Matt Ryan leads Falcons to playoff win over upstart Rams
LOS ANGELES (AP) —
The Atlanta Falcons know they'll have to win three consecutive road games to get a chance for Super Bowl redemption.
The Falcons already nabbed the first victory by spoiling a festive night in Los Angeles, and they seem quite confident about their chances to run the table in other people's buildings on the way to Minneapolis.
Matt Ryan passed for 218 yards and hit Julio Jones for an 8-yard touchdown with 5:48 to play, and the defending NFC champion Falcons advanced from the wild-card round with a 26-13 victory over the upstart Rams on Saturday night.
Devonta Freeman rushed for an early score and Matt Bryant kicked four field goals for the Falcons (11-6), who dropped to the sixth seed in the conference after finishing one game out of first place in the NFC South. Atlanta went only 5-3 on the road in the regular season.
But judging from a comprehensively solid performance against the hungry Rams (11-6), that tough division race and last season's deep playoff run prepared Atlanta for the grind necessary to win back-to-back NFC titles.
"We don't care where we play these games, because we know it's about us, not the crowd or the opponent," Atlanta safety Ricardo Allen said.
The next place they're headed is Philadelphia: The Falcons advanced to face the top-seeded Eagles on Jan. 13.
"Doesn't matter where we're going, we're going," Ryan said. "And that's the most exciting part."
Atlanta's journey to the Super Bowl last season ended infamously with that blown 28-3 lead against New England. In their first playoff game since, the Falcons spoiled the Rams' first playoff game in 13 years with a methodical performance derived from hard-earned experience.
The Falcons' defense held the NFL's highest-scoring offense to one touchdown while muzzling Todd Gurley and harassing Jared Goff, who went 24 for 45 in his playoff debut.
Jones caught nine passes for 94 yards for Atlanta, which never trailed while winning playoff games in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Against an opponent that had just six players on its roster with prior postseason appearances, the Falcons' experience showed through.
"I think having gone through these situations, understanding what it's like, the atmosphere, those kinds of things, knowing that it's going to be tough, all those things kind of carry forward," Ryan said. "But at the end of the day, experience or no experience, you've got to execute."
A raucous crowd of 74,300 packed the Coliseum on a crisp evening for the first NFL playoff game in the nation's second-largest city since early 1994. Los Angeles went 21 years without pro football before the Rams returned last season, and the franchise emphatically ended a 13-year streak of non-winning seasons this fall with an inspiring run to the Rams' first division title since 2003.
Robert Woods caught nine passes for 142 yards, but rookie Cooper Kupp scored the Rams' only touchdown late in the first half. Pro Bowl kick returner Pharoh Cooper also muffed a punt and fumbled a kickoff return early, leading to 10 points for the Falcons.
The Falcons ruined a celebratory night for the Rams, who rebounded from a rough homecoming season in 2016 with an outstanding debut year under 31-year-old Sean McVay, the youngest head coach to reach the playoffs in NFL history. A celebrity-studded crowd attended the game and watched a halftime performance from Long Beach's own Snoop Dogg, but the Rams couldn't come through.
"You see why the Falcons are the defending NFC champs," McVay said. "Certainly this is a humbling game. ... This is an experience that we can learn from. But I don't think this game was too big for our guys."
The Rams are just 4-11 at the Coliseum since returning to LA last season.
The Falcons dominated the game by controlling the ball for 37:35, patiently running the ball with Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Rams' defense simply couldn't get off the field in the third quarter, whether due to missed tackles or clever play-calling by the Falcons.
The Coliseum turf was noticeably slippery for both teams, and many players changed cleats at halftime to combat the conditions. The field at the venerable stadium isn't known for being particularly bad, but new sod and January dew apparently made it more perilous than usual.
The Falcons shook it off.
"We had to be prepared for everything," Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu said. "We saw it wasn't good conditions early, so we had our minds ready for it."
Gurley got just 43 of his 101 yards rushing in the first three quarters, and the Falcons eliminated him from the passing game almost entirely, giving up only four receptions for 10 yards despite 10 targets of the NFL's leader in yards from scrimmage.
"They did a great job," Gurley said of the Atlanta defense. "They have great players. They're not the reigning NFC champs for no reason."