TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Turns out that Tampa Bay's comeback kid can be pretty good protecting leads, too.
The Atlanta Falcons learned the hard way Sunday, losing 16-13 to the Buccaneers after Josh Freeman found a way to keep the ball out of Matt Ryan's hands down the stretch.
The Bucs' third-year quarterback has led eight winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since entering the NFL, including the previous week when he overcame a 17-point halftime deficit to beat Minnesota.
This time, he scored the first rushing touchdown of his career while building a 13-point lead, then closed out the Falcons with a four-minute drive to end the game.
Freeman didn't have dazzling statistics, but he was effective.
``Fortunately, today he didn't have to come back, he just had to maintain a productive offense, keep them off the field and give us an opportunity to win,' Bucs coach Raheem Morris said. ``He found a way to win without playing great football. That's kind of how you've got to win games in the National Football League versus good teams.'
Tampa Bay's defense forced three turnovers and sacked Ryan four times. Freeman's 1-yard sneak snapped a 3-3 tie in the second quarter and Connor Barth kicked three field goals as the Bucs (2-1) stopped a five-game skid in the series - four of them coming by six or fewer points.
``It's huge, and it's about time one went our way. They've been really close games since I've been here,' Freeman said. ``They're a great divisional opponent. I've got a lot of respect for those guys, offense and defense. They're a good team. We'll get to see them again. I'm looking forward to that, but today was our day. We got it done.'
As good as it felt, though, don't try to tell the NFL's youngest team that it has arrived.
``I just told the team we didn't come into the season to beat the Atlanta Falcons. We came into this season to win the division. They just happen to be a team that's in our division,' Morris said. ``We've got to beat those guys just like we've got to beat everybody else in our division and try to win this thing so we can go to the playoffs, and then compete for a championship.'
Tampa Bay won 10 games a year ago, but lost twice to the Falcons with both games decided in the closing minutes. When his players convened for training camp, Morris delivered a simple message: The goal this year is to win the NFC South, regardless of how many wins it takes. That will ensure a postseason berth.
The Bucs forced two first-half fumbles with sacks. Ronde Barber intercepted a pass to stop an Atlanta threat just before halftime, and the Falcons (1-2) were stopped on downs inside the Bucs 10 early in the fourth quarter. Still, Ryan nearly pulled off a fourth-quarter comeback from a double-digit deficit for the second straight week.
The Falcons pulled to 16-13 on the 91st TD reception of Tony Gonzalez's career with just under 10 minutes to go. They drove to the Tampa Bay 5 before Matt Bryant's 33-yard field goal made it a three-point game with 4:06 left. Ryan and his supporting cast of playmakers never got the ball back.
With Freeman and LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 81 yards on 24 carries, leading the way, the Bucs burned the rest of the clock. Any hope the Falcons had evaporated as Tampa Bay converted a final first down when Atlanta's Corey Peters jumped offside on fourth-and-inches when the Bucs had no intentions of snapping the ball.
``It was a freeze play. They were going to use a hard count,' Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. ``We talked about it on the sideline. We didn't execute as an entire defense. Not one person (should be singled out). That one play didn't determine the game. There were lots of plays. We just didn't get it done.'
Peters took responsibility.
``It was 100 percent my fault. I knew not to do it. I guess I got a little excited out there,' Peters said. ``It was just stupid. I'll say it cost us the game. It definitely changed the game. It didn't give us an opportunity to win.'
Ryan, who overcame a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Philadelphia 35-31 the previous week, completed 26 of 47 passes for 330 yards and one touchdown. The Bucs turned one of his two fumbles inside the Atlanta 20 into a field goal, and their last sack reduced the Falcons' options after their drive reached the Tampa Bay 5.
Roddy White had nine receptions for 140 yards for Atlanta. Rookie Julio Jones had six catches for 115 yards, including a 49-yarder that set up Ryan's 10-yard TD pass to Gonzalez, who tied Isaac Bruce for ninth on the NFL career TD reception list. Atlanta's running game was nonexistent with Michael Turner being limited to 20 yards on 11 attempts.
``I felt like we fought our tails off to get back in the game,' Smith said. ``We didn't play very well. We didn't do a whole lot of good things in the first three quarters. We just dug ourselves too big of a hole.'
The Falcons have trailed by double-digits in all three of their games.
``We have not started fast. We have not gotten out of the chute like we want,' Smith said. ``Every coach in this league talks about starting fast. One of the things you have to do. We haven't done it to this point. They're fighting hard and they have resolve. But we've got to start faster.'
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