The Atlanta Falcons are going into their last game of the 2011 regular season.
At 9-6, the Falcons have had yet another winning season under coach Mike Smith. However, this postseason, they will be looking for their first playoff win under Smith.
They will be playing the Georgia Dome against the division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers are 4-11 coming into the last week of the season and have lost nine straight games. I doubt the Buccaneers will want to go away quietly, but the Falcons will be looking to avenge their Week 3 loss to Tampa Bay.
The Falcons should end the regular season with a victory and finish at 10-6 heading into the wild-card round of the playoffs. Both teams are talented, but Atlanta should overwhelm the Buccaneers in this matchup.
The Falcons are also playing for a chance at the fifth seed in the NFC. If the Lions lose and Atlanta is able to win, then they will move up from the sixth seed to the fifth seed. This would mean that instead of going to the Superdome and playing New Orleans for the third time this season, the Falcons would travel to play the NFC East winner in the first round.
There is not much to be won on Sunday, but it will be important for the Falcons to establish some momentum going into the postseason.
Atlanta can easily walk away with a victory against Tampa Bay, but let's look at five things that we should keep in mind when watching this game.
The most important things to watch in this game is the health of key Atlanta Falcons' players.
Mike Smith has already said that he plans on playing his starters against Tampa Bay, and why wouldn't he?
The Falcons have a chance to gain the fifth seed and need to win a game coming off their embarrassing performance on Monday Night Football.
However, the Falcons have already clinched a playoff berth, and it would be horrible to see a guy like Matt Ryan, Michael Turner or Sean Weatherspoon go down with an injury.
Players like Julio Jones have struggled with injuries throughout the season, and it would not be good to see him reinjure himself.
I believe that the Falcons need to play all of their starters and focus on winning the game, but if it begins to become out of hand either way, then Smith and the Falcons may consider pulling off the gas pedal.
It would be much better to rest some key guys than keep forcing the play and end up regretting it.
The Falcons are one of the teams in the NFL that manages to stay relatively healthy throughout the year, and that will be very important if they plan to do damage in the playoffs.
As always, the running game is one of the most important factors for the Falcons.
They're much better when they run the ball, and it will be interesting to see if they can establish the run on a weaker opponent before entering the playoffs. The Falcons should be able to attack Tampa Bay in this area, but if they are unable to, then it will look troublesome for Atlanta heading into the postseason.
The Falcons are very good at running the ball most of the time, and it will be one of their keys in the playoffs. Atlanta could have to get by teams like Green Bay, New Orleans, Detroit and New York if they want to play in the Super Bowl, and the running attack will be imperative in winning those games.
The Falcons should be able to throw the ball against these teams and the others in the NFC, but the aforementioned teams have the strongest passing attacks in the playoffs. The run game will have to be used to offset those teams' rhythm.
Atlanta will have to use Turner and the running back corps to keep the NFC's most dangerous quarterbacks off the field. The rushing game of the Falcons will be used greatly in the playoffs, and the effectiveness of it starts on Sunday against Tampa Bay.
A part of the Falcons' game that needs to improve is their ability to rush the passer.
The Falcons, and any other NFL team, are much better when they're able to get to the opposing team's quarterback. The Buccaneers have a pretty good quarterback in Josh Freeman, and he's tough to bring down.
However, Atlanta will need to make this a priority against Tampa Bay. They can think of it as a tune-up game. The Falcons will have to put pressure on Freeman on Sunday, and they will need to do the same against the likes of Alex Smith, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs.
The Falcons definitely have the ability to pressure the quarterback, but they have not done it consistently in 2011. Atlanta brought in defensive end Ray Edwards with the thought that he would destroy right tackles opposite John Abraham, but that has not been the case.
The entire Falcons' defense will need to step up and bring some pressure in the coming weeks if they want to get anywhere in the playoffs.
The Buccaneers have a pretty good offensive line, and they will be a good test for Atlanta's defense on Sunday. How the Falcons answer the test will be indicative of how well they perform in the playoffs.
The Atlanta secondary has underperformed in 2011, but they have stepped up in recent weeks.
Even in the game against New Orleans last week, the Falcons were able to do better against the Saints than teams have recently.
The Atlanta secondary has the talent to be one of the best in the NFL, and seeing how well they play against Tampa Bay will tell us a lot about how they will look in the playoffs.
The Falcons have a young group of defensive backs, and these kind of players can easily get down on themselves after a bad performance, but this group will be able to put it together and play lights out against the Buccaneers.
The Falcons' secondary will have to perform well in the playoffs when they go up against some of the best offenses in the league. Tampa Bay is definitely not considered one of the best offenses, but they can pass the ball well.
The Falcons will need to show that they can overcome a bad game and get back to playing great football.
The Atlanta secondary will be imperative to the Falcons' success in the postseason, and their play in Week 17 will carry over to the playoffs.
The main reason that the Falcons are playing this game full throttle is to establish some momentum heading into the postseason.
Atlanta had built up some steam before losing to the Saints last week, and they will be looking to regain some of that power before playing in the wild-card round next week.
The Falcons have the potential and talent to go a long way in the playoffs and winning against Tampa Bay will do a lot to propel them to consecutive victories in the postseason. However, a loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday may hinder the Falcons from playing to their full potential in the playoffs.
This game will either be a great help to Falcons or potentially destroy their hopes of a Super Bowl before they even begin.