In their first playoff game since blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, the Falcons jumped out to a 13-0 lead and actually held on to it as they upset the Rams 26-13 on Saturday in Los Angeles.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn must have rewatched the film from Super Bowl LI because he made sure not to make the same mistake that his team made in February: Unlike the Super Bowl, the Falcons ran the ball down the Rams throat after taking a 13-10 lead at the half.
If the Rams have shown one weakness this season, it has been their inability to stop the run, and the Falcons took advantage of that in the third quarter. On their opening possession of the half, the Falcons marched 76 yards down the field on a drive where they ran the ball on 11 of their first 13 plays. As a matter fact, Devonta Freeman actually had more yards on his first carry of the third quarter (22) than he had in the entire first half (20).
Once the Falcons figured out that they could run the ball, things got ugly fast for a Rams team that was playing shorthanded after losing nose tackle Michael Brockers to a knee injury in the second quarter. The Falcons ability to run the ball opened things up for Matt Ryan, who exploded in the second half after a disastrous first half where he only threw for 86 yards.
Once the Falcons got going on the ground, Ryan finally had time to throw and he took advantage of that by completing 10 of 14 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown in the game’s final two quarters. The biggest benefactor of the Falcons’ newly invigorated passing game was Julio Jones, who caught five passes for 50 yards and a touchdown in the second half and went for 94 yards total in the game.
On Ryan’s end, he finished the game by completing 70 percent of his passes, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone because Ryan is the most accurate passer in NFL playoff history for any quarterback who’s thrown 150 or more passes.
Although the Falcons absolutely dominated the second half, that’s not why the Rams will be kicking themselves when they look back on this game, they’ll be kicking themselves because two specials teams gaffes in the first quarter probably cost them the win.
Special teams killed the Rams
With the Rams hosting their first Los Angeles playoff game in 32 years, it seems that the bright lights of the postseason just got too big for Pharoh Cooper.
The nightmare for Cooper started midway through the first quarter after the Rams forced the Falcons to punt. After Matt Bosher launched a kick into the air, Cooper signaled for a fair catch, but then started moving around, which confused teammate Blake Countess. Before anyone could figure out what was going on, the ball bounced off Countess’ foot, hit Cooper and was pushed backward a full 20 yards, where the Falcons would eventually recover it.
Despite the fact that the Falcons took over possession on the Rams’ 17-yard line, L.A.’s defense absolutely shut Atlanta down and the Falcons were forced to kick a 29-yard field that gave them an early 3-0 lead.
If that would have been the worst of it, the Rams might have been able to recover, but then the curse of Cooper struck again. After the Falcons took a 6-0 lead later in the quarter on a 54-yard field goal by Matt Bryant, Cooper once again turned the ball over.
This time, he was stripped by Atlanta’s Damontae Kazee.
After the botched kickoff, the Falcons took over on the Rams’ 32-yard line and quickly turned Cooper’s fumble into seven points when Devonta Freeman scored on a 3-yard touchdown only a few plays later. The two turnovers from Cooper were the only two turnovers of the game and quickly put the Rams in a 13-0 hole they would never recover from.
What happened to the Rams basically defied all probability. Going into the game, the Rams had only turned the ball over in the first quarter twice all season, and they did it twice in this game alone. Not to mention, before Saturday, no NFL team had turned the ball over twice in the first half on special teams in all of 2017. The Rams did something that no other NFL team had done all season and they paid dearly.
Falcons keep Gurley and the Rams offense in check
Although the turnovers were costly for the Rams, there’s no guarantee that L.A. would have won even if they didn’t turn the ball over and that’s because the Falcons pulled off a nearly perfect defensive game plan. For one, they kept Todd Gurley in check. Although his numbers on the ground were impressive (14 carries, 101 yards), most of that total came on two runs that went for 26 and 33 yards. Gurley’s 33-yarder came in the fourth quarter when the Falcons were up two scores and had started playing the pass more, which opened things up for him. As a matter of fact, Gurley had only 43 yards through the game’s first three quarters.
