Falcons lose another tight game with late lapses vs. Buccaneers

AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cade Otton (88) catches a touchdown pass as Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant defends in the final moments of an NFC South game Sunday in Atlanta.
AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cade Otton (88) catches a touchdown pass as Atlanta Falcons safety Richie Grant defends in the final moments of an NFC South game Sunday in Atlanta.

ATLANTA  — The final play summed up the entire day for the Atlanta Falcons. Really, the entire season.

With one last chance to pull out a victory that had been snatched away in the final minute, Desmond Ridder saw Drake London breaking loose over the middle and delivered a pass right on the numbers.

Only one problem. London was engulfed by defenders, who smothered him 3 yards shy of the end zone as time ran out to preserve the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 29-25 victory Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"We should've come out of there with the win," Ridder said, "but obviously we didn't."

The Falcons came in with a .500 record that was good enough for sole possession of first place in the NFC South. With a chance to take firmer control of the division race, Atlanta let it slip away.

Now there's a three-way tie atop the league's weakest division, with the Bucs, Falcons and New Orleans Saints all at 6-7 overall with four weeks remaining in the regular season. Atlanta and Tampa Bay are 3-1 in division play — they split their season series, with the Falcons winning 16-13 on Oct. 22 in Tampa, Florida — while New Orleans is 2-2.

A wild-card spot is out of the question for any team in the trio, so it's a winner-take-all fight for the playoff berth that goes automatically to the division winner. The NFC South's fourth team, the Carolina Panthers (1-12), has already been eliminated.

"It's a roller coaster," Atlanta running back Tyler Allgeier said. "That's what this game is. There's a lot of ups, there's a lot of downs."

The Falcons have been riding it all season, with eight of 13 games decided a total of 25 points. They are 4-4 in those contests, unable to break free of the inconsistency that has plagued coach Arthur Smith's three-year tenure.

For a team that hasn't made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2017, it's an increasingly frustrating pattern.

"We made some plays late and we were able to go ahead," said Smith, whose record as Falcons coach slipped to 20-27. "Unfortunately, they made one more play than we did. But there were plenty of opportunities."

Indeed, there were. After struggling much of the game on offense, drawing loud boos from the home crowd, and having normally reliable kicker Younghoe Koo miss a pair of field-goal attempts from 50 and 52 yards, the Falcons rallied from a 19-10 deficit.

"This is a team," Ridder said. "We've got be able put him in better positions where he's not kicking important field goals every single time."

  photo  AP photo by Mike Stewart / Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) runs away from Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker SirVocea Dennis to score a touchdown in the second half of Sunday's game.

Ridder guided a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives behind a makeshift offensive line that included only two regular starters because of injuries.

When the second-year pro shook off a Tampa Bay defender to score on a 6-yard bootleg with 3:23 remaining, it seemed as though Atlanta was destined for its first three-game winning streak since 2019 and would essentially finish off the two-time reigning division champs in the playoff race.

Tampa Bay, though, countered with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive even with Baker Mayfield completing just three of seven passes.

The Falcons could have sealed the victory with a defensive stop on fourth-and-1 from the Bucs' 47, but Rachaad White picked up the first down with a 2-yard run that included a recovery of his own fumble at the end of the play. Atlanta appeared in good shape again with Tampa Bay facing third-and-10 from the Falcons' 47, only to have Mayfield hook up with Chris Godwin on a 32-yard pass — the Bucs' longest play from scrimmage all game.

Two plays later, with the Falcons focusing on top receivers Godwin and Mike Evans, Cade Otton broke free from safety Richie Grant and hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining.

"Baker put up a perfect ball," Otton said. "It's such a satisfying win. It didn't go great the whole game, but we believed and we fought."

To their credit, the Falcons raced down the field on the final possession and gave themselves a chance to win. They came up 3 yards short.

In a season of tight games — some wins, some losses, with no indication that Atlanta can break free of this frustrating mediocrity — it was time for a familiar refrain.

"There's a lot of things," the ever-optimistic Ridder said, "we're going to clean up and get better from and come out better on the back end."

Atlanta visits Carolina next Sunday, hosts the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 24, then closes the regular season with back-to-back road games against the Chicago Bears and the Saints.

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