ATLANTA — Tampa Bay did all it could to squander another big lead. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they ran up against a team that seemed even more determined to lose.
Taking advantage of four turnovers, Tampa Bay jumped to a 17-point edge on the Atlanta Falcons before winning 23-20 in overtime Sunday when Connor Barth kicked a 31-yard field goal and the defense stuffed the final drive.
Instead, Jameis Winston led an impressive drive on the first possession of OT, converting three times on third down before Barth made his third field goal of the game.
“Last week was tough for us,” said Winston, who passed for one touchdown and ran for another. “It still was in the back of our minds, even though we put it behind us.”
After the field goal, Atlanta’s offense got a chance in overtime but didn’t even make it to midfield. On fourth down, Ryan was heavily pressured by Gerald McCoy and Howard Jones, forcing a desperation pass that wasn’t close to anyone.
Tampa Bay finally got to celebrate, though one player did so with a heavy heart. Rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander, who had an interception and a fumble recovery, played two days after his younger brother was killed in a fight.
“When you talk about the true definition of a man, it’s the way he overcomes adversity and the way that he took the field,” Winston said. “We saw in his eyes that he was here for a purpose.”
The Falcons rallied from a 20-3 deficit, benefiting from a highly questionable decision by Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Bucs 40 with 2 minutes remaining.
Winston looked to pass, then attempted to run, only to get stopped with a big hit by Ricardo Allen. The Falcons — with no timeouts but a much shorter field to work with than they would’ve had after a punt — drove for the tying touchdown. Jones got loose in the back of the end zone to haul in the pass from Ryan.
“We had an opportunity to finish the game right then,” Smith said. “I’d make that call 10 out of 10 times.”
The Falcons were again their own worst enemy. They lost three fumbles and threw an interception, running their turnover total to 12 in the past four games. They also were penalized 11 times for 124 yards.
“We can’t dig ourselves that hole and expect to consistently get out of it,” said Ryan, who was responsible for two of the turnovers, though he did complete 37 of 45 passes for 397 yards and two touchdowns.
Each time Atlanta turned it over, Tampa Bay followed with a score. It was simply too much for the home team to overcome, handing the Falcons an unexpected loss after they won six of their first seven games under rookie coach Dan Quinn, matching their win total for last season.
Tampa Bay, with a rookie quarterback, didn’t turn it over at all.
The flurry of mistakes began with Jones getting the ball stripped by Alexander after catching a pass over the middle, setting up Barth’s first field goal.
Atlanta then squandered a prime scoring opportunity with a botched snap by Mike Person on second-and-goal at the Bucs 4. Jacquies Smith pounced on it for the Bucs, who then went 73 yards for another field goal.
On another drive into Tampa Bay territory, Alexander came through again. He picked off Ryan’s ill-advised pass into triple coverage and returned it 15 yards to midfield. Winston did the rest, connecting with Cameron Brate on a 20-yard TD with 30 seconds remaining.
As the players trotted off the field, the Atlanta fans showered their team with boos.
There were more to come.
Ryan tried to fake a handoff, but lost the ball at the Bucs 20 on the Falcons’ first possession of the second half. Henry Melton recovered, and Tampa Bay drove 76 yards in just seven plays, capped by Winston’s 4-yard touchdown run.