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Monday, Mar 25, 2019
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Bucs-Falcons: Thrilling to the end, Jameis Winston’s return ends on a down note for Tampa Bay

ATLANTA — The last play of Sunday's 34-29 Bucs loss to the Falcons was a lot like the way Jameis Winston plays quarterback.

It's a wild amusement park ride, adventurous and alluring, with thrilling peaks and painful pitfalls, the Mad Tea Party on a gyro tower whirling like the Zipper.

And in the end, sometimes all you get is an upset stomach.

"Right after the game,'' receiver Mike Evans said, "I was sick.''

Making his first start since the three-game suspension, Winston had one of the best games of his career. He passed for 395 yards and four touchdowns, bringing the Bucs back from a 21-6 deficit. He also threw two interceptions, including one on a late pass to Chris Godwin that deflected high in the air and was picked off in the Falcons end zone.

"Jameis, you know, he does so many good things out there,'' Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said. "So many good things. And he has composure. He can make all the throws. He runs the team. He scrambles. He's tough. But there's a couple balls you'd like to have back. … Jameis played well for a huge percentage of the game.''

But let's start with how the game ended.

Needing a touchdown to win with no timeouts and only seven seconds remaining in the game, the Bucs probably had time for only one more play from the Atlanta 21-yard line.

With the Falcons secondary perched at the goal line, Winston ran a quarterback draw up the middle of the field. When the defenders collapsed on him at the 9-yard line, he threw the ball back and to his left. Adam Humphries recovered the fumble, bobbled it until Mike Evans picked the football up at the 5-yard line, spun nearly 180 degrees to his right and made a jump pass to DeSean Jackson, who had been jumping up and down near the sideline screaming for the ball.

With no defenders in front of him, Jackson failed to field the ball cleanly and it rolled out of bounds at the 8-yard line.

Sitting at his locker, Evans watched a replay of the final play on his cellphone, then covered his eyes and shook his head.

"That's how the play is drawn up,'' Evans said. "We want to give it to him in space. Us bobbling the ball helped us a little. It threw them off track. I just threw a poor ball. If I could've thrown a better pass.

"Shoot. … We had a good shot at it. We just weren't able to get a clean throw back.''

For Jackson, it would've been dramatic ending after a frustrating day. He still had no chemistry with Winston. He was targeted nine times Sunday and had only four catches for 77 yards. One deep ball intended for him in the first half was thrown too far inside and intercepted.

Jackson said had he fielded the throwback pass from Evans cleanly, he would've scored.

"I would've walked in backwards, in my eyes,'' Jackson said. "I was just back there sitting anxiously waiting on it. I knew the guy that was guarding me ran to Jameis and ran over to where the ball was. The way that play was planned out, I would've for sure scored."

Of course, it shouldn't have come down to that. The Bucs defense seemed bent on a continuation of its ineptitude in Chicago two weeks ago.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw three touchdown passes in the first half and led his team to scores in four of their first five possessions. Ryan passed for 354 yards and three TDs, but the defense rallied to hold the Falcons to only 10 second-half points. The Bucs hurt themselves against a beat-up Falcons defense that had given up 37 or more points in three straight games.

Winston connected with Humphries for a 51-yard gain to start the second half. But on second and goal from the 7-yard line, he threw late and low over the middle to Godwin. The ball caromed off the helmet of Falcons linebacker Duke Riley, popped straight up and cornerback Brian Poole intercepted.

"I was late to it,'' Winston said. "You just can't turn the ball over at the 6-yard line. That's really the story of the game. You can't the ball over twice today. … I mean, you eliminate those two plays, I had a great day. You have those two plays, it's a bad day.''

But it was so thrilling to the end, the kind of finish you watch through your fingers with both hands over your eyes.

Leading 31-29, the Falcons were stopped near midfield with about a minute left and coach Dan Quinn did something incredibly brave or stupid. He had Matt Bryant attempt a 57-yard field goal and risked a miss that would give the Bucs the ball right there needing only a field goal to beat them.

The 43-year-old Bryant nailed it, making Winston's job much harder.

Winston kept firing. Eighteen yards to Jackson and Evans, who couldn't get out of bounds. Nineteen yards to Humphries. He missed Jackson on the sideline. Time for one more play.

"My main goal is to get as far as I can and not get tackled with the ball in my hand,'' Winston said. "And that's how I saw it. I believe we had a chance.

"But at the end of the day, this game is about who gave it away and who took it away.''

Don't worry, Winston's wild ride is getting ready to start spinning again.

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud.

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