ATLANTA — Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed they can be a team on the rise in the NFC South.
Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons were stuck with another poor start in the division.
The Buccaneers, who improved from two to six wins last season, opened their season with a crucial road win in the division by beating the Falcons 31-24 on Sunday.
Winston, the second-year quarterback, was sharp as he threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns . The Falcons were unable to stop Winston’s accurate scoring passes to wide receiver Mike Evans and tight ends Brandon Myers and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. They were similarly flustered by running back Charles Sims’ cuts and spin on his 23-yard scoring pass from Winston.
“Let’s do it 15 more times. This year,” said first-year coach Dirk Koetter, whose rewards for winning his debut was a Gatorade bath and the game ball.
Asked who presented the game ball, Koetter said “Take a guess. No. 3.”
Winston is No. 3.
It was a frustrating start for the Falcons, who were 1-5 against NFC South opponents in 2015, including 0-2 against Winston and the Buccaneers.
Winston was the star, but the Buccaneers displayed balance. Doug Martin ran for 62 yards. Eight receivers caught passes.
Gerald McCoy, Kwon Alexander and Robert Ayers Jr. led the defense with sacks. Tampa Bay limited Julio Jones to four catches for 66 yards, though Jones had a 25-yard scoring catch after the Buccaneers’ stretched their lead to 31-13.
Atlanta’s comeback ended with Matt Bryant’s third field goal, a 29-yarder in the fourth quarter. The Falcons’ final possession ended at their 28.
“We had some opportunities but we just didn’t make the plays and that’s disappointing,” said Ryan who completed 27 of 39 passes for 334 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Tampa Bay held Atlanta to only 52 yards rushing, including 20 yards on 11 carries by Devonta Freeman.
“You can’t say enough about Julio Jones and Matt Ryan, they’re great players, but you have to beat them as a team and that’s what we did,” said Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes. “We played as a team, helping each other, played a good game and got out of here.”
Here are some things we learned from the Buccaneers’ win over the Falcons:
FALCONS FANTASY WATCH: Mohamed Sanu and Tevin Coleman are the complements to Jones and Freeman, respectively, in Atlanta’s offense. They showed they could be more than afterthoughts in fantasy leagues.
Sanu, signed from the Bengals to be Atlanta’s new No. 2 wide receiver, had five catches for 80 yards. He had a 59-yard catch and a 5-yard scoring catch in the first quarter.
Coleman led Atlanta with his modest 22 yards rushing on eight carries and added five catches for 95 yards. The second-year running back showed his big-play potential with a 47-yard catch from Ryan, affirming expectations he’ll play a bigger role this season.
CHEERS FOR WINSTON: Winston earned repeated compliments from his teammates, including center Joe Hawley, who began his career with Atlanta.
“It’s not often that you have young guys like him with that kind of poise at such an important position with all the eyes on him,” Hawley said. “He really shows a lot of poise for such a young player.”
KOETTER’S ‘WEIRD’ RETURN: Koetter was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator when Mike Smith was coach. He was promoted from coordinator to coach by Tampa Bay and then hired Smith as his defensive coordinator.
Koetter said returning to the Georgia Dome as the visiting coach was “weird” — a description he repeated.
“It’s weird to see the people on the other side,” Koetter said. “It was weird last year and weird this year. I’ve got a lot of respect for plenty of people in that organization but that’s the nature of the NFL.”
NO SACKS: The Falcons may be tired of hearing they ranked last in the league with 19 sacks last season and have ranked no higher than 28th since 2012. The pass-rush woes continued as they were held without a sack by Tampa Bay.
INJURY REPORT: Tampa Bay backup linebacker Jacquies Smith was carted to the locker room with a right knee injury and didn’t return. He was hurt covering a punt in the first quarter. Atlanta defensive end Brooks Reed returned after leaving in the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Reed left the field again in the fourth quarter.