TAMPA, Fla. — Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are heating up at the right time, which is hardly surprising where the 43-year-old quarterback is concerned.
Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion who spent his first 20 seasons in the NFL with the New England Patriots, passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns Sunday, helping the playoff-bound Bucs clinch the fifth seed in the NFC with a 44-27 win over the Atlanta Falcons to close their NFC South schedule and the regular season.
Tampa Bay (11-5) will travel to the NFC East champion next weekend for its first postseason game in 13 years, but the team's fourth straight victory may have come with a steep cost. Star receiver Mike Evans left with a left knee injury late in the first quarter against Atlanta (4-12) and did not return.
Evans was hurt one play after a 20-yard catch made him the first player to begin his NFL career with seven consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. He went down trying to make a catch in the end zone and was carted to the locker room after first trying to walk off with assistance from a trainer.
"It meant the world for him to get that record and, then, to have an easy touchdown — the turf was really slick in the end zone," Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. "It was just a freaky thing. Knock on wood, we don't think there is any serious damage, but we will know more in the next 24 hours."
Brady threw touchdown passes of 25 and 30 yards to Antonio Brown and 29 and 4 yards to Chris Godwin to finish with a franchise-record 40 touchdown passes in his first season with the Bucs. He joined Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Aaron Rodgers as the only players in NFL history with multiple seasons of at least 40 touchdown passes; Rodgers has done it three times, the others twice.
Brady has thrown for at least two touchdown passes in seven consecutive games.
Now it's on to the playoffs, where Tampa Bay hasn't appeared since the 2007 season. The Bucs' most recent postseason victory was at Super Bowl XXVII to cap the 2002 season — a year after Brady made his first of nine appearances in the big game and led the Patriots to their first title.
"It's about one football game, who plays well, who executes when the pressure is on," Brady said of the playoff opportunity.
Atlanta never led Sunday but came within three points twice in the second half before Brady put the game away with two late drives.
Matt Ryan completed 29 of 44 passes for 265 yards with touchdown throws of 19 yards to Russell Gage and 1 yard to Hayden Hurst, and he also scored on a 1-yard keeper for the Falcons, who finished a distressing season that claimed the jobs of coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff after an 0-5 start.
Interim coach Raheem Morris, who took over Oct. 12 and went 4-7, interviewed for the full-time position Friday.
"I love this football team. I love this city. I love this organization, and I love the owner, and I love the players," Morris said. "These guys are not far away. They've got a chance. They're that close. We've got to find a way to get over the edge."
Veteran receiver Julio Jones was out for the fourth consecutive week due to a hamstring injury, finishing the season with 51 receptions for 771 yards and three touchdowns in nine games. Gage had nine catches for 91 yards at Tampa Bay, and Calvin Ridley added eight for 52 to finish his third pro season with 82 receptions for 1,322 yards and nine touchdowns.
Brian Hill paced the Falcons' ground game against the Bucs, running for 94 yards on nine carries. Todd Gurley had 18 yards on nine carries, his role having been greatly reduced the final six weeks of the season.
The former University of Georgia star signed a one-year deal with Atlanta this past spring after spending his first five NFL seasons with the Rams, for whom he had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons and was a factor in the passing game. This season with the Falcons, Gurley had 186 carries for 660 yards and nine touchdowns, plus 24 catches for 147 yards with no scores.
Atlanta, which reached the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history to cap the 2016 season, is faced with a third straight season of no playoffs. The Falcons are expected to be plenty busy, though, with hiring a GM and coach at the top of the list.
Morris, who was 17-31 with the Bucs from 2009 to 2011 in his only full-time stint as an NFL head coach, thought his interview with Falcons owner Arthur Blank went well.
"Now we'll play the waiting game," Morris said, "and see how it goes."
Some players are pulling for him to return.
"He's a great coach," Hill said. "Obviously he had nothing to do with personnel this year. He just worked with what we had, and he did a great job."