The Atlanta Falcons had won five straight games and were at 9-2 as they faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 5, 2010. Head Coach Mike Smith’s team had a well-balanced offense with third-year QB Matt Ryan (pictured at right) throwing to WR Roddy White and 14th-year veteran TE Tony Gonzalez and RB Michael Turner, coming off of an injury-plagued ’09 season, providing power to the ground game. They had been winning efficiently, not having given up a turnover in the previous four games.
The Buccaneers, a young team under second-year Head Coach Raheem Morris, had a 7-4 record, which was a significant turnaround after going 3-13 in 2009. QB Josh Freeman was proving to be effective in his first full year in the starting lineup. Unheralded RB LeGarrette Blount had been waived by Tennessee and claimed by Tampa Bay with good results and WR Mike Williams, a rookie drafted in the fourth round out of Syracuse, was also proving to be surprisingly effective. But while they were undefeated against losing teams, they had yet to prove themselves against contending clubs and had already lost to Atlanta four weeks earlier.
The Buccaneers wore 1970s-era throwback uniforms for the late afternoon game at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. The teams traded punts before the Falcons drove to the game’s first score. Matt Ryan completed two passes to Tony Gonzalez that gained 14 and 17 yards, respectively, and Michael Turner carried the ball four times for 21 yards that included a five-yard touchdown.
The Buccaneers responded with an 86-yard drive that took 11 plays and was highlighted by Josh Freeman scrambling for 17 yards and LeGarrette Blount running for 20 yards to set up his six-yard carry for a TD. Connor Barth’s extra point tied the game at 7-7, which was the tally heading into the second quarter.
Neither club was able to put together another effective drive until midway through the period when Atlanta went 64 yards in eight plays. Ryan completed passes of 15 yards to WR Michael Jenkins and 21 yards to WR Harry Douglas to reach the Tampa Bay 24, and on a third-and-ten play hit FB Ovie Mughelli for a 17-yard touchdown.
Following a short possession by the Bucs, the Falcons got the ball back but turned it over when Ryan, throwing deep for Gonzalez, was intercepted by SS Sean Jones, who returned it 31 yards to the Atlanta 30 with 1:39 left in the first half. It was Atlanta’s first turnover in five games, and it cost them. Tampa Bay capitalized seven plays later when Freeman tossed a one-yard TD pass to Mike Williams. The teams went into halftime tied at 14-14.
The Buccaneers took the lead on the first series of the second half. On the second play, Blount ran 28 yards to the Atlanta 38 yard line and, after reaching the 15, Barth kicked a 33-yard field goal that made the score 17-14. That was it for the third quarter scoring as a long 12-play drive by the Buccaneers from their nine to the Atlanta 41 came up empty.
In the fourth quarter, Ryan was intercepted again, this time by FS Corey Lynch to give the Bucs the ball at the Atlanta 39. Once again they made the most of it as Freeman completed passes to Williams for nine yards and WR Arrelious Benn for 28. FB Earnest Graham tossed a two-yard option pass to TE John Gilmore for a touchdown and, with the successful PAT, Tampa Bay was ahead by ten points.
The margin didn’t last long, however, as the ensuing kickoff was returned 102 yards for a TD by WR Eric Weems. A short possession by the Buccaneers resulted in a punt and the Falcons took over at their 33 with 8:30 left on the clock. It didn’t look promising when they found themselves facing a third-and-20 situation, backed up to their 23, but Ryan completed a pass to Roddy White for 25 yards to keep the series alive. Turner ran for nine yards on two carries and a pass interference call on the Bucs gave Atlanta a first down at the Tampa Bay 33. Another untimely penalty on the Bucs helped the Falcons along and the 10-play, 67-yard drive finally ended with Ryan tossing a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins. The successful extra point made it a four-point lead for Atlanta.
Tampa Bay had another shot and, with Freeman throwing on every play, moved the ball 35 yards in nine plays. However, after a 19-yard completion to WR Sammie Stroughter put the ball on the Atlanta 27, Freeman was intercepted by CB Brent Grimes and the Falcons were able to run out the clock to come away with a 28-24 win.
The Buccaneers gained more yards (325 to290) while Atlanta had the edge in first downs (20 to 19). The Falcons turned the ball over twice, to one given up by Tampa Bay. However, the Bucs were penalized nine times, sometimes in key situations, at a cost of 102 yards to six flags being thrown on Atlanta.
Matt Ryan completed 18 of 36 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions and was at his best during the fourth quarter comeback. Michael Turner rushed for 88 yards on 24 carries that included a TD. Roddy White caught 7 passes for 74 yards.
For the Buccaneers, Josh Freeman (pictured below) was successful on 19 of 38 throws for 181 yards with a TD and one picked off; he also ran the ball four times for 28 yards. LeGerrette Blount gained 103 rushing yards in 20 attempts and scored a touchdown. Mike Williams topped the receivers with 6 catches for 68 yards and a score.
“When you come out and you don’t play as well as you like, but you still find a way to win, those are signs of a good football team,” said Matt Ryan. “We feel like today was a good example of that for us.”
“We felt like we really outplayed them for most of the game, but it’s the NFL,” said Josh Freeman from the Tampa Bay side. “You have to find a way to win in the fourth quarter nearly every week, and today we weren’t able to do that.”
The Falcons went on to top the NFC South and gain top seed in the playoffs with a 13-3 record. However, they were badly beaten by the streaking Green Bay Packers at the Divisional level. Tampa Bay won three of its remaining four games to end up at 10-6 and third in the division, but just missed out on the postseason. The season of promise proved fleeting for the Buccaneers, who collapsed to 4-12 in 2011.
Matt Ryan passed for 3705 yards and 28 touchdowns with just 9 interceptions and was chosen to the Pro Bowl. Michael Turner led the NFC in rushing with 1371 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, also receiving Pro Bowl recognition. Roddy White (pictured above) was a consensus first team All-Pro as well as Pro Bowl choice while leading the NFL in pass receptions (115) and the conference in receiving yards (1389) despite being hindered by a knee injury late in the season.
Josh Freeman placed sixth in the league in passing (95.9 rating) while throwing for 3451 yards and 25 TDs with six interceptions while also rushing for 364 yards. LeGarrette Blount rushed for 1007 yards on 201 carries (5.0 avg.) in his 13 games of action, making him the NFL’s top rookie ground gainer.