ATLANTA (AP) — Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski teamed up for more history Sunday.
Rarely have two guys had such a connection.
Brady threw for 368 yards and four touchdowns — two of them to his longtime favorite target — and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved to the brink of clinching the NFC South title with a 30-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
The 44-year-old Brady completed 38 of 51, including touchdowns of 27 and 11 yards to Gronkowski — their first scoring passes since Week 2 against the Falcons.
The prolific duo has combined for 90 regular-season TDs, passing Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates for No. 2 in NFL history. Only Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison have more, hooking up for 112 scoring passes.
Counting the playoffs, Brady has thrown 104 TD passes to Gronk.
“Tom knows what he's thinking before he does,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Tom threw a couple of balls before Gronk was ready, because he knew where he was going. There's great chemistry out there.”
Gronkowski missed four games this season after a devastating hit against the Rams left him with fractured ribs and a punctured lung.
But he's going to keep catching passes from Brady as long as he can.
“We keep each other going," Gronkowski said.
Added Brady, “He makes it easy for the quarterback.”
Brady shook off a huge blunder in the final minute of the first half, when 278-pound defensive lineman Marlon Davidson picked off a screen pass and glided 3 yards into the end zone for a touchdown that cut Tampa Bay's lead to 20-17 at the break.
The Bucs (9-3) won their third straight game and pushed their division lead to four games over Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans (all 5-7) with five games remaining.
Brady improved to 10-0 in his career against the Falcons, including four straight wins over the last two seasons since moving from New England to Tampa Bay.
“He's just been on a better team for a long time,” Arians said bluntly.
The Bucs came out throwing. For the first time since 2004, they passed the ball on their first 13 plays of a game — accounting for the entire 75-yard touchdown drive on their opening possession.
Chris Godwin had five catches on the opening drive and finishing with a franchise-record 15 receptions for 143 yards.
Leonard Fournette capped the first drive with a 3-yard touchdown catch, making a slick, one-handed grab. Tampa Bay's second possession also ended with a 3-yard TD pass, this one hauled in by Cameron Brate.
The Falcons scored what would be their only offensive touchdown on their opening possession, doing most of their damage on the ground.
Cordarrelle Patterson broke off a 39-yard scamper before Mike Davis ran for a 17-yard score.
Trailing 13-7, Atlanta squandered a chance to pull ahead after having first-and-goal from inside the 1.
Matt Ryan lost a couple of yards falling on a bobbled snap, sandwiched around a pair of incompletions that forced the Falcons to settle for Younghoe Koo's 21-yard field goal.
Brady's first TD to Gronkowski had the Bucs on the verge of a blowout. But Tampa Bay got greedy near the end of the half, sending the Falcons to a locker room on quite a high after Davidson's pick-6.
It didn't carry over. The Falcons were held scoreless in the second half.
Ryan was sacked five times and called for intentional grounding. Russell Gage lost a fumble in Tampa Bay territory when it looked as if the Falcons might be driving for a go-ahead score in the third quarter.
Ryan moaned about the missed opportunities.
”When you’re playing against a really good football team ... you know you have to come away with touchdowns," he said. “That was disappointing for sure."
The Bucs receiver didn't realize he had broken the team record for catches until someone told him coming off the field afterward.
“I thought I had 10 or so,” he said with a smile.
Actually, he eclipsed the record of 13 that was shared by James Wilder and Earnest Graham.
“This is the most important time of year,” Godwin said. “I'm trying to do whatever I can to help my team win.”
Tampa Bay cornerback Carlton Davis came up with a huge play in his first game back from injured reserve.
Davis, playing for the first time since he sustained a calf injury in Week 4, recovered Gage's fumble at the Bucs 37 after Pierre Desir punched the ball away from the Falcons receiver.
“When you see the ball move, you've got to go get it,” Davis said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Buccaneers: CB Jamel Dean was knocked out of the game with a concussion. RB Ronald Jones had to come out because of an illness.
Falcons: S Richie Grant and LB Adetokunbo Ogundeji both hobbled off the field with ankle injuries.
Buccaneers: Return home next Sunday to face AFC powerhouse Buffalo.
Falcons: Travel to Charlotte next Sunday to face the Carolina Panthers in another NFC South game.
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Paul Newberry, The Associated Press