ATLANTA — Falcons starters are not expecting a short day against Tampa Bay today just because they’ve clinched home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
“We’re getting paid so we’ve got to go out and play,” said center Todd McClure.
Added quarterback Matt Ryan: “My mind-set is to prepare myself to play the entire game and that’s the way I’m going to go into it and really it will be no different than any other week.”
No different? It’s not that clear-cut, at least for those looking at the game from outside the Falcons’ meetings.
The Falcons (13-2) would seem to have little to play for other than the goal of bringing momentum into the playoffs. Atlanta coach Mike Smith would be second-guessed if a key player suffers an injury which could hurt the team’s playoff hopes.
There’s so much uncertainty about how long starters Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones will play that there is no betting line on the game.
Smith is motivated to end his streak of three consecutive playoff losses. The Falcons also were the NFC’s top seed when they lost to Green Bay after the 2010 season. Atlanta was embarrassed in a 24-2 loss at the Giants in the 2011 playoffs.
The success of the Packers and Giants, who each won Super Bowls after beating the Falcons in the playoffs, has shown that momentum is more important than carrying the best record into the postseason. That has been a popular subject for Smith and veteran Falcons, including McClure, this week.
“Like Todd says, there’s no ‘mentum like momentum,” said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
Atlanta has won two in a row since a loss at Carolina. Ryan has seven touchdown passes in the two wins. Smith wants the Falcons to enter the playoffs on a roll.
“I think it’s very important for us,” Smith said. “We’ve talked all along about having a different mission every week but we want the same result, to win.
“We’re going to go through the process like we always do. I think it’s very important for us to finish the regular season off the right way and Tampa is a very good football team.”
The Buccaneers (6-9) have lost five consecutive games. The streak began with a 24-23 home loss to the Falcons on Nov. 25. Tampa Bay was a playoff contender before the sudden collapse.
Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano said he can only wish he had Smith’s dilemma of deciding how best to prepare his starters for the playoffs.
“That’s not my concern. That’s Mike’s issue,” Schiano said. “I wish it were my issue to deal with, but not this year. My whole deal is getting my team prepared. We’ll be familiar with all the backups in case they play, but we’re planning on seeing their starters and we’ll go from there.”
Tampa Bay has been overwhelmed by a wave of turnovers, including five in two straight weeks. Josh Freeman has thrown four interceptions in each of the last two losses. He threw only three interceptions in his previous eight games.
The Bucs were stopped on downs twice inside the Rams’ 10 in last week’s 28-13 loss to St. Louis. They also had five turnovers the previous week in a 41-0 loss at New Orleans.
Tampa Bay ranks first in the league in run defense but last in pass defense. That could be bad news against Ryan, who is coming off what Smith said were his most impressive back-to-back games.
“I think clearly pass defense, whether it’s coverage or pass rush, we haven’t been up to the levels we expect of ourselves,” Schiano said. “It’s a passing league. It’s a quarterback-driven league.
“Then when you play good run defense, people quickly shy away from the run if they’re not having success. If your run defense is your strength and your pass defense is your weakness then you better believe you’re gonna see more passing and that’s kind of what we’ve done.”
There have been some individual highlights for Tampa Bay’s offense.
Freeman needs 157 yards to become the franchise’s first 4,000-yard passer. Vincent Jackson leads the Bucs with 69 receptions for 1,334 yards and eight touchdowns. He needs 69 yards to break Mark Carrier’s franchise record of 1,422 yards in a season.
Rookie Doug Martin’s production has declined in the losing streak, but he is third in the league with 1,766 scrimmage yards, including 1,312 yards rushing. He has 10 rushing touchdowns.
Smith has hinted he may give his team a lighter practice schedule next week as the Falcons will have a bye in the first round of the playoffs. That’s all the more incentive for Falcons players to keep the coach happy on Sunday.
“We’re not going to change the way we’re approaching this game,” said safety Thomas DeCoud. “We’re acting like it’s Week 3. We’re all expecting to play and we’re all expecting to play well.”