ATLANTA - Massive defensive lineman Vita Vea turned receiver to haul in his first career touchdown, one of three scoring throws by Jameis Winston as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers escaped last place in the NFC South with a 35-22 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Winston shook off two more interceptions to post his sixth straight 300-yard passing game, leading the Buccaneers (4-7) to just their second victory in the last seven games.
Atlanta (3-8) had pulled even with Tampa Bay at the bottom of the division standings with a modest two-game winning streak. But the Falcons couldn’t keep the momentum going, dropping to 1-4 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in what has become a lost season for a team that reached the Super Bowl just three years ago.
Winston has been picked off an NFL-high 20 times but completed 18 of 28 for 313 yards, including a pair of touchdown passes to Chris Godwin. Yet the scoring play everyone will remember was a little 1-yard pass in the final minute of the first half to Vea, a 6-foot-4, 347-pound defensive lineman.
With the Bucs facing second-and-goal, Vea checked into the game — apparently to provide an extra blocker. After lining up at fullback, he slipped into the flat on play-action by Winston, going completely uncovered as he gobbled up the short pass for his first career reception.
Godwin put Tampa Bay ahead 7-3 with a 71-yard reception in the first quarter, the first TD allowed by the Falcons in more than 10 quarters. He lined up in the slot and caught the Falcons in a mismatch, beating linebacker Deion Jones.
Atlanta reclaimed the lead on Qadree Ollison’s 1-yard leap into the end zone, but the Bucs took control with a dominating second quarter.
Godwin reached back to make a brilliant one-handed grab for a 1-yard scoring play, and Vea’s TD stretched the margin to 19-10 at the break. It should have been more, but Matt Gay yanked a couple of extra points wide left.
Tampa Bay took the second-half kickoff and extended the margin, going 75 yards in nine plays capped by 4-yard touchdown run by Ronald Jones II. The Bucs again failed to convert the extra point, this time when Gay’s attempt was blocked.
The kicking woes became a moot point thanks to the Bucs’ defensive dominance. Devin White had two of his team’s six sacks against Matt Ryan, and Tampa Bay finished off the rout by knocking away the ball from the Falcons quarterback on a fourth-down play in the closing minutes.
Ndamukong Suh scooped it up and rumbled 6 yards for a touchdown to complete Ryan’s miserable afternoon.
Vea also dumped Ryan in the fourth quarter, giving him a memorable sack-TD catch double on the day.
Buccaneers: LB White was ordered off the field by the officials early in the second half after a helmet-to-helmet hit with teammate Andrew Adams. White was evaluated by medical personnel and returned. ... DL Beau Allen (stinger) and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (knee) were injured in the second half.
Falcons: WR Julio Jones sustained a shoulder injury in the first half but finished with five catches for 68 yards, going past Calvin Johnson for 30th place on the NFL’s career receiving list with 11,681 yards.
Buccaneers: return home to face the Jaguars next Sunday, beginning a stretch of three games in four weeks against AFC South opponents.
Falcons: short turnaround before they host first-place New Orleans on Thursday night. Atlanta will be going for its second straight upset of the Saints, having pulled off a 26-9 stunner in the first meeting between the NFC South rivals on Nov. 10.