Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and high-stepping Devin Hester led the Atlanta Falcons to one of the biggest wins in franchise history.
Ryan threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns, Jones hauled in nine passes for 161 yards and a couple of scores, and Hester set an NFL record with his 20th return for a TD as the Falcons routed the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers 56-14 on Thursday night.
The Falcons (2-1) led 35-0 before the Buccaneers (0-3) picked up a first down. Ryan and the other offensive starters left the game after Steven Jackson's 3-yard touchdown run made it 49-0 before the midway point of the third quarter.
Atlanta had a stunning 56-0 lead heading to the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay scored two meaningless touchdowns to avoid the worst loss in franchise history.
"I've never been in a game quite like this in the NFL," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
It was the second-largest win in the Falcons' 48-year history, eclipsed only by 62-7 rout of New Orleans in 1973. It was only the fifth time Atlanta has won a game by as many as 40 points.
Hester and Jones provided the signature moments.
With the Falcons already up 28-0, Hester took a punt at his own 44, found a seam up the middle of the field and zipped around the last man with a chance to tackle him, punter Michael Koenen. The 56-yard play was Hester's 20th career return for a touchdown, breaking the mark he shared with former Falcons star Deion Sanders.
Sanders, now a television analyst, watched Hester's return from the sideline at the Georgia Dome. Hester high-stepped the last 10 yards are so, his left hand bobbing behind his ear — a tribute to Sanders' signature move.
"It's tough to break the record of the guy who is my No. 1 mentor," Hester said. "I'm kind of emotional right now."
Prime Time didn't mind a bit. He smiled broadly and waved to the crowd when he was shown on the video board, the Hall of Famer's record falling in the stadium he once proclaimed as "my house."
Jones could've made the same claim after the superb 40-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.
Turning toward the sideline, he looked first over his left shoulder for the pass, turned his body when realized it was coming over his right shoulder, juggled the ball a bit as he tumbled into the end zone, cradling it under his arm just before slammed the turf, getting both feet down.
Coming off three interceptions in a loss at Cincinnati, Ryan bounced back with a 21-of-24 showing that set a team record for completion percentage (.875). He also hooked up with Jones on an 8-yard touchdown strike, as well as Harry Douglas on a 3-yarder.
Hester, for good measure, had a 20-yard touchdown run on an end around, not to mention one of the better defensive plays of the night. After the Bucs stripped the ball away from a Falcons receiver, Hester stripped it right back and fell on the fumble himself to keep possession for Atlanta.
"He had a great night," Smith said. "He's been a great addition to our football team."
The Bucs, losing their first three games for the third time in six years, couldn't do anything right. Josh McCown was 5 of 12 for 58 yards and his fourth interception of the season was returned 23 yards for a touchdown by backup safety Kemal Ishmael.
Somewhat mercifully, McCown left the game with a thumb injury after appearing to bang his right hand off an Atlanta player's helmet on his final throw of the night. Mike Glennon went the rest of the way at quarterback.
The Falcons finished with a 488-217 edge in total yards. The Bucs had five turnovers and 110 yards in penalties on what will surely go down as one of the worst embarrassments for a franchise that knows a thing or two about losing, dropping its first 26 games after entering the NFL in 1976.
If not for Danny Lansanah's 27-yard interception return for a touchdown, Tampa Bay would've eclipsed its worst loss ever, a 48-3 blowout by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.
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