Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 12/31/12
When can a loss be better for a professional football team than a win? Most NFL players and coaches likely would say never. Unless, somewhere during the loss a new team star who was on the trading block is discovered.Which still translates to pretty much never.As I watched the Atlanta Falcons lose 22-17 at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the last regular season game, I tried to look at both the good and bad for Atlanta in it's third loss of the season.Going in, the Falcons had already earned everything they could as far as playoff placement and home-field advantage was concerned. So, I was curious about how head coach Mike Smith would handle his personnel in what many would consider a meaningless last game of the season.My thinking was that if the Falcons had come out red hot and built a big lead in the first half, most of the starters would have been sitting after the first possession of the third quarter. After the poor first half showing, pulling the first-string would have sent a bad message. The fact that coach Smith left many starters in for the entire game was a decision I agree completely with.Still, after the game it started. The expected comments from the talking heads complaining that Smith took unnecessary risks with his star players in a meaningless game.Already, there are opinions written about how the two injured starters - cornerback Dunta Robinson and defensive end John Abraham - could be less than 100 percent in the Falcons' first playoff game in two weeks.  For the coach, it is always a no-win proposition with the media in these cases. Rest your best players in this type game and they speculate whether the team will be sharp in the playoffs. Play the game to win and the talk is about the risk you take on a meaningless game.Coach Smith handled it the way he thought best for his team moving into the playoffs. A bold decision that I applaud him for.There is no such thing as a meaningless game in the NFL. If the Falcons had won yesterday, it would have been 14 out of 16 total and 8-0 at home this year. To my knowledge, no other Falcons team has ever done that.In addition, the team played better overall in the second half of the game. They even had an opportunity to win in the final three minutes.Something you would not have thought possible, judging by how they played early. So, even in a loss, the team ended the game on the up-swing.Overall, the defensive results were up and down during the game. They gave up too many 3rd-down plays in the first half, yet played well overall in the second.The defense also gave up more big plays than you would expect. Of Tampa's 144 yards rushing, 40 yards and a TD came on one play and 76 of their 222 total passing yards came on three others.The offense got back on track in every area over a poor first half. They ended the game playing well, even if they didn't drive down and win it.Some other opportunities for learning and improvement to take from this loss include:Being in a struggle with a team they had already beaten this year should serve as a very good reminder to this team and their fan-base. This is the NFL. A league where any team can beat you on any given Sunday.Losing their first game at home of the year should supply a much needed wake up call. Again, in this league, home-field is nice, but not necessarily always an advantage.Having the starters stay out there and win or lose the ball game eliminates any players thinking that playing the second unit is why they lost. No second-teamers messed up crutch here.There is no doubt the Falcons were playing to win - and they got beat - by a team that didn't make the tournament. A little humility going into playoff practices can serve as a wake up call for all.In the Falcons' three most recent playoff appearances, they have been eliminated, the last two embarrassingly so. Leading up to each of those games, the coaching staff played it pretty much how the book says to.This time, coach Smith chose to go a different direction. Only time will tell if his decision about how to play a so-called meaningless last game was a good one. Still, Good or bad, it was a gutsy call.Atlanta is fortunate to have a head coach who has the intestinal fortitude to try another approach to win. He is hungry for their first playoff win in his other-wise successful tenure. The Falcons are also fortunate to have ownership and a GM smart enough to let a good coach do things his way. Who knows how difficult it was internally for the Falcons players to get up for the Tampa game? They knew going in their playoff hopes could not benefit or be hurt.By the same token, the Falcons responded extremely well after their loss to Carolina. In their next game, they gave the New York Giants a 34-0 beat down like they had not received in 20 years.If you are a Falcons fan, there are many more positive aspects to the season ending loss to the Buccaneers than to any other loss in their 45-year history.
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