The Atlanta Falcons will make the long trip west to face the Los Angeles Rams for a prime-time NFC Wild Card matchup on Saturday. It will mark the first time the Rams have hosted a playoff game inside the famed Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 7, 1979. It also marks the Rams' first playoff appearance since 2004.
That can largely be attributed to first-year head coach Sean McVay, who has spearheaded maybe the most remarkable turnaround in NFL history, transforming an abysmal 4-12 team into an 11-5 division champion. McVay also is responsible for turning the worst offense in the NFL into a scoring machine, averaging a league-best 29.9 points per game in 2017. In fact, this Rams team looks eerily similar to the 2016 Falcons, with more balance and slightly less flash. The one thing the Rams do not have is playoff experience. The youngest team in the NFL is comprised mostly of players making their first-ever trip into the postseason.
Dan Quinn’s Falcons have plenty of postseason experience to draw from after last season’s run to the Super Bowl. But the defending NFC champs have struggled to rekindle the magic formula on offense that played a big role in that successful run. That also made for a difficult road back to the playoffs this season. And competing in the hotly-contested NFC South did little to help their cause. Regardless, the 10-6 Falcons showed resiliency down the stretch, clinching the last wild-card berth with a 22-10 victory over the Panthers to close out the regular season. The question now is, can the Falcons overcome deficiencies that they didn’t have last season to make another run at a Super Bowl? It won’t be easy with the re-energized Rams standing in their path right out of the gate.
NFC Wild Card: No. 6 Atlanta (10-6) at No. 3 Los Angeles (11-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 6 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Los Angeles -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jared Goff vs. Matt Ryan
Goff appeared destined for bust status following a terrible rookie season. But the former No. 1 overall draft pick has undergone a monumental turnaround in year two under the tutelage of head coach Sean McVay, throwing for 3,804 yards with 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 15 games this season.
Goff will look to extend that success into the postseason on Saturday night against a solid Falcons pass defense. A pass defense that really stepped up in the final two weeks of the regular season, tallying four interceptions and limiting Drew Brees and Cam Newton to a total of two touchdown passes. Goff does possess the physical tools and supporting cast to get the job done. But his biggest challenge may be overcoming the pressure of the big playoff stage in prime-time.
The big stage won’t be an issue for Ryan. But his inability to find the end zone is cause for concern. Ryan has been able to move the chains with his arm all season, but touchdown passes have been difficult to come by in 2017. He has just five over his last six games, and he hasn’t thrown for more than two touchdowns in any game this season. A far cry from his 2016 MVP campaign.
On Saturday, Ryan will have to contend with an opportunistic Rams defense that racked up 18 interceptions and 48 sacks during the regular season. The Rams also rank in the top five in regard to opponent's passer rating (78.4). It’s a matchup that Ryan can overcome, but he may need to return to MVP form to make it happen. That will require a standout performance from his top target (Julio Jones) as well.
2. Todd Gurley vs. Falcons' defense
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks on Saturday night, but perhaps the most significant matchup will be the one between Gurley (right) and a stout Atlanta run defense. The Rams are a perfect 6-0 this season when Gurley runs for 100 yards. The Falcons are 7-1 when they hold opposing teams to less than that.
Gurley will be matched up against a defense that was particularly stingy down the stretch, allowing just 76.7 rushing yards per game and a single touchdown on the ground over its last four contests. And as far individual running backs are concerned, Jay Ajayi (in Week 6) is the only player that has run for more 100 yards against the Falcons this season. However, Gurley is the best running back Atlanta has faced and not only did he finish second in rushing (1,305), he's was tops in rushing touchdowns (13). And he did all of this damage in just 15 games after sitting out the regular-season finale against San Francisco.
The NFL MVP candidate also is a viable threat as a receiver out of the backfield. He racked up 64 receptions for 788 yards and six touchdowns, bringing his grand total of yards from scrimmage to an NFL-best 2,093 with 19 total touchdowns (also No. 1). That is an issue of concern for an Atlanta defense that allowed more receptions (107) by running backs than any other team in the NFL in 2017. That could provide the edge Gurley needs to have an impact in first playoff game.
3. The Falcons' ground attack vs. Rams' run defense
Atlanta has struggled to get its ground game going over the last couple of weeks. However, the Falcons would be foolish not to test the Rams’ biggest deficiency on defense with the potent one-two punch of Devonta Freeman (right) and Tevin Coleman. For all of their success, the Rams finished 28th in the NFL against the run during the regular season, surrendering 122.4 rushing yards per game. Opponents averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry against Los Angeles' defense, a mark that places the Rams 30th in the league.
However, there are a couple of red flags regarding the Atlanta rushing attack that could jeopardize an otherwise favorable matchup. The first being that Freeman is nursing a slight knee injury. The two-time Pro Bowler is expected to play, but he may be less than 100 percent. Additionally, the Falcons have some key injuries along the offensive line that could make running the ball more challenging, particularly with All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald anchoring the middle of the Rams’ defensive front.
The Falcons have been in playoff mode for several weeks now, fighting to stay alive in the highly competitive NFC South. That may actually help their cause heading into Saturday’s NFC Wild Card Game, but it also has taken a toll, with several key players dinged up and a little worse for the wear. That alone could loom large against a well-rested Rams team that had the luxury of sitting most of its starters last week. The Rams also have home-field advantage. Although I’m not sure if that is really an advantage, considering they were just 4-4 at home during the regular season as opposed to 7-1 on the road.
The true advantage for the Rams lies on offense. Los Angeles has shown a level of consistency, explosiveness and scoring ability that the Atlanta offense has sorely lacked throughout the season. And while the Falcons’ edge in playoff experience cannot be discounted, Sean McVay’s Rams don’t come across as the kind of team that will be easily overwhelmed by their first-ever playoff encounter.
Prediction: Rams 24, Falcons 23
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.