The Atlanta Falcons went into Week 16 still looking to secure their third playoff berth in the last four years. They had to wait until Monday night to put up their own fight, but by then the matter had already been resolved.
The combination of losses by Arizona, Dallas and Chicago clinched at least a Wild Card berth for the Falcons before they even played their prime-time game in New Orleans. There was still meaning to that Monday-nighter, however; Atlanta could stay alive in the NFC South title chase with a win over the first-place Saints.
As it turned out, the Saints clinched the division with a dominating 45-16 win in the Superdome, leaving the Falcons glad they had already found another way into the postseason field. That result did, in turn, sap some of the drama of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' season finale at Atlanta this coming Sunday, which had already been "flexed" to a 4:15 spot by the NFL due to its potential importance in the playoff race.
The Buccaneers knew that an Atlanta win on Monday night would make the finale more meaningful for the Falcons and thus increase the spoiler potential for the visitors on Sunday. Fortunately, the Falcons still have something to play for, and so do the Buccaneers.
Because the Falcons won in Detroit in Week Seven, 23-16, they still have a chance to move up one spot in the final NFC playoff seedings. At the moment, Atlanta's 9-6 record would make it the second Wild Card team and the sixth seed, behind the 10-5 Lions. However, that head-to-head victory in Week Seven would give the Falcons the tiebreaker over Detroit if Atlanta beats the Bucs, Detroit loses at Green Bay and both teams finish 10-6.
Now, it is up for debate whether that is a significant issue for either the Falcons or the Lions. Either way, they will start the playoffs on the road and will be on the road in the second round as well. However, one could conjecture that neither team would voluntarily choose the likely assignment for the #6 seed, a trip back to the Superdome to take on the red-hot Saints. The Lions had a similar experience to that of the Falcons this past Monday, losing at New Orleans, 31-17, in Week 13.
(Note that this could change to a trip to San Francisco if the Saints beat Carolina on Sunday and the 49ers lose at St. Louis against the 2-13 Rams.)
The Falcons aren't likely to state a preference for their first-round opponent, and it's fair to say they will be confident wherever they are headed. The alternative would be a trip to either Dallas or New York, following the winner-take-all game for the NFC East title on Sunday, and while both the Cowboys and Giants have had more tumultuous seasons than the Saints, they can be formidable as well.
If the Buccaneers believe that the Saints assignment is tougher, however, they can still grab a little bit of that spoiler role on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. Either way, this particular season finale seems to have brought out an extra edge in the Buccaneers, who are looking forward to the game even though their own playoff hopes ended some weeks ago, and even though the offseason waits enticingly on the other side.
"It will be a good way to end the season," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "It will get the guys attention. We'll get a chance to go out there and play against a very tough team that is playoff ready, playoff bound. We need to get a win for this football team. This football team's primed. We want to get one of our division opponents, go out there and have fun, play the game the way we want to play it. We need to just going to go out there and get a win for this football team."
The Buccaneers defeated the Falcons, 16-13, in the first half of this season's home-and-home series, though that Week Three meeting seems like a lifetime ago. Three weeks after that, the Buccaneers also downed the Saints, 26-20, and at the time it seemed as if a pretty intense three-way race was developing for the division. Tampa Bay obviously dropped out of that race, and the Falcon and Saints win remain the high points of the season for the Buccaneers. Watching Atlanta and New Orleans fight it out for the division in prime time a few nights ago was difficult for the Bucs, and it provided extra motivation for this weekend's trip.
"Watching those two teams play the other night, being in our division, it had to bring a little sting to our guys," said Morris. "At the beginning of this season, at one point you're 4-2 and you're in a very competitive situation to take the division, to win the division, to go out there and compete for the division. Being 2-0 against those two opponents that we were playing, and now you're just on the outside looking in, and now all you have is a chance to go in there and try to make them miserable before they try to go into the playoffs…that is what you want to do, so that's a sense of urgency for our guys."
There is also this: Atlanta had also won the five previous meetings with Tampa Bay, its longest winning streak ever in the head-to-head series that has historically always been close. The Bucs lead that series, 19-17, but the last six games have been decided by an average of 4.8 points, and most of them have come right down to the wire. The Bucs have lost three of their last four games in the Georgia Dome, but actually have outscored the Falcons over that four-game stretch, 79-74.
With that Week Three win under their belts, the Bucs have a chance for their first sweep in the series since 2007. They could also send their heated rivals into the postseason on a down note, rob them of some helpful January momentum. And if all of those Falcon-based motivations aren't enough, Morris knows his players should be fired up simply because it's their last chance to step onto a football field for many months.
"Last year we won and we wanted to go out there and win it all and unfortunately we were forced to learn through adversity and that's what we are doing," he said. "We are all living our dreams and everyday you come to work you realize that more and more. This last game will be one of those reasons you realize you are living your dream."