TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Josh Freeman didn't need another fourth-quarter comeback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to end three years of frustration against the Atlanta Falcons.
Freeman scored the first touchdown rushing of his career and Tampa Bay's defense forced three turnovers and sacked Matt Ryan four times in its best performance of the season, helping the Buccaneers beat the Falcons 16-13 on Sunday.
The normally unflappable Freeman did a little bird dance in celebration of his quarterback sneak that snapped a 3-3 tie in the second quarter. The Bucs (2-1) went on to end a five-game losing streak in the series between NFC South rivals. Four of those losses were by six or fewer points.
Tampa Bay's defense 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 drew within 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 jumped offside on fourth-and-inches.
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 into a field goal, and their last sack changed the Falcons' strategy 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.
Freeman completed 22 of 32 passes for 180 yards with two interceptions. He rushed for 35 yards on 10 attempts.
Both quarterbacks began the game with turnovers on their team's first possession. Freeman's end zone interception cost the Bucs a chance to take a quick lead after Dekoda Watson, starting in place of injured linebacker Quincy Black, sacked Ryan to force the fumble Barber recovered at the Falcons 17.
Freeman threw six interceptions all last season. He's already thrown four this year, including ill-advised throws to the middle of the end zone each of the past two games.