The Atlanta Falcons came in to Week 17 with a clear choice. They could either keep their starters in, attempt to whip the Buccaneers and get a little bit of that ethereal momentum heading into the playoffs, or they could sit the starters and concede the game.
I think if you asked any Falcons fan or analyst before the game, they would have agreed that it was a fairly simple choice. The Falcons, predictably, chose neither.
After talking all week about wanting to win against a division rival, Mike Smith and his coaching staff unleashed a vanilla gameplan on the world yesterday. The Falcons were poor at blocking, anemic for long stretches on offense and just so-so on defense until the third quarter. It was the kind of game you play when you want to get starters reps but don't care overmuch about winning, and it showed in the final result. Tip of the cap to the Buccaneers, but the Falcons didn't look like they came to play.
Predictably, this infuriated large swaths of the Falcons fanbase, who were split evenly between wanting to stomp the Bucs and those who wanted to rest the starters at all costs. It felt like the Falcons were trying to have it both ways without putting forth the maximal effort we're used to seeing from them, and that's bound to make people angry.
Me? I was just frustrated to the point of rage by the way this one unfolded. It's one thing to lose with your backups in, but it's another to lose with your starters playing and risk injury, much less lose Dunta Robinson and John Abraham to injuries.The Falcons came off looking lousy, uncertain and foolish at a time where they should have been coasting into the playoffs without a care in the world. It wasn't the worst possible outcome, but it was a bad one. To put it bluntly.
Thankfully, the playoffs await, and this game really didn't matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. We'll only have to wait two weeks to see what the 2012 Falcons look like in the post-season. Let's hope everybody's healthy.
On to the individual performances.
- Congratulations to Matt Ryan, who fought through an insane amount of pressure and the Falcons playing a lackadaisical game to break the franchise single season passing touchdowns record. He finishes the year with a sterling 99.3 rating, over 4,700 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. It's by far his best season.
- Jacquizz Rodgers continues to shine when he's featured as part of the gameplan. Four carries for 25 yards and seven catches for 44 yards in this one.
- Julio Jones makes it look easy. Three catches, 56 yards, befuddled defenders abound.
- Asante Samuel shook off a little injury early on to interception Josh Freeman and set up a score. He's just the best.
- Blocked punt off Michael Palmer's helmet aside, Matt Bosher is an awesome punter. You should bow down at his altar.
- The Falcons have had a truly magnificent season, going 13-3 and locking up homefield advantage for the second time in three years. It's been a hell of a ride, and no matter how poor this game was, it shouldn't color the whole season. It truly was one for the ages.
- And hey, this game still was meaningless. Really. As upset as we all were about so many things that happened, it doesn't change where the Falcons are headed.
- The effort level felt disgraceful until it was too late. If you're coming into this game to win it, and you have a reeling Buccaneers team as your opponent, there's no excuse to come out that flat.
- Depending on your viewpoint, this was either a lousy game for Mike Smith or one of the worst-coached games of his career. The decision to leave the starters in resulted in two injuries—and yes, I know that can happen any week, but the Falcons had little to play for—coupled with the experimentation and generally lackluster play made this one downright baffling. There's something to be said for believing you need to get the starters some run after 2010, but there's another thing entirely to be said for leaving them in all game to lose and risk injury. That thing is "not incredibly smart."
I respect Smitty as a coach. I think he's the right guy to lead this team. I think he's a major part of the team's success, and I think his body of work this season has been superb. When he's being stubborn, conservative and clinging to an idea that may not make a lot of sense in the first place--yeah, referring to momentum--he harms this football team. He harmed this football team on Sunday. I sincerely hope he doesn't do it again in the post-season.
- The injuries could end up harming the Falcons if Dunta and Abe can't return in two weeks. Missing one of their top cornerbacks and their best pass rusher would significantly weaken the defense, especially given the comparative lack of depth at defensive end. Dunta's injury would hurt a bit less, but it's all hands on deck in the secondary, especially with some quality passing offenses potentially heading to the Georgia Dome.
- I don't have the stomach to get into the particulars from here. You all know how this went.