APTOPIX Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) strips...

APTOPIX Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) strips the ball from Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in Atlanta. Atlanta recovered the ball in the end zone resulting in a safety. Credit: AP/Brynn Anderson

ATLANTA — The final play summed up the entire day for the Atlanta Falcons.

Really, the entire season.

With one last chance to pull out a victory that had been snatched away in the final minute, Desmond Ridder saw Drake London breaking loose over the middle and delivered a pass right on the numbers.

Only one problem.

London was engulfed by Tampa Bay defenders, who smothered him 3 yards shy of the end zone as time ran out to preserve the Buccaneers' 29-25 victory on Sunday.

“We should've come out of there with the win,” Ridder said, “but obviously we didn't.”

The Falcons came in with a .500 record that was good enough to lead the NFC South. With a chance to take firmer control of the division race, Atlanta let it slip away.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) reacts after running for...

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) reacts after running for touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in Atlanta. Credit: AP/Mike Stewart

Ridder threw for a career-best 347 yards, but also had two crucial first-half turnovers that led to nine points for Tampa Bay.

Now, there's a three-way tie atop the league's weakest division, with the Falcons, Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints all at 6-7 with four weeks remaining in the regular season.

While a wild card is still in the mix, it's more likely to be winner-take-all for the playoff spot that goes automatically to the division winner, no matter their record.

“It's a roller coaster,” running back Tyler Allgeier said. “That's what this game is. There's a lot of ups, there's a lot of downs.”

APTOPIX Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) beats Tampa Bay...

APTOPIX Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) beats Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker SirVocea Dennis (8) as he runs in for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in Atlanta. Credit: AP/Mike Stewart

The Falcons have walked this tightrope all season, with eight of 13 games decided a total of 25 points. They are 4-4 in those contests, unable to break free of the inconsistency that has plagued coach Arthur Smith's three-year tenure.

For a team that hasn't made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2017, it's an increasingly frustrating pattern.

“We made some plays late and we were able to go ahead,” said Smith, whose record as Falcons coach slipped to 20-27. “Unfortunately, they made one more play than we did. But there were plenty of opportunities.”

Indeed, there were.

After struggling much of the game offensively, drawing loud boos from the home crowd, and having normally reliable kicker Younghoe Koo miss a pair of field-goal attempts, the Falcons rallied from a 19-10 deficit.

Ridder guided a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives behind a makeshift offensive line that included only two regular starters because of injuries.

When Ridder shook off a Tampa Bay defender to score on a 6-yard bootleg with 3:23 remaining, it seemed as though Atlanta was destined for its first three-game winning streak since 2019 and would essentially finish off the two-time reigning division champs in the playoff race.

But Tampa Bay countered with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive even with Baker Mayfield completing just three of seven passes.

The Falcons could've sealed the victory with a defensive stop on fourth-and-1 from the Buccaneers 47, but Rachaad White picked up the first down with a 2-yard run that included a recovery of his own fumble at the end of the play.

Atlanta appeared in good shape again with Tampa Bay facing third-and-10 from the Falcons 47, only to have Mayfield hook up with Chris Godwin on a 32-yard pass — the Bucs' longest play from scrimmage all game.

Two plays later, with the Falcons focusing on top receivers Godwin and Mike Evans, Cade Otton broke free from safety Richie Grant and hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds remaining.

To their credit, the Falcons raced down the field and gave themselves a chance to win.

The last of London's 10 catches gave him 172 yards for the game — both career highs for the second-year receiver.

He needed 3 more yards.

Now, in a season of tight games — some wins, some losses, with no indication that Atlanta can break free of this frustrating mediocrity — the Falcons were left with a familiar refrain.

“There's a lot of things,” the ever-optimistic Ridder said, "we're gonna clean up and get better from and come out better on the back end.”

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