Maybe the Atlanta Falcons were just waiting for the playoffs.
The Falcons didn’t do a great job following up their Super Bowl loss. They were good in spurts during the regular season but mostly forgettable. They went into Week 17 without a playoff spot clinched, then got in as the No. 6 seed in the NFC.
And then, suddenly and without warning, the Falcons looked like the same team that came oh-so-close to winning last season’s Super Bowl. And they’re set up well to make a run at this year’s Super Bowl, too.
The Falcons took advantage of some early mistakes by the Los Angeles Rams and finished strong to close out a 26-13 upset win in a wild-card matchup. As the No. 6 seed the Falcons now have to go play at the No. 1 seed, which happens to be a Philadelphia Eagles team that has struggled to move the ball the past couple weeks without quarterback Carson Wentz. Plenty of people will be picking the Falcons to win and advance to the NFC championship game.
The Falcons’ offense was the story of last season, but on Saturday night it was their defense. Atlanta did a great job shutting down a Rams team that led the NFL in points this season. Todd Gurley, who might win NFL MVP, had a good game but didn’t take it over. The Falcons seemed to confuse Rams quarterback Jared Goff in his first playoff start. Goff threw for 255 yards, though a lot of that came late after the Falcons had opened up a 13-point lead. When Goff’s fourth-down pass with 2:05 into the end zone fell incomplete, it was over.
The Falcons special teams made a few crucial plays early, which set the tone for the rest of the night. Rams returner Pharoh Cooper lost two fumbles early on. Kicker Matt Bryant was also incredible for Atlanta’s special teams, nailing some long field goals. That side of the ball was a huge reason the Falcons took a 13-10 lead into the half.
The Falcons’ celebrated offense wasn’t great, but it did enough, especially in the second half. Matt Ryan’s pretty 8-yard touchdown to Julio Jones in the fourth quarter effectively put the game away. That was set up by a great catch-and-run by Mohamed Sanu. Maybe the 2016 Falcons offense isn’t going to reemerge, but it’s still a group capable of making big plays when it counts.
If you believe playoff experience matters, Saturday night was the game for you. The inexperienced Rams struggled like they rarely did in a storybook-type regular season. Meanwhile, the Falcons played like they did in last year’s playoffs, at least until the final bit of their infamous Super Bowl collapse.
Based on how the Falcons played on Saturday and the road ahead of them in the NFC, they might be primed for another postseason run.
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