Falcons edge Buccaneers to boost playoff bid

Devonta Freeman ran for 126 yards and a touchdown and the Atlanta Falcons improved their chances for an NFL wildcard playoff berth Monday by defeating host Tampa Bay 24-21.

The Falcons improved to 9-5, eliminating the Green Bay Packers from playoff contention with the triumph and maintaining a one-game lead for the sixth and final playoff spot in the National Conference.

Atlanta, which suffered a heartbreaking over-time loss to New England in last February’s Super Bowl, has defeated all three teams that stand 8-6 on the heels in the playoff race — Dallas, Seattle and Detroit.

The Falcons and Buccaneers exchanged first-quarter touchdown passes, Matt Ryan making a 6-yarder to Justin Hardy for Atlanta and Tampa Bay equalizing on a 30-yard toss from Jameis Winston to O.J. Howard.

Atlanta’s Levine Toilolo recovered a fumble in the end zone on the next Falcons’ drive to put the visitors ahead and Matt Bryant added a 57-yard field goal with 3:17 to play in the second quarter to lift the Falcons ahead 17-7.

Tampa Bay, already eliminated from the playoff hunt even before falling to 4-10, pulled within 17-14 just 6:29 into the third quarter as Mike Evans grabbed a 42-yard Winstron touchdown toss.

But Freeman ran 32 yards for a touchdown with 7:58 remaining in the fourth quarter, boosting the Falcons back in front 24-14.

Winston’s third touchdown pass was a 16-yard effort to Adam Humphries with 4:07 remaining to again lift the Buccaneers within three points and Tampa Bay’s defense forced a Falcons punt to give the hosts one final chance.

But Buccaneers kicker Patrick Murray missed a 54-yard tying field goal attempt wide right as time expired.

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