NFL Preview - Tampa Bay (6-9) at Atlanta (13-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons will close out a brilliant regular season with an NFC South Division clash against the slumping Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Georgia Dome.
The road to the Super Bowl on the NFC side will go through Dixie after the Falcons invaded the Motor City on Dec.22 and really showed the difference between winning and losing organizations, topping an underachieving Lions team content with celebrating Calvin Johnson's greatness.
"Megatron," of course, entered the record books, breaking Jerry Rice's mark for most single-season receiving yards in NFL history. But, as has been the case for most of the season, Johnson's stellar play didn't translate on the scoreboard.
Matt Ryan, on the other hand, continued his MVP-like play and threw four touchdown passes as Atlanta clinched the NFC's top seed with a 31-18 walk in the park.
Roddy White caught two of those scores and finished with 153 yards on eight receptions for Atlanta, which also produced 17 points off three Detroit turnovers.
Ryan finished a spectacular 25-of-32 for 279 yards and matched Steve Bartkowski's 32-year old Falcons franchise record for touchdown passes with 31.
"It means a lot because this was one of the goals," said White. "We wanted to play in the (Georgia) Dome and have everybody come to us, and then we'll give them our best shot."
Johnson made 11 grabs for 225 yards, upping his record total to 1,892, certainly within earshot of 2,000. And that wasn't the only NFL record the rangy superstar broke. Johnson also became the first player to record at least 100 receiving yards in eight straight games, surpassing a mark set by Charley Hennigan in 1961 and matched by Michael Irvin in 1995.
"I've coached for 19 years in the NFL. I've never seen a better player than Calvin Johnson," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz.
Perhaps, but there are sure a lot of teams better than Schwartz's undisciplined bunch. You can't say the same thing about the Falcons, who understand they really haven't accomplished anything yet.
The thought process in the ATL, is all about the postseason since Atlanta has made losing in the first round a habit, one they hope to break by finishing the 2012 campaign strong and entering the playoffs with a hot hand.
"I like our chances (in the playoffs) a lot better at home with the Dome rocking," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "But it doesn't mean anything obviously. We still have to go out there and play."
"Momentum is very important," Falcons coach Mike Smith added. "Sometimes it's difficult to measure and quantify it. When you use the word momentum, you use the word passion. You use the word purpose.
"It's important that you're playing efficiently and effectively in December and January. That's what every team is striving for. Over the last two seasons, the teams that were playing well in December and January and really rolling were the teams that had the most success."
The Bucs, on the other hand, have hit the skids, losing their fifth straight last Sunday, a 28-13 home loss to the St. Louis Rams.
Josh Freeman threw for an impressive 372 yards on 30-of-54 passing with one touchdown, but was intercepted four times. Freeman also ran four times for 18 yards, while Doug Martin collected 62 rushing yards on 18 carries.
Mike Williams hauled in seven passes for 132 yards and a touchdown, while Vincent Jackson caught seven balls for 108 yards for the Bucs.
"It's certainly disappointing," Bucs coach Greg Schiano said. "If you look at the game, it's a case where St. Louis took advantage of their opportunities and we had a lot of missed opportunities."
The all-time series between these two clubs is deadlocked at 19 after Atlanta's razor-thin 24-23 win in Tampa back on Nov. 25. Ryan connected with Julio Jones for 80-yard TD in that one while Jacquizz Rodgers and Michael Turner each rushed for a TD.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Falcons are a perfect 7-0 at the Dome this season and have won 11 straight overall at home. They already know they will host a playoff game on either Jan. 12 or 13 but the team is 0-3 in the postseason under Smith so staying hot and entering the postseason on a high-note is paramount.
"We'll handle it differently with our workload and the days that we're going to work during our bye week and what our schedule will be," Smith said when looking ahead to the postseason. "We're not going to do anything like we did the last time."
The last time was when a 13-3 Falcons team got trounced by Green Bay 48-21 in the divisional round after the 2010 season.
It's conceivable Smith could look at resting key players like Ryan and White as well as Jones and Turner for at least part of Sunday's game.
"We're going to play the game to win," Smith said. "That's how we're going to approach it. All games are important, and in terms of the importance, does it have no bearing? It really does because we want to win every time we go out and play."
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is out of the playoffs for a fifth straight season under first-year coach Schiano but there is reason for optimism, especially on offense.
Martin is third in the NFL in total scrimmage yards with 1,766 and Freeman, who has thrown for a Tampa Bay single-season record of 3,843 yards, has shown explosive ability but needs to be more consistent.
The Falcons will be attempting to match the franchise record for wins (14) set in 1998 when they advanced to the organization's only Super Bowl. Some coaches think winning is a habit and are loathe to rest their stars while others believe the health of their key contributors is more important than anything else.
It will be interesting to see how Smith handles things but if you assume the Atlanta starters gets most of the playing time, it's tough to imagine a Buccaneers team coming apart at the seams having much of a chance.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 33, Buccaneers 17
12/27 13:03:01 ET