As has unfortunately been the case for the Falcons too often in 2020, an early lead melted away in the second half of Atlanta's 31-27 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Falcons built a 17-0 lead behind some stellar play in the first half and seemed to be in complete control heading into halftime. That lead would not prove to be big enough, however, as the Buccaneers team that came out of the tunnel in the second half did not look anything like the one that struggled early in the game.
After crossing the 50-yard line just once in the first half, Tampa Bay marched 80 yards in seven plays to start the third quarter and scored on a 1-yard touchdown run by Leonard Fournette. Atlanta matched that drive with a 75-yard march of its own that ended with a 7-yard touchdown catch by Hayden Hurst, which marked Matt Ryan's third touchdown pass of the afternoon.
At that point in the contest, it appeared the Falcons would be able to keep the Buccaneers at bay even if Tom Brady - who has another notable comeback against the Falcons to his name - got things going, but the two teams quickly began to trend in opposite directions.
The Buccaneers scored touchdowns on their next two offensive possessions, while the Falcons had back-to-back three-and-outs. That swing in momentum cut Atlanta's lead to 24-21, but Tampa Bay was able to fully complete the comeback with a field goal on their first drive of the fourth quarter.
Atlanta's offense woke back up with the game tied, and a 33-yard strike to Calvin Ridley moved the Falcons into Buccaneers territory. It looked as though Ryan would connect with Ridley for the second time in the end zone, but a terrific play by rookie Antoine Winfield denied the Falcons their best scoring opportunity of the drive. A 52-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo, who surpassed Matt Bryant to become the team’s all-time leader in field goals made, gave the Falcons a 27-24 lead, but that was not to last long.
Getting the ball back, Brady quickly moved the Buccaneers down the field. After a couple of deep completions, Brady found Antonio Brown for a 46-yard score. Injuries in the secondary mounted throughout the game for a Falcons team that was already without Ricardo Allen and Darqueze Dennard entering the weekend. An injury to Isaiah Oliver moved undrafted rookie cornerback Tyler Hall into the defensive lineup, and it was that mismatch with Brown that Brady exploited.
Tampa Bay scored 31 points in the second half, and the Falcons could muster only 10. Atlanta's last hopes of winning a game it dominated early came to an end when Ridley came up short of the first down on a fourth-down pass from Ryan late in the fourth quarter.
Ryan and Ridley were easily the two best performers for Atlanta on Sunday afternoon. Without Julio Jones in the lineup, Ridley again had the chance to shine as the team's top receiver and he did all that and more, finishing with 10 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown. Ryan was also very sharp for much of the game, which marked a nice bounce back from his poor performance against the Los Angeles Chargers. He finished the game 34-of-49 and threw for 356 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
If the two halves of football hadn't proven to be so lopsided, this game could have easily been viewed as a classic quarterback duel between two of the league's former MVPs. After his slow start, Brady heated up in a major way and finished with 31 completions on 45 attempts for 390 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Mike Evans was Brady's top target, catching six passes for 110 yards, but Brown chipped in with five catches for 93 yards and a touchdown.
The eventual outcome of the game squandered what was perhaps the best opening half of football from the Falcons in quite some time.
An excellent third-down catch by Todd Gurley helped the Falcons pick up their first first down of the game, and they never looked back. Ryan was a perfect 6-of-6 on the drive, connecting with Ridley for a 23-yard gain and Gage for a 27-yard gain on back-to-back passes. Those chunk plays moved Atlanta into the red zone, and Ryan finished off the opening drive with a 5-yard dime to Gage for the touchdown.
That first drive set the tone for a terrific start by Atlanta's offense, which scored 17 points and gained 261 yards in the first half. The Falcons were 2-for-3 in the red zone, and problem area this season, and converted 60 percent on third down. It was a nice revival for an offense that has started slowly of late and complemented by an equally impressive first half by the defense.
Atlanta held Tampa Bay to just 60 yards of offense and a total of five first downs. The Falcons sacked Brady twice and limited the Buccaneers to only seven yards on the ground. That high level of play on both sides of the ball allowed Atlanta to earn its second first-half shutout of the season and build a 17-point lead at halftime.
Following their loss to the Buccaneers, the Falcons fall to 4-10 on the season and have a matchup with the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs coming up next.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers with top photos from Week 15.