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Buccaneers give Falcons rare home loss

The SportsXchange

ATLANTA -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a battle of two teams with little to play for, handing the playoff-bound Atlanta Falcons a rare home loss, 22-17, Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

Josh Freeman threw a touchdown pass to Mike Williams, and Doug Martin scored on a 40-yard touchdown run in the second half for the Bucs (7-9), who snapped a six-game losing streak, but missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season.

It was the first home loss this season for the Falcons (13-3), who are the top seed in the NFC for the second time in three seasons. It's only the seventh loss in the Georgia Dome during coach Mike Smith's five-year tenure.

The Falcons will host a divisional round playoff game in two weeks, with their opponent to be decided in next weekend's wild card round.

Even with home-field advantage locked up throughout the postseason, Smith elected to play his starters the entire game, which prompted some cringe-inducing moments for Falcons fans.

Matt Ryan and Roddy White took big hits on the Falcons' first series, and both starting cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel, were hurt and had to leave the field on Tampa Bay's first possession.

Defensive end John Abraham, a four-time Pro Bowler, suffered a left ankle injury in the fourth quarter and had to be helped off the field. Abraham was carted back to the locker room, but Smith said he wasn't overly concerned and initial reports indicated that the injury was minor.

Robinson was taken back to the locker room to be examined for a head injury. He did not return. Samuel walked off the field holding his right arm, but returned on the next series.

Smith said he never considered taking his starters out, even after Abraham and others went down.

"Absolutely not. We've said from the very beginning that we're going to play this game to win," Smith said. "I think we did that. We just didn't get it done today. We were going to continue to play to win this ballgame."

Samuel later picked off Freeman in the third quarter to set up the Falcons' first touchdown, a 17-yard touchdown run up the middle by Michael Turner that cut the Bucs' lead to 16-10.

Tampa Bay answered with its best drive of the game, a four-play, 80-yard march capped by Martin's 40-yard touchdown run. The ensuing two-point conversion failed, and the Bucs led 22-10 with 1:43 left in the third quarter.

"I saw everybody's eyes and they weren't going to let that happen today (lose)," said Martin. "Everybody just started to show up."

Ryan finished 28-of-44 for 238 yards. He threw a 7-yard touchdown to Harry Douglas that trimmed the Bucs' lead to 22-17 with 7:02 play. It was Ryan's 32nd touchdown of the season, breaking the Falcons' record previously held by Steve Bartkowski.

"It's a great honor, but at this point we want to put personal records aside and try and attain the team goals that we set out to attain at the beginning of the year," Ryan said of setting the record.

Atlanta had one more chance to complete the comeback, but Ryan's fourth-down pass to Tony Gonzalez, sealing the win for Tampa Bay.

Freeman spun away from pressure and hit Mike Williams on the back of the end zone for his first touchdown pass of the game. The touchdown pass was Freeman's 27th, setting a new team record for touchdown passes in a season. He broke the team's season passing yards record last week and became the first Tampa Bay quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season.

Freeman finished 19-of-35 for 222 yards and a touchdown. Martin had 142 yards on 27 carries.

"It's been a rough year for a number of reasons," said Freeman, who didn't throw an interception after throwing eight picks in his last two games. "Obviously, ending the season not making the playoffs, it's unacceptable. It's not where we want to be, but I was really happy with the way the guys finished today. Offense, defense and special teams, everybody came to play today and we walked away with a win."

Dekoda Watson's blocked a Matt Bosher punt to set up Connor Barth's second field goal of the first half, putting the Bucs up 13-3 at halftime.

The Falcons' only points in the first half came on a 28-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.

On Nov. 18, the Bucs were 6-4 and riding a four-game winning streak. The Falcons snapped that streak with a one-point win in Tampa, sending the Bucs into a tailspin. A string of injuries ravaged the offensive line and hindered the offense down the stretch.

"I have this a few times. I think the hardest thing to do in pro sports is win an NFL football game," Tampa Bay first-year coach Greg Schiano said. "I don't think people realize how hard it is to do it and how much goes into each and every game. You learn to do it and you get your scars and you get tougher."

Notes: The Bucs lead the series with the Falcons 20-19. ... Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez recorded his 90th reception of the season in the second quarter, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to have 90 receptions five times in his career. ... Falcons safety William Moore (hamstring) was inactive for his fourth straight game. ... The announced number of tickets distributed for Sunday game was 69,644.
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