Smitty makes right call in ‘playing to win’

Jay Adams of Atlanta wrote on Sunday about Falcons head coach Mike Smith’s comments following Saturday night’s win against the Detroit Lions. In those comments, Smith talked about the Falcons intention to “play to win” in their Week 17 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Smith said:

“We’re going to play the game to win. That’s how we’re going to approach it. It’s an important game because it’s a division game. All games, I think, are important. In terms of the importance of it, does it have no bearing? It really does, because we want to win every time we go out and play.”

The Falcons have already locked up the NFC’s top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and thus the result of next Sunday’s season finale is relatively meaningless. Leading many to think the Falcons should rest their starters in order to keep them healthy for their upcoming playoff game in two weeks. The Falcons receive a first-round bye, giving them an extra week of rest. That two-week lay-off certainly will be beneficial to get some players healthy, such as safety William Moore who has missed the past three games with a hamstring injury. It also should give players like wideout Roddy White, who has had a lingering knee injury in recent weeks, a greater chance to get closer to 100% health before the playoffs.

While Smith’s comments don’t mean that some key players could still wind up sitting out or playing limited reps, it does mean that the Falcons won’t be treating this as nothing more than a preseason game. The Falcons will be smart to reduce the reps of some key players, and give some of the younger guys more opportunities to show their skills. For example, White has played over 90% of the team’s offensive snaps most weeks. Even with a bum knee, he played in 50 of the team’s 57 snaps against the Lions (88%) per Pro Football Focus. That won’t be necessary this week. The Falcons should be a bit more willing to rotate Drew Davis into the lineup and maybe White only needs to play 35 or so snaps. That certainly would give the Falcons an opportunity to win the game, but also lower the risk that White aggravates that knee injury.

In 2010, when the Falcons similarly had a first round bye and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, they squared off against the Carolina Panthers in the season finale. The Falcons built a 31-3 lead before pulling many of the starters at the outset of the fourth quarter. It seems likely that will be the goal for the Falcons this week. Unfortunately, the Falcons won’t be facing 2-13 Panthers team led by Jimmy Clausen this year. Instead they will be facing a 6-9 Buccaneers team that is coached by Greg Schiano. A year ago the Falcons faced a 4-11 Buccaneers team that had quit on then-coach Raheem Morris, resulting in 45-24 beatdown. That likely won’t be the case with Schiano, who wants his players to blitz on kneel-downs because he believes going all-out for four quarters.

This likely impacts Smith’s decision. Since it’s highly likely the Bucs will be playing to win, it’s important that the Falcons do so. Both of the Falcons losses have come to division opponents. The Falcons don’t want that to continue this week. While it will have little effect on this season, it could have sweeping effects for the future of this team. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers indicated that the players in the Panthers locker room believed they were the better team than the Falcons prior to their Week 14 matchup. And the Falcons proceeded to have their worst performance of the season, lending credence to Hardy’s comments. Next year, the Panthers will be no less confident when it comes to facing the Falcons. The Bucs and Falcons played a tight game in Week 12, and the Falcons don’t want to give the Bucs any incentive come 2013 that they might be a better team with a season-ending win.

Smith’s statement indicate that he is not only focused on this season, but also future seasons. Smith talks a lot about “the process” and this decision to play to win is an aspect of that. What he is essentially telling his players is that they must be mentally tough each and every week. Something they were not a few weeks ago against Carolina after a 10-day layoff.  Julio Jones basically admitted this:

“It’s really not about them. It’s about us. It’s the little things. We can get bored. We lost against Carolina. We were kinda bored with it — looking at their record — I just think we got bored. There are no excuses because they whooped us, but we can’t let that happen again. We can’t get bored. We have to prepare like we’re playing the best team in the NFL. We gotta go out there and play Falcon football. We gotta execute, and our guys have to be on the same page and play 100 percent.”

This mentality will also serve the team in its immediate future. It’s no secret that the Falcons have struggled in the playoffs. And part of that may be due to a lack of preparation. If/when the Falcons do succeed in January, it will require great mental focus. It’s hard to instill that in a team, when you purposefully take games off.

The Falcons will play to win and hope they can build a big lead and thus be able to pull their starters as they have done in past season finales. It won’t be an easy task against the Schiano-led Buccaneers, but it starts with Smith telling his players to give 100% effort this week.

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Aaron Freeman
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