Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC
FALCONS AT A GLANCE
Key player: Is it strange that a 1,444-yard season seems seems a little disappointing? Julio Jones has set a ridiculously high bar. Jones had a pair of huge games, but only four 100-yard games this season. He caught just three touchdowns, and two came in one game. In 11 of 16 games, Jones failed to gain 100 yards or score a touchdown. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t great, he just wasn’t at his normal incredible level. But everyone knows he’s capable of an enormous game, even as he deals with ankle and rib injuries. Jones will see a lot of Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson, which should be a fun matchup.
Why they’ll win: We haven’t seen it often this season, but this offense presumably still has a gear that few other teams can hit. Expecting the Falcons to turn into last season’s offense in the playoffs, after an underwhelming regular season, is probably foolish. But Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are a dangerous core. They can run the ball well and while the passing offense hasn’t been great (Matt Ryan has five touchdowns in his last six games, and hasn’t thrown more than two touchdowns in a game all season), it wouldn’t shock anyone if the Falcons put up a bunch of points.
Why they’ll lose: Whether it’s a Super Bowl hangover or normal regression or losing ace play-caller Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons were just average all season. They were the seventh-highest scoring offense in NFL history in 2016, and ranked 15th among 32 NFL teams in scoring this season. The Baltimore Ravens were among the teams who scored more than the Falcons, and Atlanta only outscored the Houston Texans by 15 points. The Falcons aren’t bad. They won six of their last eight games to make the playoffs. But if you’re expecting them to beat the Rams, it’s probably due to your memories of last season.
Keep in mind: The Falcons defense has been better than it gets credit for. It ranks in the top 10 in yards and points allowed. The one deficiency the defense has is it doesn’t create many turnovers. It had just eight interceptions and eight recovered fumbles all season. But it’s not the kind of defense that should get shredded on Saturday night, even though it is facing a tough opponent.
RAMS AT A GLANCE
Key player: You have to start with Todd Gurley, who has a shot to win NFL MVP. Gurley had an amazing season, and he’s rested after sitting out last week. The Falcons have been good against the run lately, allowing just 84.3 yards on the ground over their last six games. No team has rushed for more than 105 yards in that stretch against Atlanta. You have to assume Atlanta’s top priority is stopping Gurley, and the Rams’ goal is feeding Gurley as much as they can.
Why they’ll win: The Rams had the highest scoring offense in the NFL. Coach Sean McVay pushed all the right buttons. More than just the point total, it’s an offense without a weakness. They run it well with Todd Gurley, and quarterback Jared Goff produces plenty of big plays but doesn’t turn it over much. The Rams scored at least 26 points in 12 of the 15 games the starters played, and nine of their 10 games before Week 17, when starters sat. Teams should come into games against the Rams believing they’ll need about 30 points to win, and that’s not easy against a good Rams defense.
Why they’ll lose: There’s a long-held belief that playoff experience matters, and it’s probably overstated. But if you do believe playoff experience is a factor, the Rams have almost none. According to the Ventura County Star, the Rams have three starters who have playoff experience (offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, center John Sullivan and outside linebacker Connor Barwin), and they are 3-11 combined in the playoffs. Only two other backups (running back Lance Dunbar and offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas) have playoff experience, and they’re 2-5 according to the Star. The only Rams player who has played in a Super Bowl is cornerback Kayvon Webster, and he’s on injured reserve. Sean McVay hasn’t been a head coach for a playoff game, Jared Goff hasn’t started a playoff game, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald are making their postseason debuts … you get the point. This is the Rams’ first trip to the playoffs since the 2004 season (it’s also the first Rams playoff game in Los Angeles since Jan. 4, 1986 — McVay was born later that month), and they are going against a team that was in the Super Bowl last season. The discrepancy in playoff experience might not matter at all, but it’s worth noting.
Keep in mind: The Rams started the season trying to figure out defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme, but it clicked for the final three-fourths of the season. Since Week 5, the Rams allowed 400 yards and more than 23 yards only twice, against the Vikings and Eagles (we’ll ignore Week 17, when the Rams rested starters). That might show the Rams struggle against the elite teams in the NFC, but on the whole the defense has been solid. The Rams do allow 4.7 yards per carry, ranking 30th in the NFL, and that might be an issue against the Falcons, but mostly it seems like Los Angeles’ defense can be trusted in the playoffs.
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