The Atlanta Falcons host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17, a game that once promised to have far more at stake.
As recently as three weeks ago, the Buccaneers (6-9) were 6-6, coming off competitive losses to two of the best teams in the league. This season finale was earmarked as one where, potentially, Atlanta would be resting its starters, allowing the Bucs a winnable game they would need to secure a playoff berth.
Since then, however, the Bucs have regressed into a tailspin. They've lost their past three games—inflating their losing streak to five—to teams with a combined record of 18-26-1.
In Atlanta, the Falcons (13-2) have reclaimed some of their mojo, following a blowout loss to Carolina with convincing wins over the Giants and Lions. As predicted, they have nothing to play for in Week 17—they've already clinched home-field advantage throughout—but Mike Smith has been forthright about saying that he plans to play his starters nonetheless.
Let's take a look at how it might pay out:
When: Sunday, Dec. 30th, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
Watch: Fox (check local listings)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Spread: Atlanta -3.5 (via LVH Supercontest)
Most books have opted away from posting this line; Falcons-Buccaneers is one of the few games not listed on VegasInsider.com. They have Mike Smith to thank for that, as his aloof attitude with the press has made it hard to discern if, and how long, the Falcons' starters will play.
The line of Falcons -3.5 in the LVH Supercontest certainly reflects the potential for Atlanta to rest its players. If this were a must-win game, they'd be getting around a touchdown.
Picking this line comes down to guessing how long Matt Ryan and Co. will actually be in the game. And you never want to put money down on a guess. So personally, I'd pass.
In pool play, take Tampa with the points, then pray for Smith to eventually comes to his senses.
Over/Under: Not Listed
No reputable book has listed the over/under, not wanting to get burned by Mike Smith's vital coaching decision. If Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones spend most of the game on the bench, the over/under would go down about 7-10 points.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Injury Report (via USA Today—as of 12/27/12)
|CB LeQuan Lewis||Knee||Questionable|
|DE Aaron Morgan||Shoulder||Injured Reserve|
Atlanta Falcons Injury Report (via USA Today—as of 12/27/12)
|WR Roddy White||Knee||Probable|
|CB Christopher Owens||Hamstring||Questionable|
|DT Jonathan Babineaux||Ribs||Questionable|
|DE Cliff Matthews||Hamstring||Questionable|
|S William Moore||Hamstring||Out|
Fantasy Big Plays
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Doug Martin
It's hard to know whether the Bucs will see Atlanta's first-team defense for most of the game. But even if they do, Martin remains a strong fantasy play.
The rookie sensation has been a bastion of strong, consistent production all season long. That includes a two-touchdown performance against the Falcons back in Week 12.
He only racked up 50 yards in that game but could be in store for more in this one. According to Football Outsiders, Atlanta has the 22nd-ranked rush defense in the league. And that's their starters.
He'll obviously fare better against backups, but either way, start Martin with confidence.
Atlanta Falcons: QB Matt Ryan
Again, we don't know how long the Falcons' first-team offense will play. But Mike Smith has given no indication that they won't at least start.
Which means that if you need to play one of them, Matty Ice is the obvious choice. Coming off a near-perfect passer rating against Detroit, Smith will probably want to get his quarterback in a nice rhythm before his team heads to the playoffs.
Tampa Bay lets up a league-high 303 yards per game through the air, making it not only the worst unit in the league, but one of the worst units in league history.
Even if he's benched early, Ryan should put up viable fantasy numbers against them.
Key to Victory
Motivation to Win
It's been the overarching theme of this preview, but there's a reason for that. This entire game will be colored by Mike Smith's coaching decisions.
This week, the Falcons coach said "All games are important...we want to win every time we go out there to play."
But a host of questions surround that statement. Is he being honest, or is that generic coach-speak before a game he plans to throw? And even if Smith is being honest, do the Falcons players feel the same way?
If they genuinely care about winning, it's hard to see Atlanta losing a home game against a reeling opponent. But if it isn't duly motivated, Tampa has enough firepower to steal a victory.
Like most Vegas bookmakers, I'm hard-pressed to make a prediction on this one. But I'll take a stab at it.
I think the Falcons go with an amended preseason game plan. The first-team offense will march out for a few series and probably score 10-14 points. Once Atlanta has that buffer, look for Smith to realize the risk-reward dichotomy and give them the hook.
From there, Tampa's starters will have most of the game to mount a comeback on Atlanta's reserves. And as bad as the Bucs have looked in recent weeks, it's hard to imagine they won't be able to win against that.
Predicted Score: Tampa Bay 27, Atlanta 23