ATLANTA (AP) — Tom Brady threw for 368 yards and four touchdowns — two of them to longtime favorite target Rob Gronkowski — and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved to the brink of clinching the NFC South title with a 30-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The Bucs (9-3) won their third straight game and pushed their division lead to four games over Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans (all 5-7) with five games remaining.
Brady improved to 10-0 in his career against the Falcons, including four straight wins over the last two seasons since moving from New England to Tampa Bay.
The 44-year-old Brady completed 38 of 51, including touchdowns of 27 and 11 yards to Gronkowski — their first scoring passes since Week 2 against the Falcons.
The prolific duo has combined for 90 regular-season TDs, passing Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates for No. 2 in NFL history. Only Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison have more, hooking up for 112 scoring passes.
Brady shook off a huge blunder in the final minute of the first half, when 278-pound defensive lineman Marlon Davidson picked off a short pass and glided 3 yards into the end zone for a touchdown that cut Tampa Bay’s lead to 20-17 at the break.
The Bucs came out throwing. For the first time since 2004, they passed the ball on their first 13 plays of a game — accounting for the entire 75-yard touchdown drive on their opening possession.
Brady completed 11 passes on the drive, including a 6-yard throw to Leonard Fournette on fourth-and-4 at the Atlanta 38. The two hooked up again for a 3-yard touchdown play, with Fournette making a slick, one-handed grab.
The Falcons answered with a touchdown drive of their own, doing most of their damage on the ground.
Cordarrelle Patterson broke off a 39-yard scamper before Mike Davis ran for a 17-yard touchdown.
Tampa Bay finally ran the ball on the first play of its next possession, but again it was Brady’s arm that accounted for most of the production on another 75-yard touchdown drive.
He went to Chris Godwin for 25 yards and Mike Evans for 36 yards to set up another 3-yard scoring pass, this one to Cameron Brate. A missed extra point left the Bucs with a 13-7 lead.
Atlanta squandered a chance to pull ahead, settling for a field goal after having first-and-goal from inside the 1. Ryan lost a couple of yards falling on a bobbled snap, sandwiched around a pair of incompletions that forced the Falcons to send in Younghoe Koo for a 21-yard field goal.
Brady’s 27-yard TD to Gronkowski had the Bucs on the verge of a blowout.
But Tampa Bay got greedy near the end of the half, sending the Falcons to a locker room on quite a high after Davidson’s pick-6.
It didn’t carry over. Matt Ryan was sacked five times and called for intentional grounding. Russell Gage lost a fumble in Tampa Bay territory when it looked as if the Falcons might be driving for a go-ahead score.
Buccaneers: CB Jamel Dean was knocked out of the game with a concussion. RB Ronald Jones had to come out because of an illness.
Falcons: S Richie Grant and LB Adetokunbo Ogundeji both hobbled off the field with ankle injuries.
Buccaneers: Return home next Sunday to face AFC powerhouse Buffalo.
Falcons: Travel to Charlotte next Sunday to face the Carolina Panthers in another NFC South game.
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