Following an impressive 31-18 win over the Detroit Lions last week in NFL action, the Atlanta Falcons could finally have their cake and eat it, too.
Week after week, the Falcons have managed to silence naysayers who have been skeptical about their winning ways. And time after time, the Falcons managed to stay focused and determined enough to make their 2012-13 campaign not just a positive one, but an exceptional one.
The "cake" is a 13-2 record going into their final regular-season game on Sunday, a 7-0 home-field mark and a four-game winning streak.
The ingredients for the "icing" are the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage going into the playoffs, quarterback Matt Ryan being named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week following his four touchdowns, and 25-of-32 completed passes (279 yards) for a 142.6 rating against Detroit last Saturday, topped with awaiting sprinkles of Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones being selected to this season's Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
Nonetheless, Atlanta still seems to have something to prove to its critics, despite having the best record in the league throughout the season.
NFL.com's Power Poll, composed of a panel of 13 NFL.com and NFL Network experts, currently lists the Falcons at No. 2, behind the Denver Broncos who are 12-3, one week away from the regular-season finale.
But in a Bleacher Report Power Rankings article, Atlanta was listed as the No. 5, and almost as an afterthought read: "In a week when the Atlanta Falcons had lost the public vote for the best team in the NFC, they went out and won – again. Critics will wisely point out that the best record in the regular season means nothing once the playoffs start...but that doesn't mean we should all jump on the Falcons and overlook their success this season."
Looking To Finale Against Tampa Bay
The one thing that remains to be seen is whether Coach Mike Smith will save his starters for the ultimate "cherry on top" – the playoffs and Super Bowl. On Sunday, he will have the task of electing to play his starters as usual or avoid risking injury to them in a game that's only significance is a notch in the win or loss column.
When asked about his game plan going into the conference battle with the Bucs, Smith insists that the game will be treated no differently than any other game this season.
"We're going to play the game to win," Smith commented during a recent press conference. "That's how we're going to approach it. It's an important game because it's a division game. All games are important."
But Atlanta also has other concerns.
The team is trying to maintain the health of a core of players who have played a long, hard-fought season. In a Falcons injury report released on Dec. 26, the team reported a number of surprising absences for this week's practice.
Defensive ends Jonathan Babineaux (ribs) and Corey Peters (knee) saw limited practicing time this week, even though the players were given Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off. And receiver Roddy White (knee) and safety William Moore were listed as not practicing at all.
In the case of White, it's a matter of "wait-and see." After all, he was listed as questionable in Week 15 leading up to the Giants game, actually sitting out three practices that week, but ended up with eight catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns.
However, Moore, who has been hampered by a hamstring injury for the last three games, was more of a concern to Smith's decision to go into the post-season with a healthy unit.
"I would like William to be ready to go, but the doctors, they've got to make that determination. ...I would say that he's not going to play in the game this week, obviously. That would be our take right now on it," Smith said Wednesday.
Moore's play as a prominent Atlanta defender was key to the Falcons' success early in the season. He had his best game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13 when he had 13 tackles – nine of them solo – and two interceptions.
Comparatively, Babineaux has recorded more than 36 tackles this year and ranks second among defensive tackles according to Stats Inc., spearheading the Falcons defense. If this team is to have any success in the post-season, particularly with its defensive front line, they will definitely have to get the eight-year veteran back to 100 percent.
And then there's the case of too much rest.
Atlanta gaining the top seed means the team has a bye during first-round action. But for players who are accustomed to – and conditioned for – practice day in and day out as part of a routine for 15 straight weeks, any departure from the norm may result in a break in stride.
In turn, a two week break from action might be a factor for the Falcons, but back in Week 7 they returned from the regular-season bye thoroughly outplay the Eagles in a 30-17 rout.
Tampa Bay will undoubtedly come into Sunday's game hungry. The Buccaneers have lost five in a row, including an embarrassing 28-13 outing against the St. Louis Rams last week in which they turned the ball over five times and were stopped twice on fourth-and-goal.
On the other hand, the Falcons have been quite successful against this NFC South foe. They split with the Bucs last season, but have won four straight against them in the Georgia Dome, a trend that began in Coach Smith's 2008 inaugural season. This will likely be a repeat of last season's finale in which the Falcons defeated the Bucs 45-24 at the Dome.
The Playoff Picture
On a positive note, Atlanta has been to four playoffs in Smith's five years as head coach. They won their fifth NFC title this season, and have been in the playoffs for the last three seasons, including in 2010 when they posted a similar 13-3 record.
It remains to be seen if the Falcons can put all the necessary elements together to top off the season.