AT­LANTA, TAMPA BAY DON’T PLAN TO BACK OFF ANY IN SEA­SON FI­NALE.

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Sports - BY FRED GOODALL AP writer Ge­orge Henry in At­lanta con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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.

“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 three­game 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.” 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 nextto-last play. Hill, a fifthround 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.

VER­NON BRYANT Dal­las Morn­ing News via TNS

The Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers will have a de­ci­sion to make on the fu­ture of quar­ter­back Jameis Win­ston. The fourth-year pro is due to earn nearly $21mil­lion next sea­son, al­though it’s only guar­an­teed in the event of in­jury.

JOHN AMIS AP

The At­lanta Fal­cons and coach Dan Quinn head to Tampa Bay hop­ing to close out a dis­ap­point­ing sea­son with a three-game win­ning streak af­ter a five-game skid ru­ined the prospect of rallying for a play­off berth.

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