The season finale between the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons (13-2) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-9) could have carried some heavy implications. Instead, the Falcons already have the top seed in the NFC locked down and the Bucs have imploded since their Week 12 loss to Atlanta.
But how will the Falcons respond knowing that this game has absolutely no bearing on playoff standings and seeds?
In the past, the Falcons have sat starters in this situation. Many teams choose to do that in order to minimize the chance for injury to their star players before the playoffs begin. However, with a team like the Falcons, that may not be the case in this game.
Atlanta has struggled in the playoffs and has already clinched a first-round bye. That means sitting starters in Week 17 would give them three weeks between NFL game action.
Philosophies differ in this, but a hot team like Atlanta needs to keep riding its hot hand to keep it warm. We'll get more into that and other items in the following preview for this matchup.
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
When: Sunday, Dec. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: DirecTV's Sunday NFL Ticket
Tampa Bay Injury Report via CBS Sports (as of 12/25/2012)
|DB E.J. Biggers||Groin||Unk.|
|DB LeQuan Lewis||Knee||Unk.|
Atlanta Injury Report via CBS Sports (as of 12/25/2012)
|DL Cliff Matthews||Hamstring||Unk.|
|DB William Moore||Hamstring||Unk.|
What's At Stake?
It's sad to say but there isn't a whole lot on the line in this one. The Atlanta Falcons are already looking at a first-round bye in the playoffs and the coveted home-field advantage throughout the postseason whether they win or lose this one.
On the flip side, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have fallen drastically out of contention since the last time these two teams met in Tampa Bay in Week 12. That last-second loss deflated the sails of the Bucs and they haven't been able to rebound since. A win would end the season on a positive note, though.
Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin
"Muscle Hamster" hasn't lived up to his earlier performances that propelled him atop the running back rankings during midseason. However, Atlanta consistently gives up touchdowns and usable afternoons to opposing running backs. The team is allowing the 26th-most fantasy points to RBs on the season.
Martin scored twice despite gaining only 50 yards on the ground during these two teams' Week 12 matchup. Expect a similar outcome, although he may run for more yards and only one score this time around.
Atlanta WR Julio Jones
There is plenty to go around for the Atlanta Falcons in this one. Not only is Jones the most explosive WR on the Falcons roster, but he also lit up the Buccaneers for 147 yards and one touchdown (20 fantasy points) in Week 12.
That explosiveness helped him get the better of the young corners playing on the perimeter of Tampa Bay's secondary. All it takes is one play for Jones to score and help your fantasy team, and he should get at least one in this game.
What They Are Saying
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said the Falcons will "play the game to win," according to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He expounded on that statement:
That’s how we approach it. It’s an important game because it’s division game. All games are important. Does it have no bearing? It really does because we want to win every time we go out there to play.
The Bucs late-season collapse has made the team's progress this season look a little less appealing.
"What's eating me right now is we're close, but close isn't what we're here for," Greg Schiano, the Bucs head coach, said, according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.
Schiano went into more detail:
We've got to get where we start getting the five or six plays that determine the game on each side of the ball. Right now we're coming up two (and) four. At 3-3, you've got a chance to win, but at 2-4 you're not going to win, especially if you do it on both sides. That's where we've kind of been here the last five weeks. … That's what eats me because I know these guys can do it.
Key Matchup: Roddy White/Julio Jones vs. Young Buccaneers cornerbacks
Exploiting the Buccaneers' secondary has come as second nature to most of the team's opponents this season. Even in wins, the team has struggled with the league's worst overall pass defense.
That is definitely a problem against a team with as many weapons as the Falcons have in the passing game. Matt Ryan spread the ball around quite well in Week 12 and put up over 350 yards through the air against the Bucs' secondary.
Expect another similar performance for as long as Ryan and the starters are in the ballgame.
Tampa Bay will get veteran Eric Wright back this week in its secondary. He returns after serving a four-game suspension for reportedly using Adderall.
Assuming the Falcons do not rest their starters, they should breeze through their season finale in a tuneup game for the playoffs. The Buccaneers will keep this game close but simply don't have enough left in the tank to beat the playoff-ready Falcons at home.
A much-welcomed offseason awaits Tampa Bay. Atlanta will need that home-field advantage if it hopes to get over its playoff struggles this season.
Falcons 31, Bucs 17