Buccaneers-Falcons Preview

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

time.”

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

play.”

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

wins.”

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.