The Los Angeles Rams entered the NFL playoffs with the top-ranked scoring offense in all of pro football. They subsequently ended their season with a 13-point home dud against a suffocating Atlanta Falcons defense that held Jared Goff to his lowest yards per attempt and third-lowest passer rating of the season. Goff finished with 259 yards, a good chunk of which came after the Falcons opened up the 13-point lead.
For all the talk about the Falcons’ offensive woes this past season, consider how special the defense played against an elite offense with an MVP candidate under center. It’s much more than the muted statistics too, though impressive in their own right.
It’s the way Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Brian Poole tackled in the open field. It’s the intelligence and discipline not to be fooled by Sean McVay’s creative deception. It’s the shutdown coverage down the field by Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. And it’s the quarterback pressure delivered by Vic Beasley, Jr., De’Vondre Campbell and Takk McKinley.
“The second half of the season, they’ve really been playing well,” Matt Ryan told ESPN of his defense. “They stepped up.”
To be sure, it wasn’t that Ryan, the reigning league MVP, played poorly, or that the offense didn’t do its job, because it did, registering 26 points against a defense surrendering under 21 points per game. Ryan , who finished with a healthy 101.8 passer rating, showcased his trademark touch on a gorgeous 8-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones. Better yet, Atlanta ran the ball well enough (39 times to the Rams’ 16 attempts) to control the clock, dominating possession by more than 15 minutes during the wild-card victory.
But this win and perhaps the Falcons’ push toward the Super Bowl was about a rapidly improving, ball-hawking defense. Two fumble recoveries (both on special teams) and three sacks against an offense as potent as the Rams is no joke. Neither is limiting Goff and company to 5-of-14 on third down or holding Los Angeles to less than half its season average of yards after the catch.
“I thought defensively, a really solid game,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn told reporters following the victory. “It’s an excellent offense on the other side.”
Not coincidentally, Quinn’s team improved to 11-0 this season when scoring 20 points or more. (The Falcons are 0-6 when scoring 19 or fewer.)
The #Falcons have enjoyed six 10-win seasons since drafting Matt Ryan in 2008. They had four — yes four — in previous 4-plus decades. Incredible job by Thomas Dimitroff and most recently, by Dan Quinn.
— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) January 1, 2018
The beauty for the NFC’s sixth seeded Dirty Birds is that their winning formula isn’t complicated. So long as Ryan, who now boasts a 100-plus passer rating in each of his five previous playoff games, doesn’t turn the ball over and converts enough on both third-and-medium and third-and-long, the Falcons can rely on their stout defense to do the rest.
Maybe most important, consider the effort against L.A.’s all-world running back Todd Gurley. While he managed 101 yards rushing, it was Gurley’s inability to become Goff’s safety valve in the passing game that stunted the Rams’ momentum. Gurley entered the playoffs averaging a robust 53 receiving yards per game (second most of any running back), along with six receiving touchdowns (most of any running back). And yet, the Falcons, whose defense ranks in the top 10 in scoring, yards and rushing yards allowed, bottled him up coming out of the backfield to the tune of four catches for 10 yards (with just four YAC).
Atlanta will now travel to Philadelphia on Saturday for a date with the No. 1 seeded Eagles – minus Carson Wentz – where the resurgent Falcons will once again rely on their defense to help secure their second road postseason win since 2002.
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.