Week 17 in the NFL always comes with a litany of problems. Coaches of playoff-bound teams are faced with decisions of who to start and sit in meaningless games. Lame duck coaches of dead teams are faced with trying to make themselves look marketable, and Fantasy Football owners are usually left with their cheese hanging in the wind because of starters who end up not playing.
The 13-2 Atlanta Falcons will definitely fall into some of those problem categories as they come into their final regular season game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game that means absolutely nothing for Atlanta. The Falcons have already clinched the No.1 seed in the playoffs, so really the only thing that can come with a victory is matching the franchise high for wins in a season set in 1998.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is trying to snap a five-game losing streak which began when they lost at home to Atlanta back in Week 12. But even a victory over the Falcons won’t give the 6-9 Bucs a winning season.
The problem for Falcons head coach Mike Smith – which starters do you play in a game that has no bearing on the season, and how long do you let them play?
Conventional wisdom dictates that you don’t risk injury to your key players–Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White, Jacquizz Rodgers, John Abraham and others–when the playoffs are just a couple of weeks away. You sit the guys that got you there and let them heal and rest. Go into the playoffs with a full compliment of your starters and key personnel.
But the Falcons aren’t thinking in terms of conventional wisdom. This is a franchise that is trying to get over that hump from just being relevant and contending, to being elite. Atlanta wants to hit the playoffs in stride and have as much momentum as possible even though they’ll have a week off before their first postseason game.
It’s time for the Falcons to buckle up, shift into overdrive and press that accelerator to the floor.
Well…for a few quarters anyway.
Expect Atlanta to have all their available starters in the game from the jump, and to come out playing hard and fast. They’ll want to put the Buccaneers away early and build as big a lead going into the third quarter as possible. If the Falcons can do that, then as the second half moves on, more and more starters will find their way to spot on the sidelines wearing a baseball cap.
But Tampa Bay isn’t going to roll over. They fought the Falcons hard at the Sombrero, and they’ll be looking for a little revenge. The Buccaneers are also playing for more than just pride and revenge, they have the chance to be the highest scoring offense in franchise history. A small accomplishment, to be sure, but likely one of the things that head coach Greg Schiano is using to help motivate his squad.
Look for Atlanta to impose their will for at least the first half of the game and build at least a three score lead going into halftime. As the Falcons starters get pulled from the game, Tampa Bay will fight their way back in, and could possibly pull out a victory.