I don’t think there’s any way to avoid the obvious conclusion that the Rams, talented as they are, should beat the Falcons at home. If you took every intangible variable out of the mix, the Rams certainly are at least almost as good as the Falcons overall, and they get to host this game. They match up fairly well against Atlanta’s weaknesses, too, with their ability to run the ball effectively, spread the ball around and find weak spots in the Falcons’ coverage, and of course their world-beating defensive tackle matching up against Atlanta’s guards. They should probably win this game.
Am I convinced they will, though? Nah.
There’s a few reasons for that. The Falcons have been able to win ugly games all year, and they have the ability to make this one pretty hideous with the way the defense has been playing. Atlanta is theoretically one of the most talented and productive offenses Los Angeles has faced this year, even if the results haven’t always been there. And if it comes down to a close game and Matt Bryant has to kick a long field goal to tie or win, riding with Atlanta seems sensible.
Ultimately, though, two x-factors loom large over this matchup, and I want to dive in on both a bit.
Here’s a pretty interesting stat:
Rams have only 6 players with playoff experience, the fewest of the 12 @NFL teams still standing and the fewest in 20 years.@NFLResearch— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) January 2, 2018
I’m generally the first one to cast doubt on the importance of things like this, because at the end of the day, talent often wins out. But in the playoffs, when every team should be talented and battle-tested, the lack of experience for coaches and players on L.A.’s side really does stand out. Players are human, and if nerves and inexperience cause a couple of errors the Rams might not have committed during the regular season, it could swing the outcome of what should be a close game. The Falcons have plenty of young players, but most of their roster has playoff experience, and veteran leaders like Matt Ryan have been to as many as five postseasons now.
This one is a big one. Sam Ficken is not just an inexperienced kicker, he’s also shown himself to be a shaky one thus far. He’s missed one of his five extra point attempts and has made two of three field goals, with a long of 23 yards. The injury to Greg Zuerlein robbed the Rams of one of the league’s best legs, and the man replacing him seems like a good bet to miss a field goal over 40 yards in a pressure-packed playoff situation. That will force the Rams to be more aggressive than perhaps they’d like to be on fourth downs.
It may be that neither of these items cost Los Angeles the game, but both bear watching. If it’s close and the Rams have to lean on Jared Goff for a game-winning drive and Sam Ficken for a game-winning field goal, I wouldn’t wind up feeling all that confident about their chances of winning.