FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith rewarded his players with three days off after they earned the NFC's top seed.
As Smith sees it, the Falcons need as much rest as possible before they host a divisional round game in three weeks.
"It is a grind through four preseason games and 16 regular season games," Smith said on Sunday. "If you're fortunate enough to play in that second season, you want to be as fresh as you can be."
When Atlanta (13-2) returns to practice on Wednesday, Smith will begin to determine how much the starters will play when Tampa Bay (6-9) visits the Georgia Dome next Sunday.
Some decisions might not be made until late in the week, but it seems unlikely that quarterback Matt Ryan and other valuable starters will take every snap against the Buccaneers.
Either way, Smith wants to see how focused his players are in practice.
If they prepare as well as they did before blowing out the New York Giants two weeks ago and taking a 31-18 victory Saturday night at Detroit, the Falcons should be able to build a quick lead on Tampa Bay.
But that was hardly the case at Carolina on Dec. 9 when Atlanta played a sloppy game — offensively, defensively and on special teams — for the first time this season.
The Falcons were coming off an emotional home victory over New Orleans the week before to win the NFC South title, but they looked lethargic against the Panthers.
Smith said the team can't afford to waste the Tampa Bay game as an opportunity to improve.
"We're going to play the game to win," he 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."
Except for an unproductive third quarter at Detroit, Atlanta essentially dominated the Lions by following a script that's worked well this season — start fast, win the turnover margin, avoid penalties and close with a flourish.
In the first half, Ryan completed 15 of 16 passes for 184 yards, Roddy White outran the coverage on two long touchdown catches and Julio Jones scored the third TD by getting both feet down in the back of the end zone.