About the only thing the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams have in common entering their NFC playoff game on Saturday is both teams used victories in Seattle to propel them toward the postseason.
The Falcons (10-6) are still working to take the sting out of the meltdown in last year’s Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan leads a once-prolific offense that has struggled to find consistency under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
The Rams (11-5) are the new kids on the playoff block, led by 31-year-old coach Sean McVay, who turned second-year quarterback Jared Goff from a bust into a solid starting NFL quarterback over the course of one offseason. In fact, Los Angeles resembles the Atlanta attack of last season, as the Rams led the NFL with an average of 29.9 points per game during the regular season.
The juxtaposition of the two franchises makes for an interesting storyline as the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is expecting 70,000 fans for the first NFL playoff game at the stadium in 40 years. Heightening the drama is the 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC) primetime start.
The Falcons have been answering questions about the 25-point blown lead against the Patriots for 11 months, but they nearly didn’t get the opportunity to see the playoff stage for the second consecutive year.
Atlanta needed a victory against the Carolina Panthers last week to secure the final NFC playoff berth and officially knock the Seahawks out of contention. If not for an inconsequential missed field goal at the end of the Seahawks’ game on Sunday, it would have been the Falcons’ three-point victory in Seattle on Nov. 20 that would have proved the tiebreaker.
In some respects, the Falcons could now been seen as playing with house money. They were the third NFC South team to make the field, and they enter the playoffs with very modest expectations nationally — even as the only team in the conference to return to the postseason from last season.
“I love the resiliency and the toughness of this team,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “When you’ve been through some of the fire together, you come out the other side stronger as a brotherhood.”
The Rams have the youngest team in the league, which can be a Catch-22. Postseason experience can be invaluable during the pivotal moments of a playoff game, but Los Angeles is also not burdened by the ghosts of playoffs past.
The young Rams served notice of their immense potential with a 42-7 shellacking of the Seahawks — who had won the NFC West three of the previous four years — in Seattle two weeks ago. Atlanta enters Saturday with 141 combined games of playoff experience on its roster. Los Angeles? Just 21.
“I don’t think it is a concern,” McVay said. “When I say that, I have a whole lot of respect for experience and what that does and the value that it provides. But I do think that we’ve got a confident group, a mature group for a young football team.”
The Falcons have won the past four meetings, the most recent being a 42-14 victory in 2016. But these are two vastly different teams now.
Atlanta still has plenty of firepower on offense with running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and wide receiver Julio Jones, among others. But while the Falcons finished eighth in total yards during the regular season, they ranked just 15th in points per game (22.1). Ryan threw for 4,095 yards but just 20 touchdowns — his fewest since tossing 16 as a rookie in 2008.
He will need that ground game to get off to a strong start. The Rams boast a very talented defensive line and a unit that racked up 48 sacks during the regular season. Meanwhile, Ryan will be playing behind an offensive line that will have Ben Garland starting in place of injured left guard Andy Levitre.
Not an ideal situation with All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald staring at him from across the line of scrimmage.
The Rams would appear to have the edge in balance to go along with the home-field advantage. They also have an MVP candidate in running back Todd Gurley, who led the NFL with 2,093 yards from scrimmage to go with 19 touchdowns during the regular season.
The biggest X-factor remains youth.
“They’re obviously a very good team. But you only feel nerves, you only feel pressure and all that stuff if you don’t prepare,” Rams rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp said. “And we prepare better than anyone else in the league. Everyone in this locker room has been doing everything they can to make sure that when we step on the field this time on Saturday, that we’ve got everything ready to go.
“For us, it’s another game and another opportunity to go out there and execute. Do exactly what we’ve been doing throughout this entire season. So nothing changes for us.”
–By Derek Harper, Field Level Media