Let's be clear: The Atlanta Falcons lost an ugly game last Sunday.
Defenders missing tackles left and right. The defensive line giving Cam Newton all day to throw. The offense unable to convert a third down until late in the third quarter.
And those are only some of the many low-lights that make up the Falcons' 30-20 loss to the lowly Carolina Panthers.
It has led some to question whether the Falcons are headed for yet another one-and-done year in the playoffs, or whether they're even true playoff contenders at all.
Yet even despite this loss, the Falcons still have plenty reason to be confident heading into the playoffs.
The main one: The Falcons lost Sunday not because of a glaring flaw or weakness. Rather, they lost because it was a meaningless game.
The coaches put the players in position to win the game—the players simply didn't execute. When Mike Nolan sent blitz after blitz on Cam Newton, no one got home. When Dirk Koetter sent his receivers down the sidelines, Matt Ryan held the ball too long. When Mike Smith went for the gutsy two-point conversion down 13-23 with just under 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Roddy White wasn't able to hold onto the ball (or so the referees would have you believe).
Coming off an emotional win against the Saints to clinch the NFC South crown, an extra two days off prior to playing a hopeless 3-9 Panthers squad, Atlanta played like a team with nothing to play for, while Carolina played like everything was on the line.
The result was a loss in what some characterized as a trap game.
But I don't think there is such a thing. While it may be true that Atlanta was the heavy favorite, the term "Any Given Sunday" exists for a reason. Simply put, the Falcons were just outclassed on a day the Panthers wanted it more.
It happens to everyone—even to the league's best teams.
It happened to the New England Patriots when they lost at home to the hapless Arizona Cardinals in Week 2—the same Cardinals who were just handed the league's most embarrassing loss of the season last Sunday.
Despite those poor performances, none of the losing teams listed above are the least bit worried about their chances of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Neither should the Falcons.
Because even after last Sunday's loss, and win, lose or tie the remaining three games on their schedule, it won't mean anything come January.
The regular season serves just one true purpose: determining who gets to play in the postseason.
Everyone who makes it has a shot, from the sixth seed all the way to the first.
Sure, teams would prefer to finish strong and earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Those goals are no different for the Falcons, who could potentially accomplish all of those with a win over the New York Giants next Sunday.
But the fact remains the Falcons have already secured their playoff spot.
All that really matters now is what they do when they get there.