FLOWERY BRANCH — Coach Mike Smith has led the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs in three of his four seasons.
Right now, he couldn’t care less.
Smith spent Tuesday trying to find answers for major breakdowns following the Falcons’ blowout loss the night before in New Orleans.
A 45-16 defeat left him determined to fix these problems before the postseason begins in two weeks.
The Falcons (9-6) host Tampa Bay (4-11) in the regular-season finale on Sunday and will learn later that day where they will travel to open the playoffs.
But Smith has more immediate concerns after watching his team lose badly to the Saints.
“We did not match their physicality,” Smith said, “and I don’t think we played real smart either.”
Atlanta’s offense, which had scored a combined 72 points in the previous two games, was inconsistent:
Before the score was lopsided, the Falcons had to settle for field goals on three red zone possessions and went three-and-out both times the defense picked off Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Running back Michael Turner, the NFL’s sixth-leading rusher, finished with 39 yards on 11 carries.
Rookie receiver Julio Jones lost a fourth-quarter fumble that New
Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins returned for a 30-yard touchdown that put the game out of reach.
The Falcons’ defense was worse:New Orleans, which leads the NFL in third down rate, converted its first nine chances and finished 10 for 13 as Atlanta failed to match the Saints’ frenetic substitution patterns.
The Falcons were a mess in the red zone, allowing four touchdowns in six opportunities. It seemed appropriate that Brees ended the night by setting the league’s single-season passing record with a 9-yard TD pass on second-and-goal.
And after falling to 2-6 against New Orleans in his tenure as Atlanta’s coach, Smith was frustrated by his team’s inability to pressure Brees consistently. He was only sacked once.
“We had a couple of opportunities with blitzes in which we had some free runners at them and we did not make the play,” he said.
“But our pass rush was not what it needs to be. You can’t give that guy time if you’re playing matchup coverages, man coverages and if he gets time, those guys are going to get open. That was the case on a number of occasions.”
With so much at stake in the division, right end John Abraham never believed the Falcons would begin the night playing timidly on defense.
But even though a win over New Orleans would’ve given Atlanta the chance to win the NFC South and host a playoff game, Abraham wondered if his team was overly confident after beating Jacksonville 41-14 the week before.
“I don’t know why we came out a little sluggish, but we did,” Abraham said. “And in the end they got the momentum and held onto it.”
Whether the Falcons have some kind of identity crisis remains to be seen. They had won four of five since losing in overtime to New Orleans six weeks ago, but have just two victories this season over teams with winning records (Detroit and Tennessee).
Tampa Bay, which visits the Georgia Dome on Sunday, isn’t likely to give Atlanta much of a gauge. The Buccaneers have lost nine straight and are coming off a 32-point road loss at Carolina.
Smith promises, though, that he will keep his team focused on Tampa Bay and not on the playoffs. Atlanta is 0-2 in the postseason during his tenure.
“I can assure you that for our organization, our goal is not just to make the playoffs,” Smith said.
“Our goals are much higher than that, and we have a roadmap that you have to follow to get there, meaning that you’ve got games to play and we didn’t play very good last night. I think it is a humbling experience for all of us because we didn’t play Atlanta Falcon football like we know we’re capable of playing.”