ATLANTA — The Falcons heard questions all week about the best way to approach their last regular-season game: Go for the win or protect starters for the playoffs.
Coach Mike Smith went for the win, sticking with his starters all the way, but the Falcons lost the game and two key defensive players to injuries.
Josh Freeman threw a touchdown pass to Mike Williams and Doug Martin ran for 142 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown run, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 22-17 victory over Atlanta on Sunday.
The Falcons (13-3) had little to play for as they already have home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. Smith’s hope was to gain momentum for his team, which will have a first-round bye in the playoffs next week.
“You want to go out and play your best,” Smith said. “To go out there and not play your best is counterintuitive to guys in that locker room and it’s counterintuitive to us as football coaches.”
Smith said he never wavered even after defensive end John Abraham, Atlanta’s best pass rusher, left with an apparent left ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Abraham couldn’t put his weight on the ankle as he was helped off the field.
Abraham’s injury came after starting cornerback Dunta Robinson suffered a head injury in the first quarter and did not return. His helmet hit Martin on the running back’s 3-yard gain. Robinson walked off the field and was escorted to the locker room.
Asked if he considered removing his starters after Abraham’s injury, Smith said “Absolutely not. We’ve said from the very beginning that we were going to continue to play this game to win.”
Smith did not believe the injuries to Abraham and Robinson are serious.
The Falcons’ strategy impressed Tampa Bay safety Ronde Barber.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit, playing their guys all the way through,” Barber said. “They’ve got a bye week, obviously, but they gave us their best. We knew they were trying to win.”
Robinson, who spoke briefly to reporters, said: “You always try to win football games. … We’ll bounce back. We’ll be fine.”
The Buccaneers (7-9) snapped a five-game losing streak for a positive end to a disappointing season. Tampa Bay was 6-4 and in playoff contention before a 24-23 home loss to the Falcons on Nov. 25 started the skid.
“Obviously, ending the season like this and not making the playoffs, it’s unacceptable and it’s not where we want to be, but I was really happy with the way guys finished today,” Freeman said.
Freeman completed 19 of 35 passes for 222 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Freeman returned to his early season form after throwing four interceptions in each of the last two losses.
“We weren’t trying to do anything creative or special,” Freeman said. “Everybody was just sticking with their job, and we did it for four quarters and we came out with the win.”
Asked the difference between the win and the last two weeks, Freeman said “The average stuff. We didn’t turn it over.”
Matt Ryan’s only touchdown pass was his 7-yard throw to Harry Douglas on a fourth-down play with about 7 minutes remaining to cut Tampa Bay’s lead to five points. Atlanta’s defense held, and the Falcons took possession at their 19 with 3:44 remaining.
The Falcons gained one first down before Ryan’s fourth-down pass for Tony Gonzalez fell incomplete with about 2 minutes remaining.
Ryan completed 28 of 44 passes for 238 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Ryan had difficulty finding open receivers against Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranks last in the league against the pass. The Buccaneers held Atlanta to 65 yards rushing.
Martin capped his strong rookie season with 28 carries for 142 yards.
The Buccaneers led 16-3 when Asante Samuel intercepted a pass from Freeman late in the third quarter. Samuel’s 11-yard return to the Buccaneers 21 set up Michael Turner’s 17-yard scoring run for Atlanta’s first touchdown.
Turner gained 1 yard on his other five carries.
Tampa Bay answered quickly with an 80-yard touchdown drive capped by Martin’s 40-yard run. Martin made a spin move to break a tackle attempt by Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud.
It was difficult for the Falcons to carry through with Smith’s stated plan to treat this like any other game. With nothing on the line, there were empty seats in the Georgia Dome and little atmosphere to greet the players out of the tunnel.
“It kind of had a little different feel to it,” defensive end Kroy Biermann said. “But the bottom line, Tampa Bay came out ready to play and we came out a little flat.”
The Falcons announced 69,644 tickets were distributed. Many were left unused.
The Falcons’ only first-half points Matt Bryant’s 28-yard field goal.
NOTES: Martin was the only Tampa Bay running back with a carry. WR Tiquan Underwood and Freeman each had one carry for 1 yard. … Bryant’s first-quarter field goal was his 33rd of the season, setting a Falcons record. Jay Feely had 32 field goals in 2002. … Tony Gonzalez reached 90 catches to become the first NFL tight end with five seasons of 90 or more receptions. … Ryan’s TD pass gave him a team-record 32 for the season. Steve Bartkowski threw 31 TD passes in 1980. … Jacquizz Rodgers had a game-high eight catches for 50 yards and led Atlanta with 28 yards rushing on five carries.