They did it! The #6 seed Falcons—the plucky, grizzled underdog—went into Los Angeles and took down the #3 seed Rams in what was a wire-to-wire thrashing of arguably the best offense in the league. That victory set a franchise record, as the Falcons had never before won playoff games in back-to-back seasons. It also sets up a Divisional Round showdown with the #1 seed Philadelphia Eagles, who feature a fearsome defense but are without QB Carson Wentz.
After re-watching the game—which was a pleasure, by the way—here are some of my in-depth observations from Saturday’s impressive victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Tackling, as a whole, was incredible
Facing down the highest-scoring offense in the NFL is no small task, even for a top-10 defense like the Falcons. I have to admit, it still feels weird to type that. However, the Falcons answered the call—and excellent open-field tackling was a huge part of that success. The Rams tried their best to isolate Todd Gurley in space on nickel CB Brian Poole, and Poole stepped up in a big way.
Poole’s open-field tackles made the difference in this one, but everyone on the defense seemed to step up their game. Damontae Kazee, outside of the special teams penalty (which would have been a mighty impressive tackle, if it was legal), was making plays as a gunner. Keanu Neal was a force, as usual. We’re finally seeing some of the true potential of this unit come to life.
Matt Bryant is the ageless wonder
When the Falcons’ offense sputters, Atlanta knows they can depend upon Matt “Money” Bryant. The aging kicker has been absolutely incredible in 2017, nailing 55+ yard field goals like they were no big deal. His performance against the Rams was equally impressive—Bryant notched 4 field goals, and two from 50+ yards. That stat line makes him one of two kickers in NFL history to kick two 50+ yard FGs in a playoff game.
It’s just another accolade for one of the best kickers in the NFL. Bryant is an incredible weapon for this offense, who just need to get him within 55 yards to tack on three more points. Last year, kicking four FGs would have been a recipe for disaster—but in 2017 with a legitimate top-10 defense, the Falcons can afford to chip away at opponents and slowly build a lead. We love you, Matt Bryant. Please never leave us.
The pass defense stepped up in a big way
The Falcons’ game plan clearly revolved around limiting the damage Todd Gurley could do, and they succeeded. Outside of three long runs, Gurley was completely bottled up in the run and pass game. That forced young QB Jared Goff into 45 passing attempts, and required the Falcons’ pass defense to rise to the challenge. They did just that on the back of phenomenal performances from Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, and an effective game from the pass rush.
Alford was a machine, breaking up passes left and right. Trufant allowed a big completion, but his coverage was perfect and he contributed several important pass breakups of his own. The pass rush was a bit hot and cold, but they made life difficult for Goff throughout the game. Beasley and Takk notched sacks early in the contest, and De’Vondre Campbell added another on a well-timed blitz. The pressure forced Goff into early throws, and helped this defense hold the Rams to 5/14 (35%) on third down.
The offense was middling, but came through in the second half
The biggest story of the 2017 season has been the lackluster play of the offense. From freak turnovers to execution errors and dropped passes, the Falcons’ offense has been a shell of its former self. The transition to Steve Sarkisian’s offense hasn’t been a particularly smooth one, and the rookie OC has drawn the ire of fans for some truly puzzling calls throughout the year. This game started off that way, with several disappointing drives and a distinct lack of red zone scoring.
However, in the second half, Sarkisian started to get this offense into a groove. The Falcons took advantage of the Rams’ depleted defensive line depth with DT Michael Brockers sidelined and pounded the rock on the ground. It wasn’t an efficient performance by Freeman and Coleman, but it was an important one—the Falcons dominated time of possession in the second half and wore down the Rams’ defense. Late in the game, Sarkisian dialed up two very impressive play calls—the screen to Sanu that went for huge yardage, and the drag route for Julio that ended in a TD—that ended up clinching the victory for Atlanta. Let’s hope we see more of that second-half offense going forward.
Despite the dominant performance, there were a few negatives
The Falcons thoroughly defeated the Rams on Saturday, never relinquishing their lead throughout the game. However, there were a few noteworthy issues that Atlanta should probably take a close look at if they want to continue their playoff success. The pass protection was abysmal at times—Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer were regularly abused by All-World DT Aaron Donald. That’s not unexpected, but it was tough to watch Ryan under so much pressure all evening.
Quinn’s game management at the end of the first half was also terrible. That timeout he called after the Rams faced 2nd and 5 could have led to a TD. He’s lucky that it only led to three points, but Quinn must make better decisions going forward. The defense was stellar on third downs, except on 3rd and very long—which is truly bizarre. Frankly, one of those completions was just a perfect throw and catch by Goff to Woods, but the other two were preventable. Giving up 3rd and 10+ is inexcusable, and is the only negative mark I give to the defense in what was otherwise an incredible performance.
There you have it—my exhaustive thoughts on Saturday’s victory over the Rams. The Falcons now move on to face the Nick Foles-led Eagles, which led to this interesting tidbit:
Falcons have opened as 2.5 point favorite over Philadelphia. First time a 6 seed ever has been favored over a 1 seed.— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzAJC) January 7, 2018
What are your thoughts on the Falcons’ dismantling of the Rams? Who are some players that stood out to you during the victory? How many times have you already re-watched the game? How do you feel about facing Philadelphia next weekend?