Atlanta, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Atlanta Falcons made a statement with a 56-14 beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night.
It was a record-setting night for Atlanta wide receiver Devin Hester, who passed Hall of Famer and former Falcons cornerback Deion Sanders for most return touchdowns in NFL history.
With a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, Hester broke a tie with Sanders at 19 career touchdown returns. Hester now has the record all to himself with 20.
Hester paid tribute to Sanders with an extended high step into the end zone. Sanders, now a television analyst, was in attendance at the Georgia Dome.
"He was so happy," said Hester. "He said he almost pulled a hamstring sprinting toward the end zone with me. I love that guy, man. He was very emotional as well."
Earlier in the game, Hester took an end around and went 20 yards for the first rushing touchdown of his career. A three-time Pro Bowler, Hester signed with the Falcons in the offseason. He spent the first eight years of his career with the Chicago Bears.
Matt Ryan completed 21-of-24 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns for the Falcons (2-1), who bounced back from a 24-10 loss to the Bengals. Julio Jones caught nine passes for 161 yards and two scores.
"Even as good as tonight was, I think there were areas where we can improve and get better," said Ryan. "But all in all, it was a pretty good effort. We had good energy."
Steven Jackson carried the ball 14 times for 54 yards and a touchdown for Atlanta, which racked up 488 yards of total offense. Antone Smith rushed for 50 yards and a score on four carries.
The Falcons scored the second-most points in team history and did so without wide receiver Roddy White, who sat out with a hamstring injury.
Buccaneers starting quarterback Josh McCown completed 5-of-12 passes for 58 yards and interception before leaving with a right thumb injury. Mike Glennon, who started 13 games last season, connected on 17-of-24 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.
Running back Doug Martin (knee) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (hand) missed the game for the Bucs (0-3).
"I'm embarrassed by our play," said Bucs coach Lovie Smith. "We failed in all phases. Of course it starts with coaching, it starts with the head football coach. I thought I had our football team ready to play; obviously, we weren't ready to play. Again, it was all phases. We couldn't stop them on defense; couldn't score any points on offense; special teams, we couldn't get anything done there."
The Bucs should have waved the white flag after it took the Falcons less than three minutes to a score a touchdown on the game's opening possession. Ryan completed all four of his passes during the drive, including two to Jones. Harry Douglas capped the quick series with a 3-yard TD catch.
Atlanta got a bit lucky on its next possession. Tight end Levine Toilolo caught a 13-yard pass before fumbling, but Hester ran down Mark Barron and stripped the ball from him to give the Falcons the ball back. Jones made the Bucs pay with an 8-yard score.
The ball continued to bounce the Falcons' way on the ensuing Bucs possession. Kemal Ishmael picked off McCown and raced 23 yards the other way for a touchdown.
Atlanta got the ball right back after Bobby Rainey fumbled. On 3rd-and-17, Jones caught a 17-yard pass to move the chains. On the first play of the second quarter, Hester recorded his 20-yard TD run.
The Bucs went three-and-out after the Falcons turned the ball over. Hester followed with his record-breaking return that made it 35-0 with 7:06 left in the half.
Tampa Bay finally got a first down before Jonathan Massaquoi got Atlanta's first sack of the season.
Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed a 59-yard field goal before the break. The 35-point outburst in the first half tied a franchise record.
Ryan and Jones hooked up for a 40-yard score with 8:23 left in the third quarter. Another turnover by the Bucs -- this one on a high snap -- led to Jackson's 2-yard TD run.
The Falcons took a 56-0 lead on Smith's 38-yard score with 1:47 remaining in the third stanza.
Tampa Bay finally got on the board when Vincent Jackson caught a 3-yard TD pass early in the fourth. Danny Lansanah added a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown to account for the final margin.
Atlanta's 42-point edge stands as the Buccaneers' third-largest margin of defeat ... Ryan set a franchise single-game record, completing 87.5 percent of his passes ... The Bucs had five turnovers and 110 yards in penalties ... Douglas left the game with a foot injury ... Rainey carried the ball 11 times for 41 yards ... Atlanta quarterback T.J. Yates completed 3-of-4 passes for 64 yards and an interception ... Hester missed most of the second half with cramps.