For the coach of a team that cannot improve its playoff positioning, there’s no right way to approach a game that doesn’t matter. If you rest your starters, you chance an edge being lost. If you play them, you leave yourself open to the vagaries of football. Mike Smith stated his intentions — the Falcons would play to win — and stuck to his word. Give him that, if nothing else.
With 11:42 remaining in the regular season, the Falcons’ only real pass rusher was helped from the field after getting tangled with teammate Peria Jerry. John Abraham exited with a bad ankle, and right about here folks stopped seeing Smith as the coach who can’t get it right on fourth-and-1 and started castigating him as the guy who’d sacrificed a key asset in a game of no value.
Already cornerback Dunta Robinson had been taken the locker room with an injury — he’d led with his head yet again — and Asante Samuel, the other corner, had done his weekly limp-off-and-return. Matt Ryan, on whom everything depends, had absorbed a series of frightful hits. And all this for what? To finish 14-2, as opposed to 13-3? To win a game whose result would be forgotten 10 seconds after the final whistle?
“It’s up to the coach,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said, speaking of the approach to such a negligible game. “He told us what his plans were. It was no secret. We just got beat.”
The Falcons played to win and lost anyway. No big deal. What could be a huge deal is if the availability of Abraham and/or Robinson for the playoff opener is compromised by the injuries sustained in Game 16.
Of Abraham, Smith said: “The early report is that it’s minor. We’re not overly concerned … Tomorrow we’ll know a whole lot more.”
Of Robinson: “Dunta, I think, will be fine.”
Then this: “We’ve got two weeks. That’s why we play these 16 games, to get that bye. There’s a big advantage not having to line up in six or seven days and go play in the second season.”
Since the Falcons convened in July, they’ve known that nothing they accomplished in this regular season — even if they wound up with the NFL’s best record, which is what happened — would register if they can’t win a playoff game. That’s what made Sunday’s doings so weird: With the precious playoffs almost at hand, they got caught up in the meaningless.
The good news was that neither injury appears as bad as it might have been. “I’m fine,” Robinson said in the locker room. “But they’ve (meaning publicists, citing a team rule about injured players giving interviews) gagged me.”
Privately, Falcons officials were relieved that Abraham’s ankle left ankle didn’t swell. But the left ankle is rather essential for a right defensive end, and the Falcons will need Abraham at full gallop if they’re to win the Super Bowl.
Said free safety Thomas DeCoud: “That’s one guy you definitely don’t want getting hurt.”
Asked about the insistence on playing the starters the entire game, DeCoud said: “It’s a Catch-22. If you play them and somebody gets hurt, everyone points the finger.”
The belief here is that Smith dared too greatly, that he assumed way too much risk for very little reward. In his defense, history offers little guidance on the issue of regular-season momentum vis-a-vis postseason success.
The past two Super Bowl champs (Packers and Giants) had to win Games 15 and 16 just to reach the postseason, and neither had a Round 1 bye. The 2009 Saints lost their final three regular-season games and still won the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots went flat-out in their regular-season finale against the Giants to get to 16-0 but were beaten in the Super Bowl by the same Giants. The 2005 Colts were 14-0 but chose to play Peyton Manning sparingly in Games 15 and 16 (losing both) and were ousted in their first playoff game.
To no great surprise, the Falcons appeared caught between Sunday. They weren’t quite sure how hard to try, so they wound up falling 13 points behind a Tampa Bay team that hadn’t won since Nov. 18. The inevitable — inevitable when you consider that Ryan took every offensive snap — rally fell a touchdown short.
Again, no big deal. And it’s possible that Sunday’s injuries won’t amount to much and the Flowery Branch Birds will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy five weeks hence. Still, a game of no consequence needn’t have spawned such drama.
“I didn’t even see John,” Jerry said, speaking of his collision with Abraham. “I heard him make an unusual noise and turned to see him holding his ankle.”
It isn’t known whether Mike Smith, seeing the same image, likewise made a noise. We can, however, guess what his words might have been.
Further reading: As for the game itself, it was pretty crummy, too.
By Mark Bradley