ATLANTA - That the Atlanta Falcons lost 22-17 to Tampa Bay inside the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon was not completely unexpected.
Having clinched home field for the NFC playoffs, the Birds were due a letdown, if not an entire afternoon off for their starters.
That they lost playing those starters the entire 60 minutes is another matter, however.
Read that again: The starters -- including quarterback Matt Ryan, arguably the most indispensable Falcon of them all -- played the entire 60 minutes against a Buccaneers bunch that had lost five straight entering this one.
And because of that -- because Atlanta coach Mike Smith insisted on "Playing this game to win" -- Falcons Nation will almost certainly find sleep difficult as Atlanta practices through its playoff bye week before hosting a divisional playoff game on the weekend of Jan. 12-13.
Can the fans really believe "this is a different team," as linebacker Sean Weatherspoon claimed after Sunday's setback, the player possibly mindful that the New Orleans Saints lost their final three regular-season games the year they won the Super Bowl?
Or was this a warning sign that the Falcons are still the same regular-season wonders they've been since Smith and Ryan arrived at the start of the 2008 season, still pitching an Oh-fer come the playoffs, now 0-3 in the postseason?
"We didn't play to our standards," Smith said after Atlanta fell to 13-3, still the best record in the NFC. "[But] the second season is getting ready to start. Everybody is 0-0. We're very excited about that as a football team."
They didn't seem excited on Sunday, which was understandable, even if Smith had told anyone willing to listen that his starters wouldn't have the day off. There's a big difference in wanting to play and having to play and though no Falcon criticized his coach, you had to wonder if their hearts were in this one.
"We didn't match their intensity," said tight end Tony Gonzalez, who usually trumps his opponent's intensity. "But at the end of the day, we're still the No. 1 seed and still a very good football team."
That seemed obvious the last two weeks, when the Falcons flattened the New York Giants, 34-0, then disassembled Detroit, 31-18, in Motown.
But this is also the team that fell meekly to Carolina a week before that Giants win. Smith said this Tampa loss was nothing like that one, but it often looked that way, especially with all those starters on the field.
These were Atlanta's best being bested by a very mediocre Bucs bunch, even if the Falcons struggled to win at Tampa (24-23) in late November.
A single quote from Atlanta defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux to cause concern: "We wanted to use this game as a stepping stone to help create momentum for the playoffs."
Instead, they've once more created doubt.
Yet is this really a red flag for Falcons Nation to prepare for another playoff plummet?
By playing his starters -- and having two of his most important defenders, defensive lineman John Abraham and defensive back Dunta Robinson, taken to the locker room with injuries -- has Smith possibly threatened this sometimes powerful team's often-fragile chemistry?
Or is this is a red herring, a singular Sunday in which the players were simply unable to muster the emotion and execution needed to win on every given Sunday in the NFL?
"Is it right or wrong?" Gonzalez asked rhetorically when questioned about the starters playing. "I don't know. It's up to the coach."
If Abraham's and Robinson's injuries really are minor in nature (as they are believed to be at this time), and Gonzalez is right that, "We'll be a lot better two weeks from now," all this will soon be forgotten.
But should those injuries be worse than expected and the Falcons become one-and-done in the postseason for the fourth time in four tries under Smith, expect the coach to be up to his neck in second-guessers over how he approached Tampa Bay.
"To go out there ... and not try to win is counterintuitive to guys in that locker room and counterintuitive to us as football coaches," said Smith.
To go out there and not win in the playoffs yet again could be counterproductive to lengthy future employment for those same coaches.