The Falcons came up short against the Bucs in a game where they nothing to gain, and the Panthers rallied against the Saints' historically porous defense in Week 17.
What we learned: Head coach Mike Smith really wanted a win heading into the playoff bye week. Smith said the Falcons would play to win even after they already had clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and he didn’t back off that vow, playing his starters — yes, even QB Matt Ryan — for the duration of the team’s loss to the Buccaneers. Unsurprisingly, the Falcons came out flat in a game where they had nothing on the line. They only mustered a field goal in the first half and never had a lead in the 22-17 loss.
What’s in store next: The Falcons have a bye week to get some rest and prepare for the divisional round of the playoffs. Atlanta will host the lowest-seeded team to advance in the wild-card round at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 13. So, if the Vikings beat the Packers next Saturday, the Falcons will play the Vikings regardless of the outcome of the Seahawks-Redskins game Sunday. Regardless, the Falcons are going to be playing a team with one of the league’s top running backs (Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch or Alfred Morris), and Atlanta’s run defense has been very suspect for much of the season, including Week 17, when Bucs RB Doug Martin rushed for 142 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown, on 18 carries.
What the heck? It appeared Smith’s play-to-win campaign had cost the team at least one key starter when DE John Abraham suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons might have dodged a bullet. Early indications are that Abraham’s injury is not serious. Another key defender, CB Dunta Robinson, left the game with a head injury in the first quarter, but Smith was optimistic that Robinson would be able to play in Atlanta’s next game. If either player is either out or playing at far less than 100 percent because of the injuries suffered in Week 17, that will be extremely unfortunate given that the Falcons had nothing to gain Sunday.
What we learned: Carolina ended the season on a high note, winning its fourth consecutive game by beating the Saints in New Orleans. However, the question that has been talked about for months is still unanswered. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has not made any announcement on whether head coach Ron Rivera will be retained. He had yet to meet with Rivera when Rivera had a press conference Monday morning and was left twisting in the wind as he faced questions about his job status. He said he looks forward to meeting with Richardson to talk about his future and mentioned multiple times that the team is better off now than it was when he arrived before the 2011 season. Rivera was making his case to return after leading Carolina to a 13-19 record. We should soon find out if Richardson wants him to stay put.
What’s in store next: Whether Rivera stays or not, the Panthers need a general manager, and the process of asking for permission to interview candidates employed by other teams is likely under way in Carolina. Marc Ross, the Giants’ director of college scouting, is expected to be interviewed. There have been reports that acting GM Brandon Beane, who stepped in after Marty Hurney was fired in October, will remain on the job with Rivera serving as his head coach, but there is no sign that Richardson had made up his mind on that front.
What the heck? The Panthers are doing things their own way on Monday. While most teams have made their plans regarding the head coach position clear, Richardson is apparently going to move at his own speed and didn’t even feel the need to tell Rivera whether he would be retained or fired before the coach's press conference Monday, which certainly made exchanges with reporters a little bit uneasy at times.
What we learned: The Saints’ defense, which set a league record for most yards allowed in a single season, could not wait for the 2012 season to end. In fact, the players on that side of the ball apparently cut out a little bit early from work on Sunday. The Saints took a 24-13 lead with 10:45 left in the third quarter, but their defense collapsed, allowing 28 unanswered points in less than 18 minutes of game time, and the Saints’ disappointing season came to a fitting end with a 44-38 loss. We already knew there were some big issues to address on “D” for the Saints, and the second half of the season finale sure reinforced that fact.
What’s in store next: The franchise is awaiting the return of head coach Sean Payton, whose suspension will not be up until after the Super Bowl unless commissioner Roger Goodell grants him an early reinstatement. GM Mickey Loomis will have to begin the work of deciding on the cuts and contract restructuring that needs to be made in order for the Saints to be salary-cap compliant before the start of the next league year (4 p.m. ET, March 12). Some high-profile players, like DE Will Smith and WLB Jonathan Vilma, could be released.
What the heck? With Payton, who reportedly agreed to a five-year, $38 million extension with the team last week, still barred from communicating with the team, Goodell’s “bounty” punishment is not just going to affect the Saints’ 2012 season. It is going to have an effect on 2013, too. Teams are making changes to their coaching staffs at the moment, and the Saints are at a disadvantage with the coach that will be leading them next season unable to hire or fire staff members. Goodell has made his point, and the Saints have suffered. Why not reinstate Payton at this point?
What we learned: A sixth consecutive loss would have put the Bucs in a bad place heading into the offseason. They at least avoided that by becoming the only team to beat the Falcons at the Georgia Dome this season. Atlanta had nothing to play for, and, in a way, this was the Bucs’ Super Bowl, so the Bucs can’t honestly call that win a crowning achievement, even though the Falcons did player their starters for the entire game. It was a nice victory and one the team badly needed given its recent struggles. The Bucs can say they matched up well with the division champs and the No. 1 seed in the NFC both times they played them this season — Tampa Bay lost by a point to Atlanta in Week 12.
What’s in store next: All options are on the table for the Bucs this offseason, according to head coach Greg Schiano. He said Monday at his press conference that “nothing is untouchable.” Now, we don’t expect a housecleaning to the extent of the one that took place last offseason. Schiano only indicated that he’s not opposed to big changes — not that there actually would be any. We don’t expect the team to be as aggressive with top-tier free agents as it was last offseason, but they will have decisions to make on their own key free agents, like DE Michael Bennett, and upgrading the secondary is a must.
What the heck? Schiano’s first season at the helm will largely be considered a success because the team was just so awful at the end of last season. The Bucs won three more games than they did in 2011, so they improved, but this team throws us for a loop a bit with its wild inconsistency. It followed up two uninspiring efforts with a solid showing at Atlanta, but by the end of the season, we just didn’t know which Bucs team was going to show up, or if one would show up at all after watching them lose 41-0 to the Saints in Week 15. Becoming more consistent will be a message Schiano drives home all offseason.