Needing a win to keep pace in the NFC playoff hunt, the Falcons took care of business on Monday night, hanging on for a slim 24-21 victory in Tampa Bay. Devonta Freeman put the offense on his back, pacing Atlanta with a season-high 194 yards from scrimmage on 27 touches.
Freeman was far from perfect—he fumbled twice including once on the goal line, though Levine Toilolo recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. But when the Falcons needed him most, Freeman was there to lay down the hammer. Freeman delivered the final knockout blow for Atlanta when he breezed through the Bucs’ defense for a scintillating 32-yard touchdown with just under eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The 25-year-old went through a midseason lull but has followed up a six-game touchdown drought by scoring in back-to-back contests. This wasn’t the first time Freeman has gone ballistic on MNF. The last time he played on Monday night back in Week 3 of 2016, he shredded the Saints for a career-high 207 yards from scrimmage (152 rushing, 55 receiving) in a 45-32 Falcons victory.
Terron Ward was productive in a change-of-pace role for Atlanta, turning eight carries into a season-high 40 rushing yards. Ward was elevated to backup status in the absence of Tevin Coleman, who remains in the league’s concussion protocol. Monday afforded Ward the rare opportunity to play against his older brother T.J., who recorded two tackles over 21 defensive snaps.
Jones had a game for the ages when the Falcons hosted Tampa Bay in Week 12, amassing 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. The sequel was a relative disappointment as Jones was held to just three catches for 54 yards on eight targets. He was shut out after halftime, failing to catch either of his two second-half targets.
Matt Ryan was also stymied by the Bucs, completing just 17-of-31 passes for 212 yards and one touchdown. Not usually known for his rushing prowess, Ryan racked up 29 yards on three carries. All three of those runs came in the third quarter. Meanwhile Matt Bryant, who spent four seasons in Tampa Bay before joining the Falcons in 2009, booted a season-long 57-yard field goal with just over three minutes to go in the second quarter. However, he was blocked by William Gholston on a 33-yard attempt later in the game.
Playing out the final stretch of a lost season, the Bucs made a surprising—and probably long overdue—decision to scratch Doug Martin for Week 15. Martin has been Tampa Bay’s workhorse throughout the year but was benched for Peyton Barber after losing a fumble in last week’s loss to Detroit. Martin’s benching this week was supposedly due to a violation of team rules, though it’s likely Barber would have led the backfield anyway.
Of course, Martin is no stranger to late-season drama. Last year he was scratched as a “coach’s decision” for Week 16 and was later hit with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on PEDs. Barber wasn’t overly impressive in Monday night’s loss (68 yards and a lost fumble on 16 touches) but he should maintain the starting job over Martin, who has averaged a lethargic 3.01 yards per carry since the start of 2016. Past his prime at age 28 (he turns 29 next month), Martin’s time in Tampa Bay appears to be running short.
Jameis Winston enjoyed arguably his best game of the year in Monday’s defeat (27-of-35, 299 yards, three touchdowns), a feat made more impressive by all the injuries the Bucs were dealt. It was a short night for O.J. Howard, who tweaked his ankle at the end of a 30-yard touchdown scamper late in the first quarter. That would be his final play of the night. The next domino to fall was DeSean Jackson, who lasted just 22 snaps before bowing out with an ankle issue of his own. He and Howard were both seen sporting walking boots after the game. Cameron Brate (knee) was also sidelined for a spell, but returned to finish with four catches for 49 yards on five targets.
With so many bodies missing, Mike Evans drew a team-high eight targets including a 42-yard touchdown early in the third quarter. That snapped a six-game scoreless drought for Evans, who chipped in with five catches for 79 yards. Monday was a much-needed bounce-back game for Evans, who had been held to just 58 yards on four catches over his previous two outings.
Even with Tampa Bay running short on pass catchers, the Bucs mounted a late comeback, narrowing the gap to three on a touchdown by Adam Humphries with just over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Bucs spanned 35 yards on six plays to set up a potential game-tying field goal with six seconds left, but Patrick Murray pushed it wide right from 54 yards out.
