What it means: For the Falcons, it means absolutely nothing. They already had clinched everything there was to be clinched for the postseason, so the loss didn’t hurt them. This game was much more significant for the Bucs. They had lost their past five games and appeared to be in a deep funk that had the potential to set the tone for a dismal offseason. A strong showing on the road against the NFC’s best team changes a lot of that. The Bucs finished 7-9 and carry a little positive momentum into the offseason. Overall, you have to consider coach Greg Schiano’s first season a success.
Why bother? I still don’t get the decision by Atlanta coach Mike Smith to play almost all of his starters in a game that didn’t matter. There was nothing to be gained and plenty was risked, and that could end up haunting the Falcons. Cornerback Dunta Robinson left the game with a head injury and didn’t return. Veteran cornerback Asante Samuel also appeared to aggravate a shoulder injury that’s been bothering him for weeks, but he did return. Defensive end John Abraham, who never should have been on the field so long, suffered what appeared to be an ankle injury in the fourth quarter and was carted off the field. The Falcons could have gotten the same outcome -- and no injuries to their starters -- if they had started their backups. If Robinson, Samuel and Abraham aren’t healthy for the playoffs, Smith’s decision to play them is going to draw lots of criticism.
Milestone time: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman became the first player in franchise history to throw for 4,000 yards in a season. He also set a franchise record for touchdown passes in a season and became the team’s all-time leader in touchdown passes.
What’s next: For the Falcons, they get a bye in the first-round of the playoffs. They’ll host a game in the second week of the postseason. For the Bucs, the season is over, but there’s a lot of work to do. The first order of business is signing defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller before they can depart as free agents. Then, the Bucs need to start rebuilding a secondary that was historically bad through free agency and the draft. Strong safety Mark Barron probably is the only member of the secondary who is guaranteed to have a job next season. Still, no matter how you look at it, the Bucs are in much better shape than they were at this time a year ago.