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ATLANTA – Matt Ryan refused to accept the rationale for why the Falcons were not motivated for their last regular-season game.
Sure there was nothing for them to gain, having secured home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. Yes, the opponent was Tampa Bay, which had lost five straight. Plus many fans — who knew all this — decided to stay home, leaving empty seats and a lack of pregame excitement.
Atlanta looked flat, especially early, and the Buccaneers seized the opportunity.
Josh Freeman threw a touchdown pass to Mike Williams and Doug Martin ran for 142 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown, in the Buccaneers' 22-17 victory over Atlanta on Sunday.
Defensive end Kroy Biermann said the Georgia Dome "kind of had a little different feel to it."
"But the bottom line, Tampa Bay came out ready to play and we came out a little flat," Biermann said.
Ryan doesn't want to hear it.
"There's no excuse," Ryan said. "We're professional athletes and we have to prepare ourselves to come out and play. We didn't do a good job of that, especially in the first half."
Coach Mike Smith's hope was to gain momentum for the Falcons (13-3), who will have a first-round bye in the playoffs next week.
"You want to go out and play your best," Smith said. "To go out there and not play your best is counterintuitive to guys in that locker room and it's counterintuitive to us as football coaches."
Smith said he never wavered even after two defensive starters left the game with injuries.
Defensive end John Abraham, Atlanta's best pass rusher, left with an apparent left ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Abraham couldn't put his weight on the ankle as he was helped off the field.
Abraham's injury came after starting cornerback Dunta Robinson sustained a head injury in the first quarter and did not return. His helmet hit Martin on the running back's 3-yard gain. Robinson walked off the field and was escorted to the locker room.
Asked if he considered removing his starters after Abraham's injury, Smith said "Absolutely not. We've said from the very beginning that we were going to continue to play this game to win."
Smith said the injuries to Abraham and Robinson are not thought to be serious.
The Falcons' strategy impressed Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber.
"You've got to give them a lot of credit, playing their guys all the way through," Barber said. "They've got a bye week, obviously, but they gave us their best. We knew they were trying to win."
Robinson, who spoke briefly to reporters, said: "You always try to win football games. ... We'll bounce back. We'll be fine."
The Buccaneers (7-9) snapped a five-game losing streak for a positive end to a disappointing season. Tampa Bay was 6-4 and in playoff contention before a 24-23 home loss to the Falcons on Nov. 25 started the skid.
"Obviously, ending the season like this and not making the playoffs, it's unacceptable and it's not where we want to be, but I was really happy with the way guys finished today," Freeman said.
Freeman completed 19 of 35 passes for 222 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Freeman returned to his early season form after throwing four interceptions in each of the last two losses.
"We weren't trying to do anything creative or special," Freeman said. "Everybody was just sticking with their job, and we did it for four quarters and we came out with the win."
Asked the difference between the win and the last two weeks, Freeman said "The average stuff. We didn't turn it over."
Ryan's only touchdown pass was his 7-yard throw to Harry Douglas on a fourth-down play with about 7 minutes remaining to cut Tampa Bay's lead to five points. Atlanta's defense held, and the Falcons took possession at their 19 with 3:44 remaining.
The Falcons gained one first down before Ryan's fourth-down pass for Tony Gonzalez fell incomplete with about 2 minutes remaining.
Ryan completed 28 of 44 passes for 238 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Ryan had difficulty finding open receivers against Tampa Bay's defense, which ranks last in the league against the pass.
The Buccaneers held Atlanta to 65 yards rushing. The Falcons were successful on only 3 of 14 third-down plays.
"When we haven't played well, that has been one of the things that has crept in there and been the main issue," Ryan said of the inability to convert third downs. "We've done a good job of it this year but we did not do a good job of that (Sunday)."
Martin capped his strong rookie season with 28 carries for 142 yards.
The Buccaneers led 16-3 when Asante Samuel intercepted a pass from Freeman late in the third quarter. Samuel's 11-yard return to the Buccaneers 21 set up Michael Turner's 17-yard scoring run for Atlanta's first touchdown.
Turner gained 1 yard on his other five carries.
Tampa Bay answered quickly with an 80-yard touchdown drive capped by Martin's 40-yard run. Martin made a spin move to break a tackle attempt by Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud.
The Falcons announced 69,644 tickets were distributed. Many were left unused.
The Falcons' only first-half points Matt Bryant's 28-yard field goal.
NOTES: Martin was the only Tampa Bay running back with a carry. WR Tiquan Underwood and Freeman each had one carry for 1 yard. ... Bryant's first-quarter field goal was his 33rd of the season, setting a Falcons record. Jay Feely had 32 field goals in 2002. ... Tony Gonzalez reached 90 catches to become the first NFL tight end with five seasons of 90 or more receptions. ... Ryan's TD pass gave him a team-record 32 for the season. Steve Bartkowski threw 31 TD passes in 1980. ... Jacquizz Rodgers had a game-high eight catches for 50 yards and led Atlanta with 28 yards rushing on five carries.