Fortune has smiled upon, and turned against, the two NFC South teams meeting in Atlanta in Week 17.
Take the Atlanta Falcons as those who fortune has smiled upon. They have clinched the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs with one game left to play. They won many close games throughout the season, they beat solidly other opponents, but in general they won football games. As a matter of fact, they’ve beaten every team they’ve faced. (The two losses they did lose to, they have also beaten.) They’ve won five of their last six ball games.
Contrast that with the Tampa Bay Bucs. They were a team with a rookie head coach, a wealth of young talent, but a team not expected to be great quite yet. They started out slow, but got on a 4-game winning streak and eventually were 6-4. The general consensus was this was a team to be feared both now, and for years to come, in addition to being a 2012 playoff contender. That is, until the Falcons came to Tampa and squeaked out a win in Week 12. Since then, the Bucs have lost 4 games in a row, risk losing 5 in a row on Sunday, look similar to the team that lost their final 10 games in 2011, and at 6-9 are definitely out of playoff contention.
When thinking about Tampa, I think the biggest key to look at is how they are coached by Greg Schiano. He came in with a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-nosed, discipline oriented coach, and for a young Bucs team, that was doubtless the best way to go. By midseason, there were few doubts that approach was working. But does that formula of dictator-like control truly work in the NFL? You aren’t afforded the same control at this level as you are in College Football; these are ‘grown’ men we’re talking about here. The biggest question Tampa has both Sunday and going forward, is whether or not Schiano still has control over the locker-room, or whether the inmates are running the asylum once more. That speaks volumes about this current 2011-2012 era in Buccaneers history.
The biggest question about the game on Sunday is whether or not the Falcons will rest their starters, and, if they don’t, how much will the starters play? Head coach Mike Smith has been quoted as saying that the Falcons are going to ‘play to win’ this game against Tampa. That quote doesn’t tell us one single thing. I think it’s safe to say that the Falcons will keep the pedal to the metal for a couple quarters, maybe a series or two into the second half, and then put in backups to preserve the health of the starters. But I could be wrong, and Smith could play the starters the entire game. Or the starters might not play at all (which is almost certainly not going to happen).
It will be interesting to see how the game between the 13-2 Falcons and 6-9 Bucs plays out. A team with Super Bowl aspirations meeting a team fighting for team unity, and a positive ending point for their 2012 season. I do know this for sure: Tampa isn’t just going to roll over on Sunday the way they did in Week 17 of the 2011 season. As long as the Falcons starters are in, they’ll get the Bucs best shot, and they had better be ready to answer.