FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – We're only two days away from the beginning of the 2017 NFL playoffs and the Falcons' first-round matchup with the Rams out in Los Angeles. Experience will be on Atlanta's side, but will that be enough to slow down the likes of Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald?
Today's Early Bird Report includes expert picks for the wild-card round as well as a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each team in the NFC playoff field.
FALCONS HEADLINES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Wild-card round expert picks: Falcons a surprise favorite on the road
Although they are entering Saturday's matchup as the lower seed, the Falcons have the support of the experts at CBS Sports. Six of the eight expert pickers favor Atlanta on the road in Los Angeles, the highest level of support a road team is receiving in the first round. CBS Sports' Senior Writer Pete Prisco continued his season-long trend of backing the Falcons, picking them to earn a 30-27 victory against the Rams. Here is part of what Prisco had to say about his choice:
"This will be the first playoff game for a lot of Rams players, including quarterback Jared Goff, and also coach Sean McVay. The Falcons will bring a playoff-tested group that went to the Super Bowl last season, which gives them an edge."
FiveThirtyEight's projection model also gives Atlanta a slight edge in the first round. According to the site, the Falcons have a slim 51 percent win probability against the Rams on Saturday. At SB Nation, the experts are split right down the middle. Four of the eight pickers like the Falcons on the road, while an equal number believe the Rams will defend their home turf.
NFL.com: Strengths and weaknesses of each NFC playoff team
With the playoffs nearly upon us, Marc Sessler of NFL.com analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of each NFC team in the postseason. As the only returning playoff team in the conference, the Falcons were very much a part of that analysis.
In searching for the Falcons' strength to identity, Sessler landed upon experience. After making it all the way to the Super Bowl last season, the Falcons are the only team with immediate playoff experience to call upon this year. As for the weakness, here's what Sessler had to say:
"Looking through the prism of Saturday's road tilt against the Rams, I don't see a team that can stay competitive if Los Angeles does what everyone expects: pour on points from beginning to end. The Rams have churned out a league-leading 29.9 points per game, with the ability to thrash defenses by land and through the air. It goes beyond the loss of Kyle Shanahan, with quarterback Matt Ryan simply not playing at least year's MVP level. Atlanta has scored under 25 points in five straight affairs, the Falcons' longest streak since 2015. I don't like the matchup."
Here are some more stories on the Falcons:
NEWS ON THE FALCONS' OPPONENT: Los Angeles Rams
TheRams.com: Goff's performance instrumental in Rams' 2017 turnaround
Although Todd Gurley has garnered much of the attention on the Rams' offense, second-year quarterback Jared Goff has played a vital role in his team's turnaround. As Myles Simmons of the team's official website notes, Goff made a promise to the fan base last year that he would do everything in his power to get things turned around.
"You know, I think it goes back to what I was saying — it's a whole team effort," Goff said. "I was upset at that time, and it was a hard time for not only myself, but the whole team — the whole staff, everybody involved in the organization. I wanted to kind of take a lot of it upon myself to try to get it fixed, and try to do a lot of things. But, ultimately, it's been a complete team effort here."
Here is some other news on the Rams:
BIGGEST NEWS FROM AROUND THE NFC SOUTH
*The Charlotte Observer: *Sean Payton: Kuechly will 'yawn' if play calls don't evolve
It's no secret that Luke Kuechly is one of the very best linebackers in the NFL. His physical skills are matched only by his preparation and knowledge of the game, a knowledge that has impressed Saints head coach Sean Payton.
"You have to have plays that look the same, but are something different," Payton said, according to Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. "He is so good at communicating to (fellow linebackers Thomas) Davis and Shaq [Thompson]."
*The New Orleans Advocate: *Saints might have all hands on deck for playoffs
It appears the Saints are getting healthy at just the right time. According to Joel Erickson of *The New Orleans Advocate, *the Saints might have every member of their 53-man roster available for their first-round matchup with the Panthers.
"Left tackle Terron Armstead (thigh), defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle) and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (concussion), who all missed the season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday, a good sign for their availability against Carolina," Erickson writes.
Here are some more articles from around the division:
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