The best thing the Falcons did was keep Gurley from doing any damage as a receiver. Back in Week 16, Gurley’s final regular-season game of this season, the Rams running back caught 10 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Falcons, Gurley had only 10 receiving yards and that’s because Atlanta basically had someone shadowing him every time he left the backfield.
It appeared the Falcons game plan was to make Goff beat them, which led to 45 pass attempts from the Rams quarterback and he was harassed on nearly every one of those. OK, maybe not every single one, but he did spend most of the game running away from Falcons’ defenders. The Falcons actually sacked Goff three times in the game with Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley Jr. and Devondre Campbell all taking down the Rams quarterback one time. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones also had a big game with 10 tackles, a pass break up and one tackle for a loss.
One Rams receiver who did do some damage was Robert Woods, who caught nine passes for 142 yards. The problem for the Rams was that Goff had an ugly night when he was throwing to anyone who wasn’t Woods. When throwing to other receivers, Goff went only 15 of 31 for 117 yards.
Were the Rams rusty?
It’s not an excuse, but it’s definitely a question worth asking after the Rams decided to bench all of their starters in Week 17. When Tom Brady gets sent to the bench for the final week of the season, no one ever really thinks anything of it because he’s been in that situation dozens of times. However, giving a week off to a young offense that was beginning to peak might have been the only questionable decision Sean McVay made all year.
Maybe it was the playoff jitters, maybe it was rust, but the Rams offense was a disaster for the first quarter-and-a-half of play. Goff started off 3 of 11 as the Rams went three-and-out on each of their first two possessions. They only got one first down in the first quarter and half of the yardage came from a Falcons offside penalty. The Rams didn’t reach Falcons territory for the first time until there was less than five minutes left to play in the first half.
The Falcons MVP might have been their kicker
No one had a bigger game than Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, who hit clutch kick after clutch kick after clutch kick. The 42-year-old showed that he still has some power in his leg by hitting two field goals of more than 50 yards. The first one came in the first quarter when Bryant put the Falcons on top 3-0 with a 51-yarder. Bryant hit an even bigger one in the third quarter when he nailed a 54-yard field goal that put the Falcons on top 19-10. Overall, Bryant hit four field goals in the game and was a big reason why Atlanta will be heading to the Division round next week.
L.A. may not have been ready to host a playoff game
It took 24 years, but playoff football finally returned to Los Angeles on Saturday. Unfortunately for everyone in L.A. though, it won’t be returning again this season after the Rams loss, which might actually be a good thing because the field at the Coliseum didn’t seem like it was quite ready to host a playoff game. For most of the night, the field looked like a slip-and-slide with the way players from both teams were sliding around.
It was a foggy day in L.A., which didn’t help the situation, but no matter what caused the moisture on the field, it definitely became a nuisance in the game. The good news is that the field was slippery for both teams, so although it was annoying at times to watch, no one really got an advantage from it.
Of course, the one upside of having football back in Los Angeles is that you get things like Snoop Dogg performing at halftime.
Thanks to their victory in L.A., Atlanta basically won the playoff lottery and will head to Philadelphia, where the Falcons will take on Nick Foles and the Eagles in a Divisional Round playoff game scheduled for a 4:35 p.m. ET kickoff on Saturday, January 13. The Falcons might be a 6 seed, but they’ve already opened as a 2.5-point favorite in the game.
The winner of that game will advance to the NFC Championship, which will be played Jan. 21. Coincidentally, the last time the Falcons played a Divisional playoff game on the road came after the 2002 season, when they lost to the Eagles.
As for the Rams, they probably never want to see the Falcons again in the postseason after this loss and that’s mainly because the Rams’ past two postseason losses have come against the Falcons (this year and January 2004).
If you still want to read more from Saturday’s game, you can scroll through our live blog below.