The Atlanta Falcons have made franchise history by clinching a second straight playoff berth, but if they don't make improvements on both sides of the ball, the team could be in line for another quick postseason exit.
Atlanta tries to reach double-digit wins in a second consecutive year for the first time Sunday when it hosts a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team looking to avoid closing the season on a 10-game losing streak.
With Chicago losing at Green Bay the previous night, the Falcons (9-6) clinched a wild-card spot before they took the field Monday in New Orleans. Atlanta had an outside shot of winning back-to-back NFC South titles, but those chances ended as the Saints clinched the division with a 45-16 victory.
"We kind of understand where we're at and know that we'll be playing in January, but it's important for us to play well this week heading into the playoffs," quarterback Matt Ryan said.
The Ryan-led offense failed to score a touchdown in three red-zone possessions Monday, was 0 for 3 on fourth down and went three-and-out following both interceptions of Drew Brees.
Those picks were the highlights for the Atlanta defense, which surrendered season highs in points and yards (463) while recording only one sack.
While coach Mike Smith was disappointed with his team's effort with so much on the line, the Falcons have a week to make corrections before opening the playoffs on the road next weekend against New Orleans, San Francisco, Dallas or the New York Giants.
"We'll find out after the game where we're going in terms of the second season," Smith said. "We're excited about the opportunity. It doesn't feel good right now after the performance that we had (Monday night), but we can't worry about the playoffs. We've got to go out and play good football this Sunday and get this bad taste out of our mouth."
That's a feeling the Buccaneers (4-11) have had for weeks. Tampa Bay expected to contend for the South title after going 10-6 last season and opening 4-2 in 2011, including a 16-13 victory over Atlanta on Sept. 25, but the team is limping to the finish with its longest single-season skid since opening 0-9 in 1985.
This slide also has increased speculation that third-year coach Raheem Morris will lose his job.
"We know how hard he works, and how he's doing everything he can to help us win," defensive tackle Frank Okam said following last Saturday's 48-16 loss at Carolina. "Then, we go out and make him look bad. When we don't execute, it's on us."
Morris, though, feels the heat and has made it clear he won't shoulder the entire blame for the team's fourth consecutive non-playoff season.
"I think I answered this question a couple weeks ago ... I will never fire myself," Morris said Monday. "You don't go from being a coach of a year candidate to being the worst coach in the league to get fired within a year. It's about us. It's a little bit of everything."
A league high-tying 36 turnovers has been one of the team's glaring weaknesses. Last season, the Buccaneers had 19 - sixth-fewest in the NFL.
"That's the difference between this season and last season," said Morris, whose team has been outscored by 94 in four December losses.
The lack of development of Josh Freeman also has been a concern. The third-year signal-caller has thrown for just 14 TDs and is tied for the league lead with 19 INTs after throwing for 25 scores with six picks last season.
"It's never an easy thing to where you're losing football games, especially this many in a row," Freeman said. "It's been a struggle."
Tampa Bay's last 10-game losing streak came in 1977 when it dropped its first 12 to extend the franchise's 0-26 start.
The Buccaneers, though, could sweep the season series versus Atlanta for the first time since 2007.
Atlanta has won three straight at the Georgia Dome over Tampa Bay by a combined 12 points.
The Falcons are in a second straight postseason for the first time in their 46-year history but now would like to reach 10 wins for the third time in Smith's four years at the helm. They lost their playoff openers the previous two times, in 2008 and 2010, but Ryan insists the team is currently only concerned about the Bucs.
"The key is to focus on ourselves and make sure that no matter what they do, we play at a high level and we're prepared and ready to execute," he said. "That's where my mindset is, and that's how I think we need to be this week."
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