Buccaneers, Falcons not content with playing out string

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Dirk Koetter doesn’t think it benefits him or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to wonder what might have been.

Win or lose Sunday’s season finale against NFC South-rival Atlanta, the Bucs (5-10) will miss the playoffs for the 11th straight year.

The Falcons (6-9) have had a tough go of it, too, though they do have a shot at ending their disappointing season on a three-game winning streak.

The performance of both teams has been impacted by injuries, but inconsistent play has been a factor, too.

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“You can’t play the ‘what if’ game,” said Koetter, who’ll soon learn if he has accomplished enough in three seasons to keep his job.

The Bucs have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked passing attack despite Jameis Winston beginning the season serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy and then struggling to hold onto his starting job.

The defense has performed better, too, since Koetter fired ex-Falcons coach Mike Smith as defensive coordinator in October. Still, he insists it serves no good purpose to second-guess whether he waited too long to make the move.

“I do not play the ‘what if’ game, ever, because it doesn’t do any good,” Koetter reiterated. “You can’t change what’s already done.”

Quinn led Atlanta to the Super Bowl just two years ago. The Falcons lost several key starters on defense early, and injured running back Devonta Freeman appeared in only two games before being placed on injured reserve.

A five-game losing streak ruined the prospect of rallying for a playoff berth, however Matt Ryan led victories over Arizona and Carolina the past two weeks and a victory Sunday would enable the Falcons to finish on a positive note.

“I’m really proud of the fight of our team. I think they have demonstrated resolve and leadership when things are at their hardest,” Quinn said.

“I think what I told them, all of this will serve a higher purpose in the end,” the Falcons coach added. “Through the years, I’ve seen when that’s not the case, and it’s tough to get it back, but this team fights. We’ve never backed off.”

The Bucs have lost three straight, 10 of 13 overall following a 2-0 start with Ryan Fitzpatrick filling in during Winston’s suspension.

Winston regained his starting job only to be benched and re-inserted into the lineup again. The No. 1 overall pick from the 2015 draft has thrown for nine TDs vs. three interceptions over his last six games — five of them starts.

Koetter, who’s 19-28 since taking over the Bucs in 2016, said his sole focus is on putting the Bucs in the best position possible to be successful against Atlanta.

“We’re in the same situation the Falcons are in. These guys are all pros. These guys (are) all getting paid to do a job and they’re always being evaluated, whether it be by me or by the GM (Jason Licht) or by ownership or by other teams around the league,” Koetter said. “I don’t think you can ever let your guard down in the NFL.”

Some things to know about the Falcons and Bucs matchup:

WINSTON’S FUTURE?

The Bucs face a number of potentially tough decisions in the upcoming offseason, including whether Winston is the team’s quarterback of the future. The fourth-year pro is due to earn nearly $21 million next season, although it’s only guaranteed in the event of injury.

While Winston has shared playing time with Fitzpatrick, who’s 2-5 as the starter this season, No. 3 quarterback Ryan Griffin is expected to be active against the Falcons. Griffin has been a backup in the NFL for five years, but has never taken a snap in a regular-season game.

“I think Ryan Griffin is a really good quarterback. He tears it up in practice every day, but he’s never gotten a chance to prove it in a real game,” Koetter said, adding he’d like to play him “if the opportunity presents itself.”

COULD BE HIS TIME

Falcons running back Brian Hill might get the bulk of the work with Tevin Coleman nursing a groin injury. Hill capitalized on his chance in last week’s win at Carolina, averaging nearly 8 yards a carry before breaking free for a 60-yard gain on the next-to-last play. Hill, a fifth-round draft pick two years ago, is in his second stint with the team. He’s getting a long look with Freeman out for most of the season and Ito Smith sidelined since Week 15.

ALL ABOUT THE BALL

Quinn is grateful his defense is showing again that it can create takeaways.

The Falcons were plus-2 for the season after winning at Washington to improve to 4-4, but they didn’t show life again until the playoffs were out of reach. Despite having a plus-5 turnover margin in the last two games, the defense didn’t recover a fumble until Week 13. Safety Damontae Kazee has six interceptions to tie for third in the NFL, but the rest of the team has combined for just eight.

“That part, over the last two games, has come alive and felt more like we’d like it to,” Quinn said. “It’s been an area that’s directly impacted our record more so than any other.”

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AP Sports Writer George Henry in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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