Atlanta Falcons tight end and Parkview grad Michael Palmer, center right, celebrates his touchdown with tight end Tony Gonzalez during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Detroit, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
FLOWERY BRANCH — Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith rewarded his players with three days off after they earned the NFC's top seed.
As Smith sees it, the Falcons need as much rest as possible before they host a divisional round game in three weeks.
"It is a grind through four preseason games and 16 regular season games," Smith said on Sunday. "If you're fortunate enough to play in that second season, you want to be as fresh as you can be."
When Atlanta (13-2) returns to practice on Wednesday, Smith will begin to determine how much the starters will play when Tampa Bay (6-9) visits the Georgia Dome next Sunday.
Some decisions might not be made until late in the week, but it seems unlikely that quarterback Matt Ryan and other valuable starters will take every snap against the Buccaneers.
Either way, Smith wants to see how focused his players are in practice.
If they prepare as well as they did before blowing out the New York Giants two weeks ago and taking a 31-18 victory Saturday night at Detroit, the Falcons should be able to build a quick lead on Tampa Bay.
But that was hardly the case at Carolina on Dec. 9 when Atlanta played a sloppy game — offensively, defensively and on special teams — for the first time this season.
The Falcons were coming off an emotional home victory over New Orleans the week before to win the NFC South title, but they looked lethargic against the Panthers.
Smith said the team can't afford to waste the Tampa Bay game as an opportunity to improve.
"We're going to play the game to win," he said. "That's how we're going to approach it. All games are important, and in terms of the importance, does it have no bearing? It really does because we want to win every time we go out and play."
Except for an unproductive third quarter at Detroit, Atlanta essentially dominated the Lions by following a script that's worked well this season — start fast, win the turnover margin, avoid penalties and close with a flourish.
In the first half, Ryan completed 15 of 16 passes for 184 yards, Roddy White outran the coverage on two long touchdown catches and Julio Jones scored the third TD by getting both feet down in the back of the end zone.
Another reason the Falcons led 21-6 at halftime: Fumbles forced by Corey Peters and John Abraham and recovered by Peria Jerry and Robert McClain.
The offense followed each takeaway with a touchdown.
"We had to come out here and win this game," Jones said. "We slipped up against Carolina looking at their record and everything. And this is another team that doesn't have a really good record but I mean it's the NFL. We've got to come out here and play every (time)."
Turnovers weren't the only means for success on defense. Late in the first quarter, cornerback Dunta Robinson stopped Kevin Smith 10 yards short of a first down to force a field goal. Early in the fourth, Peters tackled quarterback Matthew Stafford 2 yards short to force another field goal.
Ryan and the offense used up all but 12 seconds of the next 10-plus minutes — the only Detroit snap ending with Asante Samuel's interception — to take a 15-point lead.
"I thought we did a great job of it on that (second) drive in the fourth quarter," Ryan said. "We converted a couple of third downs, kept it going and were able to punch it in. That was a huge momentum changer."
If the Falcons can keep their momentum going with sharp focus in practice next week, Smith believes they won't suffer a letdown similar to the one that torpedoed their 2010 season with a blowout loss to Green Bay in the playoffs.
Atlanta had the No. 1 seed then, too, but Smith plans to change the practice routine after the Tampa Bay game. He indicated that players seemed overworked two years ago during the playoff bye week.
"We'll handle it differently with our workload and the days that we're going to work during our bye week and what our schedule will be," Smith said. "We're not going to do anything like we did the last time."