Win or lose, the Atlanta Falcons will finish the season with the NFC's best record.
Still, given their lack of playoff success with Mike Smith as coach and Matt Ryan under center, the South champs definitely don't want to head into the postseason on a down note.
The Falcons will try to match a team record for wins and finish 8-0 at home on Sunday when they close out the regular season against a free-falling Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that will miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.
Led by a career high-tying four touchdowns from Ryan - who threw three the week before in a 34-0 home victory over the New York Giants - Atlanta (13-2) won 31-18 at Detroit last Saturday to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference.
The Falcons will host a divisional playoff game on Jan. 12 or 13, but they know - probably better than most - that regular-season success doesn't always translate to postseason wins.
Atlanta is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith and Ryan after losing 24-2 at the New York Giants in last season's wild-card round. The year before, the top-seeded Falcons were routed 48-21 by Green Bay in the divisional round.
Smith felt his team was overworked heading into that Packers defeat, so he's easing up on the players this time, giving them three days off following Saturday's victory.
"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,' he said. "We're not going to do anything like we did the last time.'
Ryan is one shy of setting the franchise record for passing TDs with 32 after what Smith called the best "back-to-back" games of his career. But the Falcons' signal-caller - as well as Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones and other key starters - might watch some of Sunday's game from the sideline.
Still, there will be no let-up as the Falcons' goal is to open the playoffs with three straight wins.
"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.'
While the Falcons look to match the team record for wins set in 1998 when they advanced to the franchise's only Super Bowl, the best the Buccaneers (6-9) can hope for is to avoid another lengthy skid heading into the offseason.
Tampa Bay, which ended last season on a 10-game slide after a 45-24 New Year's Day loss at Atlanta, has dropped five in a row since winning four straight. The Falcons ended that run with a 24-23 victory on Nov. 25.
Rookie running back Doug Martin, who ran for two 1-yard scores in that defeat, has given first-year coach Greg Schiano reason for optimism - he's third in the league in total scrimmage yards with 1,766 - but there are still questions if fourth-year quarterback Josh Freeman can lead this offense.
Freeman has completed just 54.9 percent of his passes this season and he's been intercepted four times in each of the last two games to double his season total.
"I've got to take the blame as the quarterback,' Freeman, who has thrown for a Bucs single-season record 3,843 yards, said after last Sunday's 28-13 loss to St. Louis. "Saints game (a 41-0 loss on Dec. 16), this game, not really the brand of football I want to play.'
The Buccaneers, though, are a top-10 passing team with Freeman under center. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson deserves plenty of credit for that, as he's set career highs in receptions (69) and yards (1,334) in his first season with the team.
Jackson needs one TD to match his best output and 89 yards to break the 23-year-old franchise record set by Mark Carrier.
"For me to step in here, there's a lot of great tools around me that allow me to be successful,' he said. "For me, I just have to go out there, continue to work as hard as I work, have fun, enjoy it and we'll see how the season ends. Right now, it's about wins.'
Atlanta, winner of four straight with the Buccaneers in town, is going for its 12th consecutive victory at the Georgia Dome and first 8-0 home record in 14 years.
The Associated Press News Service
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