Falcons show playoff poise in 26-13 win over upstart LA Rams
By GREG BEACHAM
LOS ANGELES (AP) The Atlanta Falcons jumped to an early 13-point lead before the Rams mounted two swift scoring drives. Los Angeles went to the Coliseum locker room at halftime with just a three-point deficit amid raucous cheers from a home crowd thirsty for playoff success.
And then Matt Ryan and the tough, tested Falcons showed the upstart Rams what postseason poise is all about.
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 Rams on Saturday night.
Devonta Freeman rushed for an early score and Matt Bryant kicked four field goals for the Falcons (11-6), who spoiled the Rams' first playoff game in 13 years with a methodical performance derived from hard-earned experience.
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 allowed no surprises from the NFC West champion Rams (11-6).
"We knew it was a situation we've been through before," Atlanta defensive tackle Dontari Poe said. "We just had to keep playing and use what we've learned."
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."
The Falcons advanced to face the top-seeded Eagles on Jan. 13 in Philadelphia.
"Doesn't matter where we're going, we're going," Ryan said. "And that's the most exciting part."
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.
But the Falcons have been here before, and they showed it.
The Falcons jumped to their early lead by capitalizing on two mistakes by Pharoh Cooper, the Rams' Pro Bowl kick returner. Atlanta's offense then chewed up the clock and field position, with the first drive after halftime consuming 8:15.
"To end with a time of possession over 37 minutes, that's hard to do in our league," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. "There was a nine-minute drive to start the second half, and I thought that really set the tone."
The Falcons' defense did more than enough to slow down the NFL's highest-scoring offense, harassing Jared Goff into a 24-for-45 performance in his playoff debut.
"They did a real nice job there moving the ball up the field and keeping us on the sideline," Goff said. "That can sure get you out of your rhythm."
Atlanta held MVP candidate Todd Gurley to 101 yards rushing - just 43 in the first three quarters - and four receptions for a mere 10 yards.
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.
"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' offense finally figured it out late in the first half: Goff made several sharp throws on a 79-yard drive ending in Kupp's TD catch, and Sam Ficken's first field goal trimmed the halftime deficit to 13-10.
But 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.
Los Angeles trimmed the lead to 19-13 with 10:49 to play, but the Falcons made another drive highlighted by a beautiful 52-yard screen pass from a blitz-avoiding Bryant to Mohamed Sanu.
Jones then caught the sixth playoff TD pass of his career. Goff drove the Rams deep into Falcons territory, but LA turned it over on down at the Atlanta 5 with 2:05 to play. The Falcons stopped the Rams again on downs at midfield with 1:08 left.
Although the Falcons' offense took a step back in production this season, Atlanta chipped away at the Rams' defense throughout the Coliseum return of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who coached USC here until 2015.
Ryan was methodical under relentless pressure from All-Pro lineman Aaron Donald, repeatedly avoiding trouble and making big throws. Freeman rushed for 66 yards, and Sanu had that key 52-yard gain on a screen pass.
"Great call by Sark," Ryan said.
Cooper is headed to the Pro Bowl after his outstanding regular season as a kick returner, but the second-year pro's misadventures in his playoff debut cost the Rams dearly.
He muffed a punt that bounced off teammate Blake Countess in the first quarter, and Bryant subsequently hit the Falcons' first field goal. After Bryant's second field goal later in the quarter, Cooper got stripped by Damontae Kazee during a kickoff return at the Rams 32, and the Falcons drove for Freeman's short TD run.
After the Falcons' defensive performance against Goff, they look like a potential problem for the powerful Eagles without quarterback Carson Wentz in the early Saturday divisional playoff game.
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Updated January 7, 2018