With the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs locked up prior to Week 17, Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith decided not to rest his starters in Sunday’s meaningless game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We’re going to play the game to win,” Smith said during his Monday press conference. “That’s how we’re going to approach it. It’s an important game because it’s a division game. All games, I think, are important. In terms of the importance of it, does it have no bearing? It really does, because we want to win every time we go out and play.”
The Falcons did not win Sunday. Tampa Bay beat Atlanta 22-17, and the Falcons were outplayed for the majority of the game.
So much for momentum.
One of the only contributing factors for playing the starters in Week 17’s game against the Buccaneers was to build positive momentum for the playoffs and make sure no one got rusty with an almost three-week break (had the starters not played, it would have been 20 days from Atlanta’s Week 16 win to its first playoff game).
The Falcons actually did the opposite of build momentum, though—they regressed.
Atlanta only managed 278 total yards Sunday, showing a propensity for three-and-out series of downs. The Falcons were also only successful on third down—a problem this team has been having all year—21 percent of the time (3-of-14) Sunday.
Individually, there weren’t many highlights either.
Quarterback Matt Ryan completed just 63.6 percent of his passes and was sacked twice. He was hit hard on multiple occasions, as the Tampa Bay pass rush was fierce on Sunday.
Running back Michael Turner gained just 18 yards on six carries (17 yards came on his touchdown run). His inability to put together consecutive games with big yardage is troubling for a running game that needed to be jump-started prior to the playoffs.
Most troubling, however, were two injuries Sunday to starters that could lower Atlanta’s chances of progressing deep in the postseason.
Starting cornerback Dunta Robinson left the game in the first quarter with a head injury. Smith, after the game, said he felt Robinson would “be fine,” but he wasn’t sure if they medical staff was calling the injury a concussion or not.
In the fourth quarter, starting defensive end John Abraham went down with a left leg or ankle injury. Not only did it take a while for Abraham to get up, he had to have assistance getting off the field and then was carted from the sideline to the locker room.
“Early reports are that it is minor,” Smith said in his postgame press conference. But he admitted he had only briefly talked with the medical staff.
It’s bad enough that the Falcons didn’t achieve their main goal of winning the game, they also didn’t build any kind of momentum in a game in which many people felt the team should have rested its starters.
And if the Robinson and Abraham injuries are serious and the Falcons lose their first 2012 playoff game, Smith will forever be questioned for his judgment.
This isn’t how the regular season was supposed to end for the 13-3 Falcons.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.