By Adesina O. Koiki
LOS ANGELES – The story of the Atlanta Falcons’ run to last year’s Super Bowl was the stellar play of their near-unstoppable offense, but, on Saturday night, their defense showed that it is more than capable of carrying the team back to the Big Game this season.
Atlanta held Los Angeles, the highest-scoring team in the league, to just one touchdown as the Falcons defeated the Rams 26-13 in the NFC Wild Card game, their first road playoff victory since the end of the 2002 season.
Los Angeles came into the game averaging 29.9 points per game, but Atlanta’s defense was aggressive all evening in pressing the Rams’ receivers at the line of scrimmage while limiting the explosive plays of running back and MVP candidate Todd Gurley II, who only had 43 rushing yards through the first three quarters.
“I thought, defensively, a really solid game,” said Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. “ I thought (defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel) ‘Quan’ and the guys, the staff and the players really put in a good week of preparation to make sure they had the right plan of how to attack and play. It’s an excellent offense on the other side, so I really want to tip our hat to the defense today for coming up with that performance.”
Atlanta’s ball-control offense was able to possess the ball for more than 37 minutes and not allow the Rams many opportunities with the ball. With 66 yards and a first-quarter touchdown on the ground, Devonta Freeman led a rushing attack that churned out 124 yards as a team. Matt Ryan was efficient in throwing for 218 yards and a touchdown.
“Our plan [coming] out, we felt like we could crease them in the run game a little bit,” Ryan said. “It’s tough sledding for sure, but we felt like that was our best plan for success and the guys bought into that. We all had that belief and we were very clear about our plan coming into this game and it shook out the way that we wanted it to.”
Atlanta jumped out to an early 13-0 lead, mostly with the help of Rams special teams mistakes. The Falcons caught the first break of the game on the punt following their second drive, as the ball bounced off of the foot of Rams cornerback Blake Countess and the arm of return man Pharoh Cooper before being recovered by the Falcons at the Rams’ 17. Matt Bryant then converted a 29-yard field goal for the first points of the game.
After Bryant added a 51-yard field goal late in the first quarter for a 6-0 Atlanta lead, Cooper fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Atlanta recovered at the Los Angeles 32. Instead of a field goal, Atlanta converted the Rams’ turnover into seven, as two third-down completions from Ryan on the drive set up a first-and-goal. Freeman ran the ball in from three yards out early in the second quarter to give the Falcons their first 13-point advantage.
It was an uncharacteristically poor game from the Rams special teams and from Cooper, who led the league in combined return yards and was named to the Pro Bowl as a return specialist.
“Pharoh is a great player that we have a lot of confidence in, and two plays certainly wont define him and I think he’s done too many good things for that to kind of take away from the body of work that he had,” said Rams head coach Sean McVay. “But I think we’re all disappointed with the outcome today.”
The Rams offense finally kicked it into gear late in the second quarter, scoring on back-to-back drives to cut the Falcons’ lead to three going into halftime. Quarterback Jared Goff got the Rams on the board with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp to make it 13-7 with 2:34 left. Sam Ficken added a 35-yard field goal with three seconds left in the half to cut Atlanta’s lead to 13-10.
Atlanta started the second half with the ball and proceeded to chew up more than half the third quarter on that first possession, as Matt Bryant’s 25-yard field goal for a 16-10 Falcons lead ended a drive that took 16 plays, went 76 yards and bled 8:15 off the clock.
Atlanta sealed the game late in the fourth quarter, as Ryan, while slipping on the slick Memorial Coliseum turf, lobbed an 8-yard pass to the right that was caught by wide receiver Julio Jones that gave Atlanta a 26-13 advantage with 5:48 remaining.
The Falcons head east to take on the Philadelphia Eagles next Saturday, with the game kicking off at 4:30 EST and televised on NBC.