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 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium for a 24-23 win 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 (6-5) one final glimmer of hope with 13 seconds remaining.
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 the season.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed 26 of 32 passes for 353 yards passing, 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 rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson, with the Falcons gaining a 17-13 lead in just 11 seconds on a one-play drive.
The Buccaneers' 32-ranked pass defense was without cornerback Eric Wright, who had been battling an Achilles injury, forcing young, inexperienced defensive backs to contend with the likes of Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez, Ryan's go-to receiver on third down, caught five of five passes for 62 yards, including receptions 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.
Notes: 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. ... 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.