You don't often see division champs with home-field playoff advantage in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation in Week 17, but that's exactly where the Atlanta Falcons found themselves this weekend. Going into a home matchup against Tampa Bay, they had exactly nothing to play for beyond pride, having unlocked every possible regular-season achievement already.
And yet so much of the talk around the Falcons centers on how unproven the team is in postseason, how Atlanta continues to come up short year after year in January. So that leads to this: should the Falcons mail in their season finale and thus go three weeks without a meaningful, full-speed game, or play full-out, with all starters in. If it was your team, which way would you go?
Atlanta went with the second option. And it bit 'em, hard, right in the ankle, as Atlanta lost the game, 22-17, and possibly much more.
Cornerback Dunta Robinson was injured early in the game on a tackle, and did not return to the game after being observed in the locker room. He left the field under his own power but was clearly dazed from a hit to the head.
“Dunta, I think, will be fine. We have two weeks,” head coach Mike Smith said afterward. “I don’t know exactly if they’re calling it a concussion."
Falcons defensive end John Abraham was initially a much more significant concern; he suffered an apparent ankle injury in the third quarter and also did not return. If there's any kind of solace the Falcons can take, it's that they get an extra week to heal up, having clinched an opening-round bye as well as home-field advantage until the Super Bowl.
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“The early reports are that it’s minor,” Smith said of Abraham's injury. “We’re not overly concerned.”
If that's true, perhaps Smith ought to widen the lens. This was an uncharacteristically ugly effort from a team that has quietly been one of the most effective and efficient all season. Atlanta failed to hit 20 points for only the second time all season, and their final drive, which would have put them ahead with less than two minutes to go, stalled out on a midfield turnover on downs ... not exactly the kind of inspiring charge that quarterback Matt Ryan has led all season. (On the plus side, Ryan did break the Falcons' franchise season record for touchdowns with 12, knocking Steve Bartkowski off the top spot.)
So here it is for the Falcons: the next time they take the field, they'll at last have the chance to quell the questions, doubts and concerns that have plagued them the entire Ryan-Smith era. Atlanta doesn't deserve too much criticism for putting in all the effort of an August walkthrough this weekend, but the muddled play-starters-but-not-too-hard approach certainly didn't work. If Atlanta can't turn up the effort in two weeks, the questions will persist for another year.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-
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