The Falcons and Buccaneers met in the season finale two years ago going in different directions. The same scenario is playing out in 2011.
Atlanta was trying to capture its first back-to-back winning seasons in team history in the last game of the 2009 campaign. With three games remaining, the injury-plagued Birds were staring at a 6-7 record, no playoff berth in sight, and there were two roads they could have travelled.
Head coach Mike Smith firmly grabbed the wheel and fearlessly steered the Falcons down the right path.
Smith gets a huge amount of credit for making sure the Birds were positively motivated and focused to finish the season strong despite knowing the playoffs were not a possibility. Smith's troops won a tough road trip at the New York Jets (who would go on to advance to the AFC Championship Game) in a close contest, 10-7, in Week 15, then blew out the Buffalo Bills, 31-3, in Week 16 to get to eight wins.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, was struggling through a rough season which saw them drop their first seven games. The Bucs entered the final game with a 3-12 record and looking for answers.
Falcons backup RB Jason Snelling, subbing for an injured Michael Turner, pounded the Bucs for a career-high 147 rushing yards while QB Matt Ryan tossed two touchdowns to stake the Birds to a 20-10 win for victory number nine and an exclamation point on their second straight winning season. The Bucs finished 3-13.
Similar fates have struck both teams again this year.
The surging Falcons have captured seven of their last 10 games and are eyeing another 10-win season, the third under Smith's watch in just four seasons.
On the other sideline, the Buccaneers have lost nine straights games and are limping into Atlanta with a 4-11 mark.
Which direction will each team choose to take in this 2011 regular season finale? The Falcons are looking to take a similar route as 2009 as they strive for momentum heading into the postseason.