TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Devonta Freeman pounded away all night until he finally found a way into the open field, helping the Atlanta Falcons remain in the thick of the tight NFC South race.
With sidekick Tevin Coleman out with a concussion and Matt Ryan not particularly sharp throwing the ball , Freeman rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown to key a 24-21 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.
The fourth-year pro scored on a 32-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, darting through a hole on the right side before cutting back to elude the only defender with a shot at tackling him and restore a 10-point lead for the Falcons (9-5), who barely hung on to win for the fifth time in six games.
“We had a sense this would be a big night for him. We talked about that before the game,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We thought he would have his opportunities. If he could get to the next level and to a linebacker or safety or corner, make sure he had a plan how he wanted to finish.”
Freeman also caught five passes for a team-high 68 yards and had a first-half fumble recovered in the end zone by teammate Levine Toilolo for a touchdown. Ryan threw an early TD pass to Justin Hardy and finished 17 of 31 passing for 212 yards and no interceptions.
The victory kept Atlanta within one game of New Orleans and Carolina in the division standings with two to play. If the playoffs started now, the Falcons would be the second NFC wild-card.
Atlanta plays at New Orleans next Sunday, then closes the regular season at home against the Panthers.
“We’re right where we need to be at this point of the season ... and we’ve got to find a way to get back to work this week, try to improve and make sure we play the best we’re capable of playing this Sunday,” Ryan said. “That’s really all our focus needs to be about. If we’re worried about anything else then you’re not as locked in as you need to be.”
Jameis Winston threw for 299 yards and three TDs for the Bucs (4-10), including a 16-yarder to Adam Humphries that trimmed Atlanta’s lead to three points with 3:51 remaining.
Winston, who also threw TD passes of 30 yards to O.J. Howard and 42 yards to Mike Evans, got the ball back with a minute left and nearly sent the game into overtime.
The third-year pro, a college teammate of Freeman’s at Florida State, completed three straight passes to move the ball from his 29 to the Atlanta 36. Patrick Murray came on to try a 54-yard field goal to tie it, but the kick sailed wide right as time expired.
Winston finished 27 of 35 passing with no interceptions. He was sacked twice.
“Jameis played a heck of a game. He probably played his best game this season,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “Took care of the football, was accurate, threw the deep ball with accuracy, checked it down, did a good job leading our football team.”
The Bucs have lost nine of 11 following a 2-1 start, taking a step back after finishing 9-7 a year ago in their first season under Koetter.
RING OF HONOR
Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who’s spent the past nine seasons as ESPN’s game analyst on Monday Night Football, was inducted into the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium during a halftime ceremony.
Gruden was acquired from the Oakland Raiders in exchange for two first-round draft picks, two second-round draft pick and $8 million before leading the 2002 Bucs to the club’s only Super Bowl championship in his first season in Tampa Bay.
Gruden was fired after the 2008 season and moved into the broadcast booth the following season. The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007 and don’t have a postseason win since their Super Bowl run 15 years ago.
The coach’s sons — Deuce, Mike and Jayson — led the Bucs out of the tunnel before the game as the team’s honorary flag runners.
Gruden is the 11th member of the Ring of Honor, joining Hall of Famers Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, as well as Doug Williams, John Lynch, John McKay, Mike Alstott, Jimmie Giles, Paul Gruber and Malcom Glazer.
Falcons: RB Coleman (concussion) and G Andy Levire (triceps) did not play.
Buccaneers: Played without their top two players, DT Gerald McCoy (biceps) and LB Lavonte David (hamstring), who were inactive. ... Howard (ankle) limped off the field after being hit near the goal line on his TD and did not return. ... G J.R. Sweezy suffered what was described as a lower body injury in the second quarter and did not return. The second half took a heavy toll, too, with LB Adarius Glanton being carted off with a leg injury, S T.J. Ward evaluated for a concussion, and S Justin Evans and WR DeSean Jackson lost to ankle injuries.
Falcons: Travel to New Orleans to face division-leading Saints on Sunday.
Buccaneers: Play final road game of season at Carolina.