That sealed the win for the Falcons, who are now a game up on Dallas, Detroit and Seattle for the sixth and final Wild Card spot in the NFC. Should they need it, the Falcons hold the tiebreaker over all three teams after beating the Lions in Week 3, the Cowboys in Week 10 and the Seahawks in Week 11. Atlanta also controls its own destiny in the NFC South. If the Falcons win out—they travel to New Orleans for Week 16 before hosting Carolina in the regular season finale—they’ll win the South for the second straight year. Atlanta’s win was the final nail in Green Bay’s coffin as the 7-7 Packers will be missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Quick Hits: Bryce Petty struggled in Sunday’s loss to New Orleans but the Jets aren’t ready to make a quarterback switch. Petty will draw another start against the Chargers on Christmas Eve while Christian Hackenberg, who has yet to play an NFL snap, will ride the pine once again … The Jets waived Jeremy Kerley on Monday. Kerley just finished serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on PEDs … Hunter Henry suffered a minor kidney laceration in Saturday’s loss to Kansas City. He’s in danger of missing the final two games of the regular season. Veteran Antonio Gates will fill in at tight end for the Chargers … Keenan Allen is expected to be fine after being carted off with a back injury in Week 15. Allen ranks fourth in the league in receiving yards per game behind only Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones … Denzel Perryman has already been ruled out for Week 16 against the Jets. He strained his hamstring in Saturday’s loss to Kansas City … Thomas Davis was suspended two games for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Davante Adams, who left Sunday’s game with a concussion. Davis later apologized to Adams on Twitter … Packers coach Mike McCarthy wouldn’t commit to Aaron Rodgers starting against the Vikings in Week 16. Rodgers looked rusty in his return from a broken collarbone Sunday, throwing three interceptions in a loss to Carolina. Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay on Monday night eliminated the Packers from playoff contention … The Colts have placed Ryan Kelly on season-ending I.R. The second-year center is still recovering from a concussion he suffered in Week 12 … Donald Penn will undergo season-ending surgery after injuring his foot in Sunday’s loss to Dallas. The surgery will end his consecutive games streak at 174 … The Cardinals are benching Blaine Gabbert following a miserable performance Sunday against Washington. With Carson Palmer (broken arm) still on I.R., Drew Stanton will get the nod in Week 16 … DeShone Kizer face-planted again in Sunday’s loss to Baltimore (20-for-37, 146 yards, two interceptions) but he’ll remain the starter for Week 16 at Chicago. The rookie sports the league’s lowest quarterback rating among qualified starters at 59.4 … Marqise Lee bowed out of Sunday’s game with a sprained ankle, though the Jaguars are confident he’ll be back for the postseason “or sooner.” With Lee hobbled, undrafted rookie Keelan Cole paced Jacksonville with a career-high 186 yards in Week 15 … Texans coach Bill O’Brien indicated that Tom Savage could miss the rest of the season with a concussion. T.J. Yates handled quarterback duties for Houston in Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville … The Broncos sent Trevor Siemian to injured reserve on Monday. Siemian suffered a dislocated shoulder Thursday against Indianapolis. Denver has yet to name a starter for Week 16, though it will be either Brock Osweiler or Paxton Lynch, who is back from a high-ankle sprain … Kerwynn Williams injured his quad in Sunday’s loss to Washington. Elijhaa Penny would draw the start if Williams can’t go against the Giants in Week 16 … Rex Burkhead sprained his knee in Sunday’s dramatic win over Pittsburgh and is likely done for the regular season. Dion Lewis and James White will lead the Patriots’ backfield in Burkhead’s absence … Week 15 marked the end of Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. He’ll return to his usual workhorse role Sunday against Seattle. The Cowboys went 3-3 during Zeke’s absence … According to beat writer Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins are expected to part ways with Julius Thomas this offseason. Playing on his third team in four seasons, Thomas has recorded 388 yards and three touchdowns on 41 catches this year … According to Jimmy Kempski of Philly Voice, Eagles coach Doug Pederson is “leaning” toward resting his starters for the regular season finale if the team clinches home-field advantage in Week 16. The Eagles can wrap up the No. 1 seed in the NFC by defeating the Raiders on Christmas night.