TAMPA, Fla. -- The Atlanta Falcons escaped a close call for the second consecutive game to remain in the driver's seat in the NFC, outlasting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium for a 24-23 victory that came down to the wire.
The Buccaneers had a chance to take the lead on Connor Barth's partially blocked field goal attempt a few minutes earlier and had a final possession after Falcons kicker Matt Bryant followed suit with his own miss, from 48 yards out, giving the Bucs one final glimmer of hope with 13 seconds remaining.
"They won four in a row, they were hot. Everyone was saying they were the hottest team in the NFC South and they probably were," said Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"Just to be able to come in here, in this type of environment and stop their momentum ... and to be honest, we could have played a little better, but when you win close games like that, it's only positive."
The Falcons moved one step closer to clinching the division with a game-ending interception of Josh Freeman's deep heave. The Falcons (10-1) play the Saints on Thursday with a chance to avenge their lone loss of this season.
Quarterback Matt Ryan completed 26 of 32 passes for 353 yards for the Falcons. He had one touchdown and an interception. The star of the game was Julio Jones, who had a career-best six catches for 147 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown. Ryan exploited a one-on-one matchup with Jones and Buccaneers undrafted rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson, with the Falcons gaining a 17-13 lead in just 11 seconds on a one-play drive.
"Julio made a great play," said Ryan. "He inside released him (Johnson) and just tried to get back to the outside. I tried to throw it down there high and outside so he could make a play on it. He did. He made a great adjustment. That was a really big play for us this game."
Bucs coach Greg Schiano said giving up those "monster plays" has been a problem for the Bucs' secondary all season long.
"It's been a bit of our Achilles heel and we'll get it corrected and we'll keep getting better at it. It just didn't happen today," said Schiano.
The Buccaneers' 32-ranked pass defense in the league was without cornerback Eric Wright, who had been battling an Achilles injury, forcing young, inexperienced defensive backs to contend with the likes of Jones, Gonzalez, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas.
"I can't really make an excuse for us giving up yards," said Johnson. "All I can say is that we need to correct the small stuff, go back and get back to it."
Gonzalez, Ryan's go-to receiver on third down, caught 5-of-5 passes for 62 yards receiving, including catches of 20 and 16 yards, setting up Ryan's toss-pitch off right tackle to Jacquizz Rodgers for a 5-yard touchdown.
Rodgers rushed for 49 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown. He caught 2 passes for 30 yards receiving. His 43-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter set up a 3-yard touchdown run by teammate Michael Turner.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said his players wanted to test themselves against the league's top-ranked rushing defense.
"We challenged our guys," said Smith. "We wanted to come down there -- this (is) the No. 1 rushing (defense) in all of the NFL -- and we wanted to see if we could do it."
Tampa Bay's own leading rusher, Doug Martin, struggled to produce against a Falcons defense that had surrendered 130.5 yards per game. Martin rushed for 50 yards on 21 carries, but scored two touchdowns.
Stopping the run was an emphasis throughout the week in practice. "We knew (stopping Martin) was going to be one of our 'musts' and I thought we did a nice job with our run defense. I thought we played the run extremely well, controlled the line of scrimmage. That is an outstanding running back."
Notes: Atlanta and Houston are tied for the NFL's best record at 10-1. ... Rookie running back Doug Martin capped off the Buccaneers' opening drive with 1-yard touchdown run. He had a second touchdown run in the fourth quarter -- his ninth touchdown of the season, setting a new franchise record for rushing touchdowns by a rookie. ... Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon returned to action for the Falcons after injuring his ankle four weeks ago against the Eagles. He recorded six tackles, including one tackle for a loss. ... Bucs safety Ronde Barber recorded the 47th interception of his career.