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Falcons fall in season opener to Buccaneers, 31-24
0912Falcons
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) runs into the end zone for a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half on Sunday in Atlanta. - photo by John Bazemore

ATLANTA — Jameis Winston is no longer a rookie.

He wasn’t about to get flustered when an early mix-up led to an interception.

Bouncing back from that mistake, Winston threw four touchdown passes for the second time in his young career as Tampa Bay claimed a winning record for the first time since 2012 by opening the season with a 31-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Winston began his second year as a pro by going 23 of 33 for 281 yards, using just about every weapon at his disposal in the matchup between NFC South rivals. He hooked up with receiver Mike Evans, running back Charles Sims III and tight ends Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers on scoring plays.

“I’m just growing as a man every day,” Winston said.

The Falcons grabbed a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter after Winston’s pass for Vincent Jackson was picked off by Desmond Trufant, who returned it 13 yards to the Tampa Bay 9. There was a breakdown between the quarterback and receiver, as Jackson broke outside while Winston’s threw to the inside.

But Winston shook off that miscue with a 4-yard TD pass to Myers and went to work again with less than 2 minutes to go in the first half.

Winston converted on third-and-10 with an 11-yard pass to Jackson. Then came a short throw to Sims, who did the rest. He faked out two defenders — cutting right while they both tumbled the turf, taking each other out — and broke two more tackles on the way to a 23-yard touchdown that put Tampa Bay ahead for good with 14 seconds left in the half.

The Buccaneers scored on their first two possessions of the second half, pushing the lead to 31-13. Winston connected with Sefarion-Jenkins on a 30-yard touchdown, followed by a perfectly thrown 45-yard scoring pass to Evans over two defenders.

To their credit, the Falcons didn’t quit in their final season opener at the Georgia Dome before moving next door to $1.4 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Matt Ryan , looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2015 season in which the Falcons missed the playoffs for the third year in a row, hooked up with Julio Jones on a 25-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion closed the gap to 31-21.

Another long drive resulted in Matt Bryant’s third field goal, and the Falcons got the ball back one more time with 1:52 remaining and no timeouts. They managed only first down before the Bucs closed it out.

“We had four trips into the red zone and came away with one touchdown,” Ryan said. “We’ve got to be much better.”

KOETTER’S DEBUT

Former Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was a winner in his debut as an NFL head coach.

Koetter was splashed with a bucket of Gatorade and given the game ball by Winston. Also reveling in the victory was Tampa Bay’s new defensive coordinator, Mike Smith, who was head coach of the Falcons for seven years until being fired after the 2014 season.

“All right,” Koetter quipped. “Good guys win. Let’s do it 15 more times this year.”

LONG DROUGHT

It’s the first winning record for the Bucs since they started the 2012 season with a 6-4 mark.

Tampa Bay’s last winning season was 2010.

INJURY REPORT

Tampa Bay backup linebacker Jacquies Smith was carted to the locker room with a right knee injury and didn’t return.

He was hurt covering a punt in the first quarter.

UNDISCIPLINED FALCONS

Some big penalties cost the home team in the third quarter. Offensive guard Chris Chester was called for unnecessary roughness, knocking the Falcons out of field-goal range.

On Tampa Bay’s ensuing possession, cornerback Robert Alford was also flagged for a personal foul after the Falcons had forced an incomplete pass on third down. The Bucs went on to score a touchdown.

FANTASY WATCH

WR Mohamed Sanu got off to a strong start with the Falcons. He set up a field goal with a 59-yard grab and hauled in a 5-yard TD pass, finishing with five receptions for 80 yards. He also caught a two-point conversion. … RB Devonta Freeman was held to 20 yards on 11 carries as Atlanta rushed for just 52 yards. … Evans had five catches for 99 yards.

UP NEXT

Buccaneers: Tampa Bay travels to the desert to face the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday.

Falcons: Atlanta also head west next Sunday to meet the Oakland Raiders, who opened with a 35-34 win over New Orleans.

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