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Falcons rally past Tampa Bay
Atlanta improves to 10-2 with victory
Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner (33) breaks through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line for a 5-yard touchdown run during the first quarter on Sunday in Tampa, Fla. - photo by Chris O'Meara

TAMPA, Fla. — Matt Ryan played fairly ordinary before Matty Ice came through again for the Atlanta Falcons.

The streaking NFC South leaders won their sixth straight game Sunday, with Ryan finishing another fourth-quarter rally to help the Falcons (10-2) retain sole possession of first place with a 28-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"When you come out and you don't play as well as you like, but you still find a way to win, those are signs of a good football team," Ryan said. "We feel like today was a good example of that for us."

Ryan threw two interceptions — Atlanta's first turnovers in five games — but was at his best with the game on the line. As usual.

The third-year pro finished his sixth fourth-quarter, game-winning drive of the season with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins with 4:31 remaining. It's the 13th time in his career that he's led a winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Eric Weems got the comeback from a 10-point deficit started by scoring on a 102-yard kickoff return. Brent Grimes sealed the win with an interception that stopped Tampa Bay's final possession deep in Falcons territory.

"The mindset was the same. We felt like we could go down the field and score," Ryan said. "We're confident in that situation. We've been in those situations a number of times this year. ... Nobody panicked because we understand that we can make plays when we need to."

Ryan kept the 10-play, 67-yard march alive with a 25-yard completion to Roddy White on third-and-20. The Falcons, who stayed one game ahead of New Orleans in the division, also benefited from a couple of costly penalties on the Bucs.

"We felt like we really outplayed them for most of the game, but it's the NFL," Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman said. "You have to find a way to win in the fourth quarter nearly every week, and today we weren't able to do that."

Rookie LeGarrette Blount rushed for 103 yards and fullback Earnest Graham threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to John Gilmore for Tampa Bay (7-5), which is 7-0 against teams with winning records compared to 0-5 against opponents with winning marks.

Ryan completed 18 of 36 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns. The pair of interceptions were his first since a 39-32 win over Cincinnati on Oct. 24.

The third-year pro, who drove Atlanta to a game-winning field goal in the final minute of last week's three-point win over Green Bay, threw a 17-yard TD pass to Ovie Mughelli in the second quarter. Michael Turner rushed for 88 yards for the Falcons and scored on a 5-yard run that gave Atlanta an early 7-0 lead.

"Sometimes you've got to find a way to win a game when you're not at your best, and we obviously didn't play our best ballgame today," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We were down by 10 points with about 10 minutes to go. We talk all the time about being resilient and somebody has to step up and make a play. The play today was the play of our kickoff return team, and a great individual effort by Eric Weems."

Freeman was 19 of 38 for 181 yards and one touchdown for the third-place Bucs, who fell three games behind Atlanta in the division.

Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris didn't take solace in the NFL's youngest team playing the Falcons tough for the second time in a month.

"I think a good or great team, they go out and finish games," Morris said. "We're not going to wait until we become a veteran team to go out and try to finish games. We've got to do it the next four weeks."

The Bucs wore orange throwback jerseys from their expansion days in the late 1970's, and the team's first coach, John McKay, was inducted into the franchise's Ring of Honor at halftime. McKay's son, Rich, is the Falcons president and was Tampa Bay's general manager when the club won its only Super Bowl title eight years ago.

Atlanta had gone a franchise-record four consecutive weeks without a turnover before Ryan overthrew intended receiver Tony Gonzalez and safety Sean Jones returned his first interception of the season 31 yards to the Atlanta 30 to change the momentum of the game.

Seven plays later, Freeman's 1-yard TD throw to Williams tied it at 14 with 15 seconds left before halftime.

Connor Barth's 33-yard field goal snapped the tie early in the third quarter. Corey Lynch's interception at the Atlanta 39 led to Graham's TD pass to Gilmore that gave the Bucs a short-lived 24-14 lead.

Weems took the ensuing kickoff 2 yards deep in his own end zone, slipped past two diving tacklers as he made his way to the sideline at about 25, then somehow stayed in bounds as he headed up the sideline in front of the Atlanta bench and ran into the clear.

"That was huge. An unbelievable change of momentum," Ryan said. "They go down and they score and put us behind two scores. Immediately following that, we run the kick back. Special teams jump-started us today. We know in this league, especially on the road, you're going to have to find different ways to win week in and week out."

Notes: The Falcons have won five straight in the intense division rivalry, with four of the games decided by six points or less. Atlanta won an earlier meeting this season 27-21 when Blount was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Falcons 2 with just under 2 minutes to go. ... Bucs played much of the game without cornerback Aqib Talib, who left in the second quarter with a hip injury. Center Jeff Faine left in the second half with a triceps injury.

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