Patriots coach Bill Belichick is widely regarded as one of the best in the NFL. He made a major mistake that cost his team a chance to win the Super Bowl during the final week of the 2009 regular season. Having already secured a division title but without a chance at a playoff bye he played his starters during a meaningless game in Houston. Wes Welker tore his ACL, and the next week New England was blown out by Baltimore in the first round of the post-season. History repeats itself.
All season long the Atlanta Falcons have been criticized for not winning pretty enough. Mike Smith's team has feasted on bad opponents and frequently been tested by then. Thirteen wins later the chatter has shifted to a lack of recent success in the playoffs. Atlanta has not won a game outside of the regular season since 2004, and been blown out in the playoffs each of the last two seasons. That brings us to Sunday.
Having clinched the top seed in the NFC playoffs the Falcons hosted struggling Tampa Bay in a game that offered no prize for winning. Even with nothing to gain Smith elected to play his starters. Wes Welker surely winced when he heard of Smith's decision. After the game Falcon defensive cogs John Abraham and Dunta Robinson were the ones cringing.
During a game Atlanta lost to Tampa Bay 22-17, Abraham was carted off the field with an injured ankle. Robinson left the game with a head injury. Abraham leads the team with 10 sacks and has forced a Falcon best six fumbles. Robinson is third on the squad with 80 tackles. Both will have a bye week to try and recover from injuries that they did not need to sustain.
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Incredibly, while playing the starters, the Falcons fell to a Buccaneer team that had dropped five straight. Tampa Bay out-gained Atlanta 366-278, held the Falcons to just three of 14 on third down conversions, and RB Doug Martin closed out his rookie campaign scampering for 142 yards and a TD while averaging more than five yards a carry. Outside of a 17 yard touchdown run from Michael Turner the Atlanta ground game was a non-factor. Falcon QB Matt Ryan was limited to 238 yards passing. Ryan's 5.41 yards per pass attempt was his second lowest mark of the season.
Abraham and Robinson may recover but there was no reason to risk injury in a game with zero upside. After loses to Tampa Bay and Carolina over the final four weeks of the regular season the Falcons will need their bye week to get healthy and prepare for their first playoff quality opponent since early October. Atlanta has work to do if they want to reverse their recent playoff performances.