According to the Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff, prior to the team's regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, not only did the game matter in terms of conducting business as usual, but there would be no hesitation to use the starting lineup in a game that had little significance to the upcoming post-season.
The Falcons had already sewn up the NFC's No. 1 top seed, earning a first-round bye and home-field advantage by defeating the Detroit Lions last week, but talk all week leading up to the clash with conference rival Tampa Bay turned into whether or not to risk injury to the starters just a week before the playoffs.
It didn't really matter, though. Atlanta dropped to 13-3 after a 22-17 loss to the Bucs, who are now 7-9.
"We've said from the very beginning that we're going to play this game to win," Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said after his team fell to the Buccaneers, 22-17. "I think we did that. We just didn't get it done today."
In retrospect, the Falcons may have reconsidered playing their reserves if they'd only known two of their top defensive players, cornerback Dunta Robinson and defensive end John Abraham, would in fact fall victim to injury, and that a second-string player would score his first touchdown the season, almost in time to stage a rally.
"Our preparation this week was very good," Smith insisted. "We just didn't make the plays."
The Falcons' game plan against Tampa Bay was to take advantage of what they've done best all season – to get out to a fast start. This season Atlanta has posted more than 42 points on drives lasting four or fewer plays, but instead of establishing their running game first against the Bucs, the offense began with an aerial attack.
Atlanta began in good fashion, gaining 99 total yards in the first quarter compared to 86 by the Bucs.
The Falcons also surpassed their counterparts' in passing yardage during the span, 64-58, but failed to mount any sustainable drive, going just 1-for-7 on first downs attempts during the first two quarters. Quarterback Matt Ryan's first play from scrimmage was a pass to Julio Jones for a pickup of 10 yards and his team's only first down of the half. Ryan would then go on to make four more pass attempts, with just one incompletion. However, the drive stalled at the Falcons' 38.
And that was the end of Atlanta's fast start. In fact, from there things went in the opposite direction.
The Bucs, in turn, took a 3-0 lead on a Connor Barth 48-yard field goal during their first possession. The Falcons countered with a Matt Bryant field goal with 2:27 left in the quarter that tied the game at 3-all. Bryant's field goal was the 33rd this year, setting a franchise record for field goals in a season.
In the second quarter, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman hit wideout Mike Williams for an 8-yard TD reception, and Barth added two more field goals – one just before the half and one on the Bucs first possession in the third - to extend his team's lead to 16-3.
The Falcons running game in the first half was non-existent. The "Dirty Birds" had just nine yards on the ground in the second quarter. At one point, Ryan was Atlanta's leading rusher with 11 yards.
Not until Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel picked off a Freeman pass on Tampa Bay's 28-yard line at the 3:51 point in the third, and ran it to inside the Bucs' 32, did Atlanta resemble a team that has compiled 13 wins this season. Turner's17-yard burst up the middle that narrowed the Falcons deficit back to six, 16-10, with 4:34 remaining in the period, was his best run of the day. Until that point, Turner had only six yards on the ground on four carries.
The excitement, however, was short-lived, and the hometown crowd was silenced once again when Tampa Bay went up 22-10. On the Bucs' very next possession, running back Doug Martin took the ball over the left side and broke an open-field tackle for a 40-yard gain and a touchdown.
The Falcons were able to pull to within five when backup receiver and Atlanta native Harry Douglas, pulled in a 7-yard reception for his first touchdown of the season. But the Falcons' notorious comeback capacity was when Ryan threw an incompletion to Tony Gonzalez with 2:07 remaining to play on a fourth-and 10 from the Atlanta 33.