California Dreamin’: Falcons Begin Road Back to Super Bowl vs. Rams


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([FILE PHOTO]: Atlanta Falcons S Keanu Neal (22) and OLB De'Vondre Campbell are part of the defensive team that will face the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Wild Card Round this weekend. Photo: Debby Wong/The Florida-Georgia Star)

By Adesina O. Koiki

From the season-opening escape in Chicago to the must-win finale in front of their home fans, the Atlanta Falcons have spent the entire season living on the edge, which might actually be to their advantage as the 2017 NFL Playoffs begin.

Atlanta begins the defense of the NFC crown it won last season on Saturday night, as the Falcons head to Los Angeles to take on the NFC West Division champion Rams in the Wild Card round. Last week’s 22-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to clinch a playoff spot was a rare game in which Falcons fans could breathe easy at the end of a game; No team in the league played in more games decided by eight points or fewer than Atlanta, who went 6-4 in those games (The Buccaneers and Titans also played 10 such games in 2017).

All of those close calls and near misses are positive signs heading into the postseason, according to Falcons head coach Dan Quinn.

“I told our team today that we’ve been shaped over the last 16 games,” Quinn said. “We’ve been tested. I thought we’ve come through the fires to the other side together as one brotherhood. We’re battle ready. I think that’s important when you get to this time of year.”

One of the factors that usually plays a big role in deciding which team wins a playoff game is turnovers, and the Falcons hope their three-takeaway performance against the Panthers can carry over to Saturday’s game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The three takeaways, all of them coming on Cam Newton interceptions, ended up being the only time this season that Atlanta forced three turnovers in a game.

“We wanted to throw a pool party last night with a plus-three turnover margin,” Quinn said on Monday after the win against Carolina. “It was one we’ve been waiting on to get those kinds of takeaways. It can make such a difference in the game, more options for the offense.”
Making sure the Rams’ offense has the ball as little as possible will be imperative in coming away with another playoff victory, as Los Angeles led the league in scoring at 29.9 points per game. While quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, had a stellar season in throwing for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions, former University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley II has been the driving force behind the Rams’ offensive success.

In his third season in the league, Gurley II is one of the favorites to win the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 2017, amassing 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns. In the last game he played this season, a Week 16 win for the Rams against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, Gurley II became just the third player in NFL history to have at least 100 yards rushing and 150 yards receiving in the same game, joining Ollie Matson (1954) and Herschel Walker (1986). Gurley II sat out the season finale against San Francisco, giving him an extra week to rest up before going up against a Falcons defense that finished ninth in the NFL in both rushing defense and total defense.

Quinn was the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida when Gurley II starred as a freshman at Georgia in 2012, and in the rivalry game that year in Jacksonville, it was the Bulldogs, led by 118 yards and a touchdown from Gurley II, that upset then No. 3 Florida 17-9. After that season, Quinn jumped back into the coaching ranks in the NFL, and he remembers scouting Gurley II when he declared for the 2015 NFL Draft.

“It was actually my first year [in Atlanta], so I remember him really well,” Quinn said. “We knew the physicality of style we wanted to play, so I definitely had an eye on him and looked at him and evaluated him. For a guy who had his size, he had exceptional ability to put his foot in the ground and accelerate out. So he had kind of the combination of the make you miss and the ability to kind of size you up and run you over.”

After an uneven regular season, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan can start anew as the postseason hits, and his performance in the 2016 NFL Playoffs ranks as one of the best postseasons any quarterback has ever had; He completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 1,014 yards with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.

The health of Julio Jones might play the biggest factor in whether Ryan can put up similar numbers in these playoffs, as the wide receiver comes into the game nursing an injured left thumb. Jones ended the season with 88 catches for 1,444 yards, but his three touchdowns is his fewest haul in a year since 2013, when he only played five games that campaign before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

The game between the Falcons and Rams will kick off at 8:15 EST and will be televised on NBC.