FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – There are plenty of intriguing storylines surrounding the Falcons' first-round matchup with the Rams. Notably among those is how Atlanta's defense will fare against star running back Todd Gurley. The Falcons' defense has played well against the run over the second half of the season, but Gurley has proven to be among the best players in the NFL this season.
Today's Early Bird Report includes a look at the Falcons' position in the power rankings heading into the playoffs as well as seven stats to know about the Rams in 2017.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Wild-card round power rankings: Falcons climb back into top 10
The Falcons ended on a high note, and they were rewarded for their efforts in the power rankings. Atlanta's victory over Carolina was enough to help it climb back into the top 10 in many of the final power rankings of the season. For our final edition of Matt Tabeek's Wildly Important NFL Power Rankings, click here.
"Despite the constant narrative about the new offensive coordinator, the midseason lull (that included three losses to AFC East teams) and 2017 being a far cry from Matt Ryan's MVP season of '16, the Falcons found their way into the playoffs. Give credit where it's due. Atlanta played a heckuva ballgame against the Panthers, with corner Robert Alford being especially destructive to Carolina's chances. Come this Saturday, it will be the run defense that is challenged most. Stop Todd Gurley, and the Falcons have a legitimate shot to defeat the Rams."
"That offense we saw against the Panthers was a much better Falcons offense than what they've showed most of the season. This is a playoff-tested team, which will help this week at the Rams."
"The Falcons needed a Week 17 victory to return to the playoffs and saw a dip in offensive efficiency from 2016 to 2017 (first to eighth). But there's a reason things were a bit tougher for the Falcons this season. They played the third-hardest schedule in the NFL."
"Atlanta beat the Panthers to get into the playoffs and now have to slow down the NFL's highest-scoring team in the Rams."
ESPN: Falcons know key is to slow Rams' Todd Gurley
Having watched him play at the University of Georgia, many Falcons fans are familiar with just how special a running back Todd Gurley is. The Falcons' players and coaches are well aware of his abilities as well. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett faced Gurley twice while at Clemson, and he spoke with ESPN's Vaughn McClure about the importance of slowing down the Rams' star running back.
"I always tell people, coming out the combine, I was asked who the best player you ever felt like you played against in college, and I always said Todd," Jarrett told McClure. "So I have a great respect for his game. And he's having a great year, so I know it's definitely going to be a challenge."
Gurley was the Rams' leading rusher and receiver in the regular season, combining for 2,093 total yards from scrimmage and a league-leading 19 touchdowns. He's been the key to the Rams' offense this season, and he will be the main priority for the Falcons' defense.
Here are some more stories on the Falcons:
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Los Angeles Rams
TheRams.com: Rams' historic turnaround: Seven stats to know from 2017
In one year, the Rams went from having the worst scoring offense in the NFL to having the very best. After averaging just 14 points (!) a game in 2016, the Rams are scoring 29.9 points per game this season. That dramatic turnaround marks the first time in the Super Bowl era that a team has gone from worst to first in scoring offense, according to Kristen Lago of the team's official website.
Lago identified seven statistics from the regular season to illustrate how effective the Rams have been in a number of key areas, including interceptions, kicking and coaching. All of those factors combined to give the Rams their first playoff berth since 2005, when they were defeated by the Falcons in the divisional round 47-17.
Here is some other news on the Rams:
- NBC Sports: McVay not concerned by Rams' lack of playoff experience
- CBS Sports: Why the surprising Rams will advance to the next round
- *Los Angeles Times: *Sammy Watkins has provided a new slant at receiver
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
*The Charlotte Observer: *One word describes Cam Newton's playoff history
Cam Newton has played in six postseason games as the Panthers' starting quarterback, and his play over the stretch has been, according to The Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler, "mediocre." Newton is 3-3 in the postseason with a 59.78 percent completion rate, 1,472 passing yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. Only once in his six playoff games has Newton not turned the ball over.
"The quarterback is also coming off one of the worst games of his seven-year NFL career," Fowler writes. "Newton posted a career-low passer rating in a three-interception game in Carolina's 22-10 loss to Atlanta Sunday. Coach Ron Rivera said Monday he felt confident Newton would play well against New Orleans because the quarterback normally 'bounces back after a tough outing.'"
*The Times-Picayune: *7 major milestones the Saints achieved this season
The Saints didn't just capture the NFC South title in 2017, they reached a number of notable milestones along the way. Amos Morale III identified seven of the major milestones New Orleans achieved this season in a piece for *The Times-Picayune. *
Among those benchmarks are Drew Brees' season going down as the most accurate in NFL history. The Saints' starting quarterback completed a whopping 72 percent of his passes this season, topping the mark of 71.6 percent that Sam Bradford set last year. Also on the list are Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara becoming the first running back tandem in NFL history to each top 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season.
Here are some more articles from around the division:
- *Times-Picayune: *Why is Brees the most accurate passer in NFL history?
- *USA TODAY: *Bucs 'very concerned' with Winston's turnovers
- *The Charlotte Observer: *Why Panthers haven't found McCaffrey's ceiling
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