ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons had two goals entering Sunday’s season finale with Tampa Bay: to win and to avoid injury for the upcoming playoffs.
They failed on both accounts.
Having already locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Falcons looked disinterested with relatively few exceptions in a 22-17 loss at the Georgia Dome. Both starting right defensive end John Abraham, the team’s leader in sacks, and right cornerback Dunta Robinson suffered injuries and did not return.
With starting safety William Moore having missed the last four games with a hamstring injury, the Falcons will now have to wonder about the status of two other defensive players as they attempt to win their first playoff game in head coach Mike Smith’s five seasons, in this their fourth attempt.
However, signs are that the injuries might not be serious. Smith said he checked with the trainer before speaking with the media and that “early reports are that (Abraham’s left ankle injury is) minor.”
Asked if Robinson were in the league’s concussion protocol — he was reported to have a head injury — Smith said “I don’t know exactly if they’re calling it a concussion” and said he would update the situation on Monday. One Falcons player indicated that Robinson does not have a concussion and Smith said, “Dunta, I think, will be fine.”
Despite those injuries, Smith remained steadfast in his decision not to rest the starters — they played the entire game. Nonetheless, if Robinson or Abraham, who was injured in the fourth quarter, cannot compete in the playoffs, the coach has left himself open to criticism.
Robinson was injured with 7:30 left in the first quarter and on the following play, the other starting corner, Asante Samuel, hurt himself and had to come out for a snap. Smith was asked if, at that point, he reconsidered his decision.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’ve said from the very beginning that we’re going to play this game to win. I think we did that. We just didn’t get it done today. We were low on (defensive backs) when we started the game. We only had seven dressed. We were getting low where we were going to have to change our packages, but absolutely not. We were going to continue to play to win this ballgame.”
Coming in on a five-game losing streak and already eliminated from playoff contention, the Buccaneers (7-9) never trailed in amassing 366 yards offense — 142 coming in rushing yards from rookie Doug Martin on 28 carries. Martin had one touchdown run, a 40-yard scamper that gave the Bucs a 22-10 lead with 1:43 left in the third quarter.
“We were just out of sync,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We had trouble tackling at times on defense, me included, especially on that one touchdown run…. We were kind of going through the motions a little bit.”
Defensively, the Bucs sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan twice and hit him six times, preventing Atlanta’s high-powered attack from getting in sync and holding the Falcons to their lowest point total of the season. Linebacker Lavonte David had one of those sacks and two of those hits.
In the next two weeks, a major concern for the Falcons’ will be getting Abraham and Robinson healthy. Smith and players alike said that that was why earning the bye represented a major benefit for them.
Losing both players would be a major blow, but Abraham, a four-time Pro Bowler, would especially hurt. He has 10 sacks, which ties him for 15th in the NFL, but his six forced fumbles rank third. The Falcons entered the game No. 20 in total defense and have relied on their turnover margin (sixth in the NFL) to win. Abraham has proved integral in that respect.
With 11:36 left in the fourth quarter, he got tangled up with 300-pound teammate Peria Jerry, suffering a left ankle injury. He needed assistance walking off the field and had to leave the field on a cart.
Robinson injured himself after initiating what appeared to be helmet-to-helmet contact with Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin. If Robinson suffered a concussion, he has a history with that particular injury, which can make returning from them more complex and not necessarily as quick. In 2010, he suffered a concussion when he put a hit on Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson – a play for which he was fined by theleague.
After the game, the Falcons were eager to put the loss behind them. Samuel said the Falcons have “bigger fish to fry.”
Tight end Tony Gonzalez used a similar metaphor.
“Yeah, we’re going to put it behind us,” he said. “The regular season is over. It’s on to the big-money round, so we’re going to play a lot better. This is something we can learn from.”
It’ll be an easier lesson to learn with a healthy roster.