The Falcons team that took the field on Sunday did not much resemble the team that shut out the Giants and handled the Lions over recent weeks. They looked like a team that had secured the top seed in the NFC and locked up home field advantage throughout the playoffs, thus weren't too worried about the outcome of Sunday's game. They looked like a team filled with starters who maybe wondered if getting hurt in a meaningless game against a struggling Tampa Bay team was really worth it. They looked like a team led by a coaching staff that was committed to fielding vanilla schemes, refusing to provide potential playoff opponents much useful film on the Falcons.
I was at the game, and I have to admit, the atmosphere in the Georgia Dome felt much like the game earlier this season against the Arizona Cardinals. You know, the one in which Matt Ryan threw five interceptions. So many seats were empty, the fans that were in attendance seemed quiet and tired, and the team definitely looked flat right out of the gate.
Matt Ryan was only sacked once, and hit once, but he was hurried ten times, which definitely contributed to Atlanta's lack of effectiveness on offense. Atlanta's receivers really struggled to get separation from Tampa Bay's coverage, which is silly, considering that the Buccaneers are ranked dead last in the league in pass defense. There was no running game to speak of, either. If you remove Michael Turner's touchdown run, he managed to rack up one total yard on five other carries. His average per carry was 7.2 inches. Yes, inches. There were a lot of missed tackles, and Atlanta's run defense left quite a bit to be desired. Doug Martin amassed 142 yards on 28 carries, including a 40 yard touchdown.
The Falcons had zero turnovers, which is always good. Atlanta's red zone efficiency was 66%. Matt Bosher was pretty great except for that one time that Michael Palmer's head helped the Buccaneers to block a punt. Atlanta's defense was fairly disruptive, hitting Josh Freeman three times, hurrying him ten times, and deflecting three passes. Asante Samuel also gave the Falcons a necessary morale boost with a third quarter interception that led to Michael Turner running for a 17 yard touchdown.
Despite their best efforts, and by "best efforts" I really mean nothing remotely resembling what this Falcons team is actually capable of, the Falcons couldn't pull off the win. The starters who were still ambulatory played all four quarters. Dunta Robinson and John Abraham left the game with what appeared to be significant injuries--Robinson is moving through the NFL's concussion protocol quickly, according to Mike Smith, and Abraham's injury is reported to be minor.
As much as this loss was frustrating to fans, it does not really mean anything as far as the playoffs. Smitty made statements about playing to win against the Bucs, but everyone knew that game didn't really matter, and they played like it. As much as we are all aware of the "one and done" hype surrounding this team, Atlanta's coaches and players are even more aware. The coaching staff--Dirk Koetter, Mike Nolan and Keith Armstrong are squeezing it in between interviewing for head coaching jobs, apparently--is taking a different approach to preparing their players than they took in 2010. Much like the recent loss to the Panthers, which preceded a 32-0 destruction of the New York Giants, Sunday's loss could focus the Falcons for the divisional round. If that happens, this loss will be quickly, and rightfully, forgotten.