Head coach Mike Smith said the Atlanta Falcons (13-3) were playing to win this game. True to his word, the starters played the entire game and lost 22-17 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9).
But for the majority of the game, it didn’t look like the Falcons were playing to win at all. At halftime, Atlanta was down 13-3 and never fully recovered.
It looked as though they were mounting another fourth quarter comeback, but Matt Ryan’s pass to Tony Gonzalez was knocked down by rookie safety Mark Barron.
Playing the starters in a meaningless game is a bit of a risky venture, and it looked to be a poor decision as John Abraham and Dunta Robinson exited the game with ankle and head injuries, respectively.
With two weeks to rest, Smith expects both players to be fine.
For the Bucs, the game looked to be anything but meaningless. Quarterback Josh Freeman and rookie running back Doug Martin helped to drive the Bucs into scoring range several times. The team’s inability to put six on the board and instead settle for field goals proved to be irrelevant.
Martin finished with 142 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries, including a 40-yard touchdown run in which he broke several tackles from Falcons defenders.
Defensively, Tampa Bay was able to get after Ryan early and often. Although the Bucs only notched two sacks, they applied constant pressure and hit Ryan several times.
In what was a common theme for the season, Atlanta failed to run the ball effectively; the team totaled just 65 rushing yards.
The ground game was able to get in the end zone on a 17-yard run from Michael Turner in the third quarter. With the touchdown run, Turner became the first Falcons running back in franchise history to put together five consecutive seasons of scoring 10 or more rushing touchdowns.
Despite the 17-yard run, Turner finished with 18 yards on six carries.
The Falcons’ aerial attack was stifled for much of the day, thanks in large part to the pressure generated by the Bucs. Julio Jones led the Falcons receivers with three catches for 56 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers saw an increased workload, hauling in eight passes for 50 yards.
Ryan threw his 32nd touchdown pass of the season when he found Harry Douglas for a seven-yard score late in the fourth quarter. With the touchdown pass, Ryan broke the franchise record for touchdown passes thrown that was set by Steve Bartkowski in 1980.
For the game, Ryan completed 28 of 44 passes for 238 yards and no interceptions.
On defense, Sean Weatherspoon delivered several big hits to Bucs players. The linebacker was all over the place, and he lead the team with eight tackles.
Asante Samuel picked off his fifth ball after he successfully gambled on a Freeman pass It was the 50th interception of Samuel’s career.
Next up: Atlanta hosts the lowest-ranked remaining seed in the divisional round of the playoffs.