It's hard to agree on what constitutes a meaningless game in the NFL. We've wrestled with that question all week, but I think we've about hit our limit on what that debate can accomplish. It's time to talk about the next game.
That game, of course, comes against a Buccaneers team you'll find smiling next to the word "Imploding" in the OED. The Buccaneers were briefly darlings of the football world with their unstoppable offense, a hard-charging Doug Martin and just enough defense to get by, but the wheels have come off again. These Buccaneers will just be happy just to win seven games and finish better than the Panthers, who have gone on a tear of their own at the end of the year.
It may seem like these Buccaneers have nothing t play for, but for the second straight year they've fallen apart late in the season. They have something to prove, and they'd like to smack the Falcons around a little bit to avenge their loss earlier this season. With that in mind, let's look at five things we would all like to see in Week 17.
1. The Ground Game Gets Going
I've covered this already, but it would be great to see the Falcons run the football effectively against a very tough Buccaneers defensive front. Proving the team has a little offensive balance even when the going gets tough would matter a great deal, particularly because the Seahawks and 49ers are no slouches at stopping the run and the Falcons could face one or both in the playoffs.
2. The Falcons Defend The Deep Ball
Josh Freeman has been an unmitigated disaster the last two weeks, throwing eight picks and generally looking inaccurate and overwhelmed. I don't think that's the true measure of his ability, and even in his darkest hour, Freeman can huck a deep ball.
The Falcons could face offenses like Green Bay or Washington/New York that make the deep ball work for them. They've had mixed success thus far this season, generally taking away the big play with their excellent secondary but also giving up a handful of ugly ones. Seeing them put the clamps on Freeman and his passes to Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams would be quite reassuring.
3. The Falcons Hit Freeman
The pass rush has been underrated this season, rarely producing gobs of sacks but delivering plenty of pressure when it counts. They'll need to do that to stand a chance against guys like Aaron Rodgers, so it'll be nice to see them treat this game like a tune-up.
Force Freeman into mistakes, get past that line and wreak havoc and we'll all be feeling pretty good about what's to come.
4. The Starters Stay Healthy
There's few things worse than losing starters in the last week of the season, especially when it's a team gearing up for a big playoff run. Keeping the starters healthy and ready to go in a couple of weeks will be a difference maker for this team, which has talent at every position but not a lot of top-flight backups.
5. A Win
I can talk all I want about how unimportant this game is, but at the end of the day of course I want to see the Falcons put together an impromptu dance recital on the backs of the Buccaneers. The most important thing is getting starters out healthy, but let's get the win, too.