FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Falcons are accustomed to making a late-season run to the playoffs.
But as the Falcons chase a playoff spot, they're not looking at Monday night's game at Tampa Bay or any part of their closing stretch as anything like last season.
Nevermind that they were 7-5 last season before rolling to four straight regular-season victories and playoff wins over Seattle and Green Bay to reach the Super Bowl.
The Falcons know last season's run doesn't guarantee anything now.
"That does nothing. You've spent that money. You've got to go earn new money, man," safety Ricardo Allen said. "That does nothing for you. We're playing different teams at different times in different locations.
"You can take it that we've done it before, but you've still got to put the work in; it just doesn't transfer. It's not like rollover minutes."
Coming off a 20-17 win over the Saints last Thursday that pulled the Falcons (8-5) within a game of New Orleans (9-4) and Carolina (9-4) in the NFC South, Atlanta will be without starting left guard Andy Levitre (triceps) and possibly backup running back Tevin Coleman (concussion).
With wins over the Bucs (4-9), Saints, and Panthers, the Falcons can become division champs again, and even without such a run they're in the wild-card race and hold tiebreakers over Green Bay, Detroit, Seattle and Dallas.
They beat the Bucs handily on Nov. 26 in Atlanta when wide receiver Julio Jones caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, so the Falcons will not be surprised if Tampa Bay's coverage scheme — designed by defensive co-ordinator and former Atlanta head coach Mike Smith — looks different.
"Obviously, Julio went for some big numbers last time we played them," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Maybe there's some cloud coverage or double-team for him, but as far as fronts, blitzes etc., what they've shown through the year is probably going to be there Monday night."
The Falcons have a long way to go to resemble the offensive juggernaut of last season, when they outscored opponents 154-75 over the final four regular-season games and in the playoffs handled the Seahawks 36-20 and the Packers 44-21.
Atlanta's offence has been spotty, and the team is 0-5 when scoring fewer than 20 points a game. Last season, the Falcons scored 23 points or more in nearly every game, 18 in all when counting the playoffs and a 34-28 overtime loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
The defence has improved, ranking No. 7 in the NFL in yards allowed per game (319.8), but has generated just 11 takeaways and the Falcons are minus-5 in turnover margin. Coach Dan Quinn believes that his team has not yet played its best.
"I agree with Coach Q 100 per cent," said running back Devonta Freeman, who missed the first Tampa game while in the concussion protocol. "On offence, we could be more consistent, take care of the ball better."
It took a leaping, last-minute interception in the end zone by linebacker Deion Jones to preserve the Falcons' win over the Saints, a game made closer by three interceptions by Ryan.
The Bucs are in last place, but Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston has had success against the Falcons. He's 3-1 with a 104.3 passer rating in his three-year career, although he missed the game last month with a sprained throwing shoulder.
Against other NFL teams, Winston is 14-24 as a starter with a career passer rating of 89.7.
Quinn, however, knows any past success isn't always relevant to this matchup.
"I guess there could be (carry over from one year to the next), but it's something that we don't really visit on as a team." he said. "When you play division teams, you just about throw records out and know this is going to be the battle for it.
"They know you, you know them, you don't like each other that well, and you go battle for it."
NOTES: Vic Beasley, who led the NFL last season with 15 1/2 sacks primarily from the defensive end spot, has recently played more at outside linebacker, even dropping into coverage, because a midseason knee injury to linebacker Duke Riley. Quinn said Thursday that Beasley, who has four sacks in 11 games, will play more at defensive end, "now that we've got some people healthy back, we're going to try to feature him in the roles that he does best." ... In addition to Levitre and Coleman missing practice Thursday, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who leads the team with nine sacks, was held out with a strained hamstring. Starting wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (knee), starting right guard Wes Schweitzer (groin) and rookie reserve tight end Eric Saubert (back) were limited. ... The Falcons waived cornerback C.J. Goodwin and signed cornerback Deji Olatoye, who played five games for the team last season. Olatoye recently played three games with the Bucs.
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