Falcons squander a chance to take control in NFC South. Now it's a 3-way tie for first place

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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons squandered a huge chance to bring a bit of clarity to the muddled NFL South.

Now, their hopes of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2017 are much more convoluted heading into the final month of the season.

The Falcons (6-7) find themselves in a three-way tie for the lead of the NFL’s weakest division with New Orleans and Tampa Bay after a last-minute loss to the Buccaneers.

With four weeks left, a guaranteed playoff spot and first-round home game are very much up for grabs.

“We’ve won some games in the clutch and we’ve lost a couple,” coach Arthur Smith said. “But this team never, never has ever had their spirit broken. Certainly, that won’t happen. We know it’s a tough challenge every week.”

Atlanta was on the verge of delivering a potentially lethal blow to the Bucs' playoff chances after Desmond Ridder led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives for a 25-22 lead with under 3 1/2 minutes remaining.

But the Falcons' defense — the team's strong point all season — couldn't stop Tampa Bay when it mattered most, even on a day when they limited Mike Evans to one catch for 8 yards.

Baker Mayfield delivered a 32-yard pass to Chris Godwin on third-and-10 to set up an 11-yard touchdown completion to Cade Otton with 31 seconds to go.

So, instead of maintaining a one-game lead over New Orleans and building a commanding a two-game edge over the Buccaneers, the Falcons find themselves with plenty of company at the top of the standings.

“We knew it was riding on this game,” said safety Richie Grant, who was beaten by Otton on the winning TD. "But at the same time, we’re not out of it. We’ve still got a chance to go do what we want to do. We’ve got to move forward. We can’t really just sit here and weep on this one.”

WHAT'S WORKING

Drake London had the best game of his young career, hauling in 10 passes for 172 yards.

The second-year receiver made a brilliant move between two defenders to snatch away a 45-yard reception that set up Atlanta's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

And he nearly pulled off the play of the season with a 28-yard catch as time expired, only to be swallowed up just 3 yards shy of the end zone.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Beyond London, the Falcons are getting little production from their wideouts.

KhaDarel Hodge had one reception for 18 yards, while Mack Hollins made one catch for 4 yards. That was it against the Buccaneers.

London leads the team with 56 catches for the season, but Atlanta has only two other wideouts with double-figure receptions — Hollins (18) and Hodge (12).

STOCK UP

Give the much-maligned Ridder plenty of credit for bouncing back from two turnovers in the first half — an interception at his own 8 that Tampa Bay converted into a touchdown, and a fumble in the end zone that resulted in a safety.

Ridder completed 26 of 40 passes for a career-best 347 yards and ran 6 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, showing his athleticism by shrugging off a defender who appeared to have him corralled in the backfield.

STOCK DOWN

The Falcons' defense had gone two straight games without surrendering a touchdown. But, with the game in the balance, Atlanta couldn't stop Tampa Bay from driving 75 yards in 12 plays for the winning score.

After missing only one field goal all season, Younghoe Koo failed to connect on two long attempts in the first half that could've made a difference at the end. A 50-yarder bounced off the right upright, and a 52-yarder was wide left.

“I cost us,” Koo said. "That’s on me. I’m going to go watch the film and try to get better.”

INJURIES

The Falcons finished the game with only two regular starters on the offensive line.

Left tackle Jake Matthews exited in the first half with a knee injury, further decimating a unit that already was missing center Drew Dalman (ankle) and right tackle Kaleb McGary (knee).

Atlanta went most of the way with Ryan Neuzil (second career start), Storm Norton (first start of the season) and Tyler Vrabel (making his NFL debut after being promoted from the practice squad a day earlier).

“Those guys did a really phenomenal job,” said right guard Chris Lindstrom, who went down with an ankle injury but was able to return. "I’m just proud of them and proud to be part of our room.”

Atlanta also has issues on the defensive front, having already lost Grady Jarrett to a season-ending injury. David Onyemata (ankle) didn't suit up and Kentavius Street left the game with a pectoral injury.

Street will undergo further tests, but none of the other injuries are considered long-term issues.

KEY NUMBER

96 — The Falcons were held to fewer than 100 yards rushing for the second straight week after averaging more than 139 yards on the ground through their first 11 games.

NEXT STEPS

The Falcons play a must-win game Sunday at the woeful Carolina Panthers (1-12), who have lost six in a row. Atlanta can't afford a slip-up against a division rival it beat 24-10 in the season opener.

Three of Atlanta's last four games are on the road.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl