Photo by Michael Buckelew
TAMPA, Fla. -- A winning record fell short of expectations for the Atlanta Falcons.
Sunday's 20-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enabled the team to finish with consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. That provided little consolation for missing the playoffs
"We want to be a relevant football team year in and year out, and that's what we talk about," coach Mike Smith said after Matt Ryan threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns to help the Falcons (9-7) close with a three-game winning streak.
"When you're relevant, you've got to have a winning record, and then you'll have an opportunity to be in the discussion for the playoffs. We weren't in the playoffs this year, but we have a season that gave us nine wins. That's something that we're very proud of."
It was a disappointing year for Atlanta, though not nearly as frustrating the one Tampa Bay endured under Raheem Morris.
The Bucs (3-13) concluded their first season under the NFL's youngest coach with its worst record since 1991. They upset Seattle and New Orleans on the road the previous two weeks, but it's unclear whether that will be enough to save the 33-year-old's job.
The Glazer family, which replaced Jon Gruden with Morris last January, has not commented publicly on the coach's future.
"You guys didn't give me a vote of confidence, either. You can get fired tomorrow, too. But nobody is asking you that question," Morris said, reiterating he's not reading anything into ownership's silence.
"I'll stand here and coach until I go. My mom and my pop were both laid off when I was 13 years old, and nobody told them that they we're going to get fired. That's just the reality of the world we live in."
Standing in for injured leading rusher Michael Turner, Jason Snelling ran for 147 yards on 25 carries. Much of the damage came while Atlanta was putting the game away after intercepting Bucs rookie Josh Freeman twice in the fourth quarter.
Ryan tossed TD passes of 2 yards to Justin Peelle and 12 yards to Roddy White, the latter snapping a 10-10 tie midway through the fourth quarter. He finished 23 of 35 with two interceptions, including Sabby Piscatelli's pick near midfield that gave Tampa Bay a chance to take control.
But the Falcons' Christopher Owens, beaten earlier in the quarter on a TD that tied the score, intercepted Freeman's throw on the next play and returned the ball 13 yards to the Bucs 44. Five plays later -- with four runs by Snelling -- Ryan threw the go-ahead TD pass to White.
Snelling rushed for 131 yards after halftime. His 22-yard burst led to White's touchdown, and he added gains of 11, 21 and 22 yards on a drive that produced Matt Bryant's field goal with a just over a minute remaining.
"I definitely felt like I was in a rhythm, in a zone," Snelling said. "The coach kept feeding me the ball, I was able to make plays and the guys kept blocking for me."
Despite sitting out five of Atlanta's last seven games, Turner still came within 129 yards of his second 1,000-yard season. He carried just 13 times after a Week 10 loss to Carolina, and the lack of a consistent running game placed a heavier burden on Ryan down the stretch.
"It was a huge win for us to finish the season off with three wins in a row," said Ryan, who led Atlanta to 11 wins and a playoff berth as a rookie last season. "It said a lot about the guys that we have in the locker room."
Tampa Bay sputtered offensively, settling for Connor Barth's 36-yard field goal after Atlanta's Eric Weems fumbled on the opening kickoff and Tanard Jackson recovered at the Falcons 28.
A week after his first 100-yard game in more than three years, Cadillac Williams found little room to run. The Bucs were outgained 179-52 in falling behind 10-3 at the half, with Williams managing 26 yards on his first 13 carries.
Tampa Bay pulled even, driving 70 yards in 11 plays after blocking a field goal to score on Freeman's 8-yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant.
The rookie had completions of 11 yards to Kellen Winslow and 27 yards to Maurice Stovall on the march. He picked up a key block to avoid a sack by pushing umpire Tony Michalek into a pursuing defender before making a 14-yard throw to Jerramy Stevens.
Freeman was 16 of 32 for 174 yards. Williams finished with 40 yards rushing on 19 attempts.
Now, the Bucs await word on Morris.
"He should be our coach," said Jackson, who also had an interception Sunday. "He came in his first year and got to work with what he had to work with. I know it will be different next year."
Cornerback Ronde Barber agreed.
"Guys are strong on him. It's that simple," Barber said. "I don't have to defend him. He doesn't have to defend himself."
Notes: Tampa Bay also finished 3-13 in 1991. ... Jerious Norwood started in place of Turner and was limited to 27 yards on nine carries. ... Freeman set a Bucs rookie record with 10 TD passes. He was 3-6 as a starter.