ATLANTA -- Optimism returned to the Falcons after their two-game winning streak against the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. While a playoff berth was still highly unlikely, the pair of victories kept slim hopes alive.
Those hopes are now dead. With a 35-22 home loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons returned to last place in the NFC South in Week 12. The defeat drops Atlanta to 3-8, including 1-4 at home.
Suffering their eighth loss, the best the Falcons can hope to finish now is 8-8. The Seattle Seahawks disposed of the Philadelphia Eagles, moving to 9-2 on Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings sit on their bye week at 8-3. The Seahawks and Vikings currently hold the top two NFC Wild Card spots, and the Falcons mathematically can't pass either of them in the standings.
Even if the Vikings lose out and the Falcons win out, Atlanta would lose any tiebreaker with Minnesota because of its loss to the Vikings in Week 1.
In New Orleans, the Saints squeaked out a victory against the Panthers. The Saints now have nine wins too, eliminating the Falcons from the NFC South race.
Still, what the rest of the NFC playoff hopefuls did or didn't do Sunday is largely irrelevant when the Falcons, once again, laid a stinker at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Given the Buccaneers also came in with a 3-7 record, this is Atlanta's worst loss of the year.
Matt Ryan started hot in the first quarter, but then the Tampa Bay pass rush took over, sacking Ryan six times. Tampa Bay's final sack led to a Ryan fumble, which the Buccaneers returned for a touchdown to place an exclamation point on the day.
The Falcons defense picked off two passes in the first half, but the unit largely struggled as it did early in the season. Tampa Bay went 6-for-12 on third-down attempts, converted three of its four red-zone possessions into touchdowns and didn't allow any sacks.
The Buccaneers outgained the Falcons, 446-337, and a portion of Atlanta's yards came in garbage time.
Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston came into this week with the most sacks taken among signal callers in the league. But he eluded Atlanta's rush all afternoon and, outside of two bad interceptions, avoided making any catastrophic mistakes.
The Falcons failed to sack Winston even once. They couldn't cover Chris Godwin either. The third-year receiver posted seven receptions for 184 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
A week of long-shot optimism for the Falcons ends with virtual playoff elimination.