After barely keeping their season alive the last two weeks, the Rams take on the Falcons on the artificial turf of the Georgia Dome in what could be a high-scoring divisional playoff game.
The Rams have exhibited a resilience in their last two contests that’s been missing all year. They defeated the New York Jets in overtime in their season finale in a game they had to win to make the playoffs, then knocked off the Seattle Seahawks 27-20 on the road last Saturday in a wild-card contest.
Marc Bulger threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, the last a 17-yarder to Cam Cleeland with 2:11 to play, and the Rams advanced when Seattle’s Bobby Engram couldn’t hold on to a Matt Hasselbeck pass in the end zone on fourth-and-4 from the Rams’ 5 with 27 seconds remaining.
“The last three weeks this is a different team than the previous 14 weeks,” coach Mike Martz said. “This is kind of who I think we are.”
More than anything, Martz’s team is one that thrives on the turf of their home stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, where it went 6-2 this season. With All-Pro receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, and running backs Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, St. Louis’ speedy roster is built to succeed on artificial surfaces such as that of the Georgia Dome.
The Rams, however, are only getting the chance to do so after a tumultuous 2004 that nearly saw them miss the postseason. Hurt by injuries and infighting, the team came together with three straight wins and has finally embraced a new defensive scheme that allowed it to limit the Seahawks’ Shaun Alexander, the NFC’s leading rusher this season, to 40 yards on 15 carries last week.
St. Louis’ defense, though, faces a considerably tougher task Saturday. Their newfound ability to stop the run will be tested against the NFL’s best rushing attack, led by superstar quarterback Michael Vick and running backs Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett.
The trio helped the Falcons roll up 2,672 rushing yards and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average, both league bests, as well as 20 TDs on the ground. Vick led the league with 7.5 yards per attempt and rushed for 902 yards, the third-highest single-season total by a quarterback in NFL history.
“He certainly is unique and probably as an athlete is the best in the league, there’s no question about that,” Martz said. “The first thing you do is you need to account for him.”
Martz and the Rams learned that lesson in Week 2, as the NFL’s most dangerous run-pass threat rushed for 109 yards on 12 carries and passed for 179 in the Falcons’ 34-17 victory over St. Louis at the Georgia Dome.
That win broke a seven-game losing streak in the series for the Falcons, who resided in the NFC West with the Rams before the NFL realigned from six to eight divisions three seasons ago.
The Falcons have the added advantage of the rest and healing that comes with a first-round bye, as first-year coach Jim Mora won’t list anyone on the team’s injury report this week. Regardless of health, Atlanta’s potent running game might not matter if the team’s resurgent defense can’t contain the Rams’ high-powered offense.
The key for Atlanta in trying to slow down St. Louis may lie with the ability of the Falcons’ outstanding front four to get pressure on Bulger. Linemen Patrick Kerney, Rod Coleman, Brady Smith and Ed Jasper lead a defense that piled up a league-high 48 sacks.
Pro Bowler Kerney had 13 while Coleman added 11 1/2 , and the Falcons will need those players to continue to get to the quarterback in order to keep the Rams’ big plays to a minimum
“They don’t just work together,” defensive line coach Bill Johnson said. “They’re the greatest group of guys I’ve ever coached from a personality standpoint.”
Mora led the Falcons to a reversal of their 2003 record and just the third division title in franchise history this season. Many of Atlanta’s players have relatively little postseason experience, as the team last played in the playoffs in 2002. Rust could also be a factor for the Falcons on Saturday, as Mora rested Vick and most of his key players during the last two weeks of the regular season, both losses.
“We’ve just got to prepare the way we’ve been preparing for teams all year and making sure that we do everything possible to have our best week of preparation and just get ready to play a great football game,” Vick said Tuesday.
“We’ve studied this team. We know what their tendencies are and what they do, so it’s just all about putting the game plan together and making sure that the game plan is a game plan that can take advantage of the things that they do.”
The winning team has scored 30-plus points in 13 of the last 15 contests between the former NFC West rivals.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Rams - 2nd place, NFC West; beat Seattle Seahawks 27-20, wild-card round. Falcons - 1st place, NFC South; first-round bye.
RAMS LEADERS: Offense - Bulger, 3,964 passing yards and 21 passing TDs; Faulk, 774 rushing yards; Jackson, 4 rushing TDs; Holt, 94 receptions, 1,372 receiving yards and 10 receiving TDs. Defense - Bryce Fisher, 8 1/2 sacks; Jerametrius Butler, 5 INTs.
FALCONS LEADERS: Offense - Vick, 2,313 passing yards and 14 passing TDs; Dunn, 1,106 rushing yards and 9 rushing TDs; Alge Crumpler, 48 receptions, 774 receiving yards and 6 receiving TDs. Defense - Kerney, 13 sacks; Aaron Beasley, 4 interceptions.
RAMS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 101.5 yards per game (26th in NFL); Passing Offense - 265.8 ypg (5th); Total Offense - 367.3 ypg (6th). Rushing Defense - 136.2 ypg (29th); Passing Defense - 198.4 ypg (11th); Total Defense - 334.6 ypg (17th).
FALCONS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 167.0 yards per game (1st); Passing Offense - 150.8 ypg (30th); Total Offense - 317.8 ypg (20th). Rushing Defense - 105.1 ypg (9th); Passing Defense - 220.4 ypg (22nd); Total Defense - 325.4 ypg (14th).
LAST MEETING: Sept. 19; Falcons, 34-17. At Atlanta, Dunn had two touchdown runs and Smith recovered a Bulger fumble for a score as the Falcons won their second straight to open the season.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Rams - RB Faulk has averaged 113.3 yards per game and 6.3 per carry (143 for 906) in nine career games against the Falcons. … WR Bruce has four career playoff games with 100 yards receiving and needs one to tie Andre Reed and John Stallworth for third all-time, trailing leader Jerry Rice (eight). … In St. Louis’ three straight wins, Bulger has posted a 108.7 passer rating (988 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs) and completed 68.4 percent of his throws (67-for-98). Falcons - Atlanta is hosting a postseason contest for the first time since a 20-18 win over San Francisco in a 1998 divisional playoff game. Mora was the 49ers secondary coach in that game. … QB Vick is 23-12-1 as a starter, including wins in 13 of his last 17 games. … Crumpler set franchise TE records with 48 receptions and 774 yards. He led NFL players at his position with 16.1 yards per catch (minimum 30 catches) and had 17 receptions of 20-plus yards, second among TEs.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Rams - 3-6 on the road; Falcons - 7-1 at home.
INJURIES: Rams - QUESTIONABLE: RB Arlen Harris (hamstring); DE Tyoka Jackson (ankle). PROBABLE: WR Bruce (groin/hand); RB Steven Jackson (ribs); DT Jimmy Kennedy (foot); G Tom Nutten (knee); G Adam Timmerman (foot/knee). Falcons - None.