It seems like any time in 2012 a team has given a crack to the Atlanta Falcons, they have found a way to take advantage of it.
Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the hometown Bucs learned that the hard way.
Michael Turner barreled in for the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, as the Falcons escaped with a 24-23 win over the Buccaneers.
The outcome gave Atlanta a stranglehold on the NFC South and ended Tampa Bay’s four-game winning streak.
The now 10-1 Falcons hold a four-game lead atop the division heading into Thursday’s showdown against the Saints, who handed them their only loss on Nov. 11.
Matt Ryan, coming off a five-interception performance in last week’s win over Arizona, turned it over twice but completed an efficient 26-of-32 for 353 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown heave to Julio Jones.
Jones, who was listed as questionable because of a sore ankle, caught six passes for 147 yards.
Doug Martin, the NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage, ran for two scores but was held to 50 yards on 21 carries for Tampa Bay (6-5). Josh Freeman threw for 256 yards on 19-of-30 passing in defeat.
With Atlanta trailing, 13-10, midway through the third quarter, Jones ran a go route, sped past rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson and hauled in Ryan’s perfect toss for the go-ahead TD with 8:26 on the clock.
After trading punts, Tiquan Underwood‘s 39-yard catch highlighted the Buccaneers’ 9-play, 82-yard drive that ended on the first play of the fourth quarter via Martin’s second 1-yard touchdown run of the day.
On the ensuing drive, Bucs cornerback E.J. Biggers came in on a blitz and hit Ryan just before he was about to throw. Gerald McCoy recovered the fumble at the Atlanta 36, and Connor Barth made it 23-17 with a 48-yard field goal.
“It was frustrating…when we kicked the field goal rather than score the touchdown,” Freeman said.
Holding the hosts to three points proved vital, as the Falcons went down the field in six plays to regain the lead. Jacquizz Rodgers’ 43-yard kickoff return followed by his 32-yard catch-and-run moved Atlanta to the opposing 32.
Two completions pushed the ball to the 10, and a holding penalty on safety Ahmad Black on third down made it 1st-and-goal from the three. From there, Turner bulled his way over the goal line with 7:55 remaining.
The Bucs moved the ball to the Atlanta 38, and an incompletion on third down brought out the kicking unit. Barth, who hit a career-long 57-yard field goal in Week 4, was short on a 56-yard attempt, giving the ball back to Atlanta.
The Falcons chewed up 3:24 on the clock, and though Matt Bryant missed a 48- yard field goal, only eight seconds remained. Freeman, from just before midfield, reached the end zone on the final play, but the prayer was batted down as time expired.
“You can always count on a close game when you come down to play an NFC South game,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “That was a hard-fought game.”
Tampa Bay’s only touchdown-scoring drive in the first half came on its first possession, as Martin capped the 10-play, 81-yard march by taking a pitch to the left and running in for a 1-yard score and a 7-3 lead.
Atlanta went ahead early in the second quarter when Rodgers got to the outside and punched in his first rushing touchdown of the year from five yards out.
Barth booted a 22-yard field goal after Ronde Barber picked off Ryan, then hit a 42-yarder on the first possession of the third quarter for a 13-10 edge.
Bryant, who opened the scoring with a 31-yard kick, shanked a 22-yard try wide right just before halftime. Bryant had made 45 consecutive kicks under 30 yards.