Win or lose, the Atlanta Falcons will finish the season with the
NFC’s best record.
Still, given their lack of playoff success with Mike Smith as
coach and Matt Ryan under center, the South champs definitely don’t
want to head into the postseason on a down note.
The Falcons will try to match a team record for wins and finish
8-0 at home on Sunday when they close out the regular season
against a free-falling Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that will miss the
playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.
Led by a career high-tying four touchdowns from Ryan – who threw
three the week before in a 34-0 home victory over the New York
Giants – Atlanta (13-2) won 31-18 at Detroit last Saturday to
clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference.
The Falcons will host a divisional playoff game on Jan. 12 or
13, but they know – probably better than most – that regular-season
success doesn’t always translate to postseason wins.
Atlanta is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith and Ryan after losing
24-2 at the New York Giants in last season’s wild-card round. The
year before, the top-seeded Falcons were routed 48-21 by Green Bay
in the divisional round.
Smith felt his team was overworked heading into that Packers
defeat, so he’s easing up on the players this time, giving them
three days off following Saturday’s victory.
“We’ll handle it differently with our workload and the days that
we’re going to work during our bye week and what our schedule will
be,” he said. “We’re not going to do anything like we did the last
Ryan is one shy of setting the franchise record for passing TDs
with 32 after what Smith called the best “back-to-back” games of
his career. But the Falcons’ signal-caller – as well as Michael
Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones and other key starters – might
watch some of Sunday’s game from the sideline.
Still, there will be no let-up as the Falcons’ goal is to open
the playoffs with three straight wins.
“We’re going to play the game to win,” Smith said. “That’s how
we’re going to approach it. All games are important, and in terms
of the importance, does it have no bearing? It really does because
we want to win every time we go out and play.”
While the Falcons look to match the team record for wins set in
1998 when they advanced to the franchise’s only Super Bowl, the
best the Buccaneers (6-9) can hope for is to avoid another lengthy
skid heading into the offseason.
Tampa Bay, which ended last season on a 10-game slide after a
45-24 New Year’s Day loss at Atlanta, has dropped five in a row
since winning four straight. The Falcons ended that run with a
24-23 victory on Nov. 25.
Rookie running back Doug Martin, who ran for two 1-yard scores
in that defeat, has given first-year coach Greg Schiano reason for
optimism – he’s third in the league in total scrimmage yards with
1,766 – but there are still questions if fourth-year quarterback
Josh Freeman can lead this offense.
Freeman has completed just 54.9 percent of his passes this
season and he’s been intercepted four times in each of the last two
games to double his season total.
“I’ve got to take the blame as the quarterback,” Freeman, who
has thrown for a Bucs single-season record 3,843 yards, said after
last Sunday’s 28-13 loss to St. Louis. “Saints game (a 41-0 loss on
Dec. 16), this game, not really the brand of football I want to
The Buccaneers, though, are a top-10 passing team with Freeman
under center. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson deserves plenty of
credit for that, as he’s set career highs in receptions (69) and
yards (1,334) in his first season with the team.
Jackson needs one TD to match his best output and 89 yards to
break the 23-year-old franchise record set by Mark Carrier.
“For me to step in here, there’s a lot of great tools around me
that allow me to be successful,” he said. “For me, I just have to
go out there, continue to work as hard as I work, have fun, enjoy
it and we’ll see how the season ends. Right now, it’s about
Atlanta, winner of four straight with the Buccaneers in town, is
going for its 12th consecutive victory at the Georgia Dome and
first 8-0 home record in 14 years.