Falcons overcome turnovers, beat Bucs on field goal as time expires
It has all slipped away from the Bucs. The feel-good start. Baker Mayfield playing the role of the Comeback Kid. Certainly, the NFC South lead. The Bucs surrendered the latter to the Falcons in Sunday's 16-13 loss, their third at Raymond James Stadium in four tries this season. It was butterfingered by the Bucs despite Atlanta and Desmond Ridder fumbling the football three times, including twice inside the Tampa Bay 1-yard line.

Even with safety Antoine Winfield Jr. preventing a clinching touchdown by knocking the ball out of Ridder's hands and through the end zone for a touchback late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs weren't able to take advantage. Once again it was the offense that continued to treat the red zone like a dead zone.

And just for good measure, when the Bucs tied the score on Chase McLaughlin's 36-yard field goal with 45 seconds remaining in regulation, the defense gave up the big play: a 39-yard pass to former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. That set up Younghoe Koo's game-winning 51-yard field goal as time expired.

"You just got to execute," Mayfield said. "Our defense did a great job. I can't say enough about Antoine Winfield Jr. The guy is a stud. Lavonte (David) making plays all over the board. I'm missing names here. But offensively, we've got to be better. I'm going to have to wear that one for us."

Bucs fans have heard all this before. In the past two weeks, Mayfield and new coordinator Dave Canales have combined to score six and 13 points. You have to go back to 2017 to find a team in Tampa Bay that has scored so little in consecutive games when the Bucs put up 3 and 10 in defeats to the Panthers and Saints. The head coach was Dirk Koetter and the quarterback was Jameis Winston.

Sunday's defeat dropped the Bucs to 3-3 overall and a half game behind the Falcons (4-3) in the NFC South. But the worst news is they have a game at Buffalo in exactly four days on Thursday Night Football. "The frustration is more about the loss at this point," coach Todd Bowles said. "I think we executed on some runs and some things in the passing game. We could've stopped them in the two-minute (drill) defensively. We could've done some things on special teams. We got to be able to score points. We're going to have to be able to run the ball. We're going have be able to throw it and execute better in the red zone all the way around."

Trailing 13-10, the Bucs faced first and goal at the Falcons' 8-yard line. Mayfield threw incomplete to Chris Godwin twice and was sacked. Maybe because the defense also had its fingerprints on the defeat, there didn't appear to be any fracturing in the Bucs' locker room.

"We just want to have their back," linebacker Devin White said. "Whatever goes on out there, we don't want to be a downer. We just want to let those guys know that we got them. We're going to get them the ball back. That's the way you've got to be in football. It's not always going to be your day. You're not always going to firing on all cylinders. Things can happen and stuff goes wrong.

"(Atlanta is) good. Detroit is good. You've just got to have your brother's back and keep fighting. I think we did that. We put ourselves in position to win if it took overtime. ... We've got to own it and we've got to let it go because we've got a short week for Buffalo."

The problems are the same for the Bucs on offense. They can't run the ball. If you take away Mayfield's 31-yard scramble to get McLaughlin in range for the tying field goal, Rachaad White and Ke'Shawn Vaughn combined to rush 17 times for 41 yards - a 2.4-yard average that will only continue to cement their status as the worst rushing team in the NFL.

"We came into this game knowing (the Falcons') rush defense is statistically up there at the top of the league," Mayfield said. "They don't make it easy. We had a few different runs and just trying to do some different looks for them. But we've got to be able to get some shots called. We knew they were going to play a lot of two high (safeties on) defense."

The Bucs also were bad in the red zone. Their lone TD came on a 40-yard strike from Mayfield to Mike Evans. How big was Sunday's loss? Well, consider that four of the Bucs' next five games are on the road: at Buffalo on Thursday night, at the Texans (Nov. 5), home against the Titans (Nov. 12), then at San Francisco (Nov. 19) and at Indianapolis (Nov. 28). "We've got a game in a couple days (at Buffalo) ... as bad as this one was, we can't let it affect the next one," Bowles said.

Rick Stroud, The Tampa Bay Times, published 23 October 2023