Younghoe Koo 21-yard FG cut the Tampa Bay lead to 23-20 with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
On the next Buccaneer drive, is was the Brady-Brown show, as Brown caught three short passes, getting a total of 34 yards, the drive culminating in a 3-yard touchdown run by Ronald Jones, seeing his first action after being on the Covid-19 list. The Bucs took a 10-point lead at 30-20, with 11:13 left in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons would not quit. Running back Brian Hill busted down the right sideline on a 62-yard run that put the Falcons in business at the Tampa Bay 4. Atlanta tried three straight running plays to get to the 1, and used play-action on 4th and goal to score on a 1-yard pass to tight end Hayden Hurst, cutting the Bucs' deficit to three, 30-27.
But the Bucs kept their foot on the pedal on the following drive, and on a 3rd and 12, Brady hit Godwin for 47 yards down to the Atlanta 7. Three plays later, Brady hit Godwin for his second TD of the day, a 4-yard dart, bringing the lead back to 10, 37-27 with 3:54 left.
Sean Murphy-Bunting recovered a fumble on next Falcon possession, giving the Bucs the ball at Atlanta 38 with 3:11 left. The Bucs closed out the scoring on a 30-yard touchdown from Brady to Brown with 2:52 left.
In Evans' absence, Brown and Godwin carried the receiving load; Brown led the team with 11 catches for 138 yards, his most as a Buc. Godwin had only five catches, but two big plays upped his total to 133 yards. Brady was 26 of 41 for 399 yards and those four scores, with the one pick.
Tampa Bay will face Washington in a wild-card playoff game at 8:15 p.m. Saturday, January 9.
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