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Devonta Freeman leads Falcons in nail-biter over Bucs

Devonta Freeman overcame a pair of fumbles to pound out a season-high 194 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown, leading the Atlanta Falcons (9-5) to a 24-21 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) in Week 15. The Falcons held on for the win after Patrick Murray missed a 54-yard field-goal attempt as time expired. Here's what we learned from Monday night's action:

  1. The final two weeks of the NFC South's season set up as a round-robin tournament to establish playoff seeding among three contenders. Due to tie-breaker advantages, the Falcons will succeed in defending their division crown if they win out. If they lose next week at New Orleans, however, they will have to beat the Panthers at home in the regular-season finale to prevent the Lions, Cowboys or Seahawks from sneaking in via a late-season winning streak.
  1. Atlanta's victory officially eliminates Green Bay from the playoff picture, which leaves the Packers with little incentive to risk re-injury to Aaron Rodgers' surgically repaired throwing shoulder going forward. Re-signing No. 3 quarterback Joe Callahan on Monday, coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged that Rodgers is "sore" after taking too many hits in Sunday's return to game action. "We'll see what tomorrow brings," McCarthy added. Monday night's result is going to bring ill tidings in McCarthy's Christmas stocking.
  1. Freeman was the Falcons' leading rusher and top receiver. Channeling Le'Veon Bell, he made defensive backs pay at the tackle point, lowering his shoulder and driving for extra yardage. After staking his team to a 10-point lead via a 32-yard touchdown scamper in the middle of the fourth quarter, he also came through with a crucial third-down conversion just before the two-minute warning.
  1. Twenty is the magic number for Dan Quinn's club. The Falcons are now 9-0 when they score at least 20 points as opposed to 0-5 when they fail to reach that mark. That said, winning five of the past six has obscured some troubling signs for Matt Ryan's aerial attack. Entering Week 11, the 2016 MVP had thrown for at least 224 yards in 50 consecutive games. He has now been held under that threshold five times since mid-November. The Ryan-to-Julio Jones connection that was the NFL's most productive last season has generated a paltry passer rating of 31.4 over the past three weeks, the worst stretch of Jones' career. As we pointed out last week, Ryan is too often forced to squeeze the ball into tight windows in Steve Sarkisian's offense whereas Kyle Shanahan's brilliant scheming frequently led to wide open targets for an offense that averaged 11 more points a year ago.
  1. Quinn can't expect his defense to compensate for Sarkisian's slumping passing game. The Falcons' secondary was shredded by Jameis Winston, who broke out of his slump in fine fashion despite playing behind a depleted offensive line and losing several key weapons to injury Monday. Winston's 77.1 completion rate and 130.5 passer rating stand as the best and second-best single-game figures, respectively, of his career. At no point this season has Atlanta's defense played better than it did in the second half of last year's magical Super Bowl run.
  1. When Taylor Gabriel emerged as one of the NFL's most dangerous playmakers last season, he told Around The NFL that it was a credit to Shanahan for putting him in a position to make plays. Those home runs have evaporated under Sarkisian, as the impending free agent has been a relative afterthought in Ryan's attack. Might Gabriel be harboring visions of catching passes from Jimmy Garoppolo in a potential reunion with Shanahan?
  1. Two years ago, Doug Martin and Charles Sims were the NFL's best complementary backfield tandem. Now their Tampa Bay future is in question. One of the least effective passing-down specialists in the league, Sims has struggled to make defenders miss in space since suffering a knee injury early last season. Outperformed by backup Peyton Barber of late, Martin was scratched from Monday's lineup for violating a team rule. Sims is due to reach free agency while Martin has no more guaranteed money remaining on a five-year, $35.75 million contract signed in March 2016.
  1. At the tail end of a disappointing season, Winston's sterling performance is a reminder that no quarterback in history has passed for more yards before his 24th birthday. While the receiving corps has a bright future with No. 1 receiver Mike Evans, emerging tight endO.J. Howard and rookie wideout Chris Godwin, the ground attack and offensive line will need to be retooled in 2018. It remains to be seen if hot-seat head coach Dirk Koetter is around to implement that renovation.
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