Tampa Bay kept its playoff hopes alive while sending NFC South rival Atlanta to its fifth straight defeat Sunday at Raymond James Stadium with a 23-19 win.
A game that began slowly escaping the Buccaneers ended with quarterback Jameis Winston taking a knee and players and fans celebrating a sixth victory.
“We’re pretty excited right now,” said Bucs head coach Lovie Smith. “We finished up the third quarter of our season with a 3-1 record and we have a big four-game stretch starting up. As we see it, the playoffs started and we feel like we have to win out.”
Sunday’s win elevates Tampa Bay to second place in the NFC South at 6-6 and puts it a game behind Seattle for the second wild card berth.
“In that locker room we believe we can do it,” Smith said. “But we’ve got to believe that we can beat our next opponent. There’s confidence and for good reason.”
Trailing 19-16 and running out of time while also struggling to move the football, Winston engineered one of the best drives of his young career with fewer than 7 minutes left. With the Bucs facing a third-and-19 just inside Atlanta territory and appearing to stall out again, Winston kept hope alive with a never-say-die scramble for 20 yards.
“Offensively, how about the run by Jameis? I thought he was down there for a while,” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said.
Four plays later Tampa Bay was back on top for good. Winston rolled right and hit receiver Mike Evans sliding toward the right side of the end zone with a 6-yard score. The touchdown was Winston’s second of the game, following his 5-yard run in the first quarter.
The first-quarter score gives Winston five rushing touchdowns through 12 games, tying him with Steve Young and Shaun King for most from a rookie quarterback in a single season in franchise history.
Atlanta still had 1:39 to work with when it got the ball back at its own 20 but Bucs linebacker Lavonte David wasn’t about to let the Falcons threaten. Dropping back into coverage in the middle of the field, David intercepted Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to set up the offense’s victory formation.
“The guys just kept believing on the sideline,” Smith said. “When you’re playing a good football team, a division opponent, you expect it to go right down to the end. It’s only fitting that Lavonte David would have a big interception to end the football game.”
“It couldn’t have come at a bigger moment,” David said of the splash play. “Very first play coming out of the 2-minute warning, great read, great defensive call. When it’s down to that situation, it all comes down to technique. Just do your job, do what you’re supposed to do, and I was able to do that.”
David’s pick represented the defense’s lone takeaway and the linebacker led all players with 11 total tackles. The unit held Atlanta to 319 yards of total offense and just 64 on the ground despite playing with a patchwork defensive line. Tackle Gerald McCoy and ends Jacquies Smith and George Johnson were all inactive, leaving the Bucs with Will Gholston and Howard Jones starting on the ends and Henry Melton and Akeem Spence inside.
Winston and the Bucs posted nearly 400 yards of offense, with the rookie throwing for 227 yards on 18 of 27 passing and adding 15 yards with his legs. He did get picked off for the 11th time by Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant and Atlanta turned that into a Shayne Graham field goal and 9-7 lead heading into halftime.
Recently activated offensive lineman Demar Dotson started at right tackle for Gosder Cherilus and the unit managed to produce another solid day running the ball. Running backs Doug Martin (25 carries for 95 yards) and Charles Sims (seven carries for 56 yards) spearheaded a rushing attack that racked up 166 total yards.
Martin found the end zone for the fourth time this year in the third quarter with a 1-yard dive over the line that put Tampa Bay up 13-12. It was his first touchdown since scoring twice eight weeks ago against Jacksonville.
“This is the most confident this team has been and I’m happy to be a part of it,” Martin said from the locker room. “And we still have four games going [forward], so we’re going to go to practice and keep working.”
Tampa Bay stays home to try and sweep another NFC South rival, New Orleans, next week. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
WR Vincent Jackson, LT Donovan Smith, LG Logan Mankins, C Joe Hawley, RG Ali Marpet, RT Demar Dotson, TE Luke Stocker, TE Cameron Brate, WR Mike Evans, QB Jameis Winston, RB Doug Martin
DE Will Gholston, DT Henry Melton, DT Akeem Spence, DE Howard Jones, SLB Danny Lansanah, MLB Kwon Alexander, WLB Lavonte David, CB Sterling Moore, CB Jude Adjei-Barimah, SS Chris Conte, FS Bradley McDougald
QB Ryan Griffin, LB Bruce Carter, DE Jacquies Smith, T Gosder Cherilus, TE Brandon Myers, DT Gerald McCoy, DE George Johnson
DID NOT PLAY
QB Mike Glennon, OL Evan Smith
Paid attendance: 58,221, Raymond James Stadium
Game time: 2:56