Falcons vs. Rams: NFC Wild Card Weekend preview

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The Backstory


What a difference a year makes.

Last year's Rams were a roaming eyesore, flatlining weekly with an offense less creative than what most SoCal-area high schools dream up.

Enter first-year coach Sean McVay, the 31-year-old offensive wizard who instantly morphed this once-stale entry into the game's most prolific, dynamic, points-generating whirlwind.

NFL Network's Michael Silver unleashed a fascinating profile of McVay, in which veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth dished on the charm of this beyond-his-years offensive architect, saying: "Anybody that spends five minutes with Sean McVay comes away from it and goes, 'Man, that kid's not 31,' It's kind of the same as when you're around a truly great player, a future Hall of Famer. You hear people talk about Jonathan Ogden or Anthony Muñoz or Deion Sanders, and they say, 'You knew from the beginning this guy was gonna be special. You could just tell he's different.' That's how it is with Sean."

The tangible, raw power of this Rams attack amounts to a savage matchup for a Falcons team still in search of itself. While surging second-year arm Jared Goff owns the NFL's top passer rating since Week 9, Atlanta's Matt Ryan has gone five consecutive games without a 100-plus rating inside an offense that has failed to top 25 points in five consecutive outings.

The Falcons offer incredible postseason experience, though, with 36 players on the roster having played a whopping 174 games in January. They're driven -- almost desperately -- to erase the sting of last year's Super Bowl meltdown.

On paper, that experience matters against a Rams team with the least postseason player starts league-wide. In real time, I'm not sure it means a thing.

This Rams team doesn't just win; they scorch opponents and scatter defenses into a thousand shards. Shredding the enemy with MVP candidate Todd Gurley on the ground and a rash of weapons through the air, Los Angeles enters Saturday with the energy and might to author the weekend's biggest blowout.

Can Atlanta flip the script?

Under Pressure


Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: Only two players in NFL history boast a higher passer rating in the playoffs than Ryan, but this isn't the same player who vaulted into last January as the game's hottest signal-caller. Ryan hasn't posted a multiple-touchdown start since Week 10 and finds himself in an offense that too often lacks the juicy, magical flow of last year's Kyle Shanahan-led attack. Julio Jones remains a supremely talented wideout -- averaging a league-high 3.08 yards per route run this season, per Pro Football Focus -- but hasn't found the end zone since Week 12, while last year's explosive deep threat, Taylor Gabriel, hasn't topped 60 yards since Week 3. The best-case scenario for Atlanta? Read below:

Rams run defense: I don't like Atlanta hanging with the Rams in a shootout. Teams simply haven't been able to go punch for punch with Los Angeles. The Falcons must accept what they are and use their talented backfield to sustain drives, chew up the clock and keep the ball away from McVay's offense. A huge collective effort from Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is needed against a Los Angeles ground defense sitting 28th in the league. The Rams have allowed yardage outputs of 229, 189, 169 and 171 (twice) this season, but also shut down the Titans and Seahawks over the past three weeks. If Freeman can play the way he did in Atlanta's Week 15 win over the Bucs -- with 200-plus yards off 27 touches -- the Falcons can impact Saturday's game script.

Sam Ficken, K, Rams: I'm gonna lift copy from a strength-and-weaknesses post I typed out for the NFC's gaggle of playoff teams: One of the league's sauciest special-teams units has lost its ultra-reliable kicker. Greg Zuerlein was shipped to injured reserve with a back injury in late December, and his absence generated immediate on-field consequences -- and looms as a genuine concern. Signed-off-the-street booter Sam Ficken hails from a brokerage firm in Connecticut. No lies. While he nailed a pair of field goals in Sunday's loss to the Niners, Ficken also botched an extra point and missed a 36-yard attempt in a tight win over the Titans in Week 16. Color me concerned.

Matchup to Watch


Atlanta's Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel vs. Sean McVay: I don't mean to gush endlessly over McVay, but he's cooked up a scheme that has proven almost impossible to defend. It's up to Quinn and his defensive coordinator, Manuel, to put their young defense in position to contain Goff and Gurley. "No disrespect to my other coaches, but I learned more about football in my first three months with Sean (as coordinator) than I did my whole career before that," ex-Redskins tight end Chris Cooley told Silver.

A year ago, it was Quinn who the media, fellow coaches and league executives fawned over as the Falcons rode gloriously through the regular season into January. Quinn is no lesser of a coach today, but he's learned firsthand how quickly that outside praise can dim. Forget all that's happened since that awful Super Bowl collapse: Quinn can make everything right with an upset on the road.

Prediction


The Rams are about to host their first playoff game in Los Angeles since January 4, 1986 -- 20 days before McVay arrived on the earth. The team shows no signs of a letdown. You have to find a way to beat up Goff and surround him with punishing pressure. On that front, seven playoff teams have more sacks than the Falcons. We've gotten this far without harping on a familiar narrative: Atlanta's offensive play-calling under Steve Sarkisian. For brief moments in time you can see the brilliant potential of last year's explosive Shanahan creation -- but it flitters away just as quick, leaving us with something less alluring to stare it. Last year's Falcons could have made this a shootout for the ages. This year's arrival isn't up to the test.

Los Angeles Rams 33, Atlanta Falcons 17

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