Los Angeles (4-8) will host Atlanta (7-5) on Sunday, in a game the Falcons desperately need to win to improve their postseason chances. The Rams return to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum following an unsuccessful two-game road trip that culminated in a 26-10 loss to the Patriots last week. Sentiments of dysfunction have emerged, as Jeff Fisher’s team has now lost three games in a row and seven of its last eight.
Los Angeles will look to put an end to its losing ways, attempting to play the role of spoiler against Atlanta, who is tied atop the NFC South with Tampa Bay. While the Rams are no longer a threat to contend for the NFC West crown or a playoff berth, a win over the Falcons would provide some much-needed momentum to close out the season. A victory also could give a restless fan base something to cheer about, while potentially help ease some of the growing tensions within the franchise.
The Falcons enter this game at a critical point after last week’s crushing 29-28 loss at home to the Chiefs because of a botched two-point conversion just after Atlanta took a late lead. The loss allowed red-hot Tampa Bay to tie the Falcons record-wise atop the NFC South standings. Atlanta owns the divisional tiebreaker over the Buccaneers, but Tampa Bay is the one with al l of the momentum having won four games in a row. Given Los Angeles’ struggles this season, this is a game the Falcons can ill afford to lose.
Atlanta at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 11 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Atlanta -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the Rams Test a Potentially Short-Handed Atlanta Passing Game?
Despite a season of dominance, the NFL’s No. 3-ranked passing attack (302 ypg) could be in for a test this week against a solid Rams defense that ranks ninth (231 ypg) against the pass. Not only has Los Angeles been solid against the pass, the Rams also may get to reap the benefits of a depleted Falcons arsenal on Sunday.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu has already been ruled out with a groin injury. Left tackle Jake Matthews is dealing with a sprained knee that could prevent him from protecting Matt Ryan’s blind side. But the biggest concern is the turf toe that Julio Jones, the league’s most productive wideout, is dealing with. While Jones is expected to play, he won’t be at 100 percent, which doesn’t bode well considering he already was due for a challenge matched up against Trumaine Johnson, one of the league’s better cornerbacks.
Ryan will still have options to throw to, including budding playmaker Taylor Gabriel, but the circumstances could dictate some adjustments in the game plan, especially depending on Jones’ contributions. Gabriel, in particular, may have to deal with more attention than usual because of Sanu’s absence and Jones being limited. It’s difficult to predict exactly what Atlanta’s passing game might look like on Sunday given the health issues, and you know Los Angeles’ defense won’t make things any easier for Ryan and company.
2. The Atlanta Run Game vs. Los Angeles Run Defense
The good news is that even if a depleted Falcons passing attack has issues, Atlanta should able to supplement a good portion of any lost production in that regard with a solid running game. The duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman provides a formidable threat to a leaky Rams run defense that has struggled mightily of late. The Falcons are ninth in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 110 yards per game on the ground and have been even better recently, piling up a total of 244 yards and five touchdowns in the last two games alone.
Los Angeles is 21st against the run (114 ypg) on the season, but has been gashed in its last two games. In losses to the Saints and Patriots, the Rams have surrendered 342 rushing yards and three touchdowns. This appears to be a matchup that Atlanta should be able to exploit.
3. Is there hope for Jared Goff and Todd Gurley?
The possibility exists for both Goff and Gurley to have one of their better games against a defense that ranks near the bottom (27th) in total yards allowed per game (382 ypg) and dead last against the pass (281 ypg). Goff is coming off of a lousy performance on the road against New England, but the week prior in New Orleans he posted 214 passing yards and three touchdowns against the Saints. Granted, much of that came in garbage time in a 49-21 blowout loss, but it showed that Goff is capable of exploiting a vulnerable pass defense. And no one has been more vulnerable in that respect than the Falcons.
A favorable matchup awaits Gurley as well. The No. 10 overall pick of last year’s draft has been a huge disappointment after claiming AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2015. Gurley has yet to run for more than 85 yards in a game and has a total of four touchdowns. However, the opportunity to turn things around, at least for one game, is there against a middle-of-the-road Atlanta run defense. The Falcons have been somewhat generous to opposing backs this season, giving up 101 rushing yards per game and 11 touchdowns.
Los Angeles should have an opportunity to improve upon its NFL-low 15 points per game average against an Atlanta defense that has allowed 28 points per contest. That being said, I still don’t see a Rams offense that has produced just four touchdowns at home all season being able to outscore the Falcons. With or without Julio Jones, Matt Ryan is talented enough to get the most out of his available targets. And even if the Atlanta’s normally potent passing attack is challenged, the running game is more than capable of making up for any serious deficiencies in that regard. With a healthy Jones, this game would probably not be close, but as it stands, the Falcons really need this win and should have just enough firepower to not only pull it off, but also cover the spread on the road.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Rams 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.