ATLANTA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking forward to the return of Jameis Winston.
Not that they’re complaining about his backup.
Ryan Fitzpatrick turned in another solid performance in his third straight start Sunday, nearly rallying the Bucs from a 21-point deficit. But a fourth-down pass was batted down near the goal line midway through the fourth quarter, and the Atlanta Falcons held on for a 34-20 victory that snapped Tampa Bay’s two-game winning streak with Fitzpatrick at the helm.
“Ryan did fine,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “He hung in there and again he didn’t turn the ball over and when you don’t turn the ball over in the NFL, you are going to have a chance, which we did.”
After the Bucs (4-7) fell behind 27-6 early in the third quarter, Fitzpatrick led them back.
He completed four passes for 62 yards, setting up a short touchdown run by Peyton Barber. After the Bucs got the ball back, he connected on five throws for 67 yards, in addition to scrambling for an 11-yard gain, before Barber punched it over again from the 1 to bring Tampa Bay within 27-20.
The Bucs then came up with a huge turnover, stripping the ball away from Terron Ward deep in their own territory. Brent Grimes scooped it up at his own 5 and returned it all the way out to the Tampa Bay 42.
Fitzpatrick got the offense cranked up again, working around a sack to push Tampa Bay to second-and-2 at the Atlanta 19. A shot at the end zone fell incomplete and a short throw to Adam Humphries picked up only a yard.
Facing fourth-and-1, the Bucs passed on a field goal and took another shot at the tying touchdown. With 346-pouind Dontari Poe bearing down on him, Fitzpatrick delivered a hurried throw over the middle intended for tight end Cameron Brate.
It was batted down inside the 5 by Falcons safety Keanu Neal.
“With the two-game win streak we had coming in, the way we battled back in the second half,” Fitzpatrick said, “this one hurts.”
The Falcons took it the other way, clinching the victory on Tevin Coleman’s 14-yard touchdown run with just under two minutes remaining.
“We had momentum at that time and getting a field goal and being down by four, are we going to stop them or not stop them?” Koetter explained. “We were playing pretty good on offense, moving the football and made the decision on third down if we didn’t get it we would go for it on fourth.”
Koetter took the blame for the play call.
“I told the players I should have given them a better play,” the coach said. “You have three or four plays on your sheet for that situation, and I picked the wrong one.”
“I thought it was a really good play call,” he said. “I wish I would have been able to execute better. That’s a play as a quarterback you love to hear. Coach has some confidence in you to go out there and do it. We just didn’t get it done.”
Fitzpatrick, who celebrated his 35th birthday on Friday, finished 27 of 44 for 283 yards. In three games as the starter , he has completed 66 of 115 (57 percent) for 745 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception.
“Ryan is doing what he can do,” Koetter said. “I’m fine with how he is playing.”
Winston has been sidelined with a nagging shoulder injury . He’ll be re-evaluated Monday, but his return is still up in the air.
“Not sure about that,” Koetter said. “That will be a doctor’s call.”
Fitzpatrick will be ready if needed when the Bucs play their third straight road game next Sunday at Green Bay.
“We are all professionals,” he said. “I appreciate and respect the guys that I’m out there with in the huddle. It’s never fun to lose, but the fight that those guys show every week, I will always appreciate and respect that.”