FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – With a victory over the Panthers in Week 17, the Falcons became the only NFC team from the 2016 playoff field to return to the postseason in 2017.
Their reward for securing the No. 6 seed? A first-round trip to Los Angeles for a meeting with the No. 3 seed Rams. Under first-year head coach Sean McVay, the Rams went from being the worst scoring offense in the NFL to being the very best. Los Angeles averages nearly 30 points per game, and running back Todd Gurley is a big reason why.
Let's dive into this week's key matchup and discuss why it's so important for the Falcons to contain the Rams' star running back.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' run defense vs. Todd Gurley
The Falcons' run defense has slowly become one of the league's best. Since allowing a season-high 201 rushing yards to the Panthers in Week 9, the Falcons have given up just 93.6 yards per game on the ground over the second half of the season. In their last six games, only one team – Minnesota – has gained more than 100 rushing yards.
It's clear that Atlanta's defense is playing its best football right now, but the Falcons face their biggest test yet in Gurley.
Gurley led the NFC in combined rushing and receiving yards during the regular season, finishing with 2,093 total yards from scrimmage and a league-leading 19 touchdowns, despite missing the Rams' regular-season finale. Gurley gained over 100 total yards in 12 of the 15 games he played this season, and he gained more than 100 yards as both a runner and a receiver in the Rams' Week 16 victory over the Titans, becoming just the third player in NFL history to accomplish such a feat.
Jay Ajayi was the only running back to rush for 100 yards or more against the Falcons this season, but Gurley is a cut above any back they've played in 2017. That's no slight to players like LeSean McCoy, Mark Ingram or Alvin Kamara but rather a way to shed light on just how impressive Gurley has been this season.
"What I can say is that he has the ability to beat you on leverage," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Gurley. "In other words, he's got that kind of speed that he can take the angle and go. The second thing is do I want to try to drop my shoulder on you, but he also has the ability to put his foot in the ground and make you miss. So tackling for us for sure is going to be at the very front of our topic all week long, and it's not just in the run game. He's been a factor coming out of the backfield as well."
With a second-year quarterback in Jared Goff, who is making his first playoff appearance, the Rams will likely turn to their bell cow running back to set the tone on Saturday. If the Falcons can't find a way to slow Gurley, it could be a long evening in Los Angeles.
Five more things to know about Falcons-Rams
1. Aaron Donald is a true game-changer
Quinn announced on Tuesday that starting left guard Andy Levitre would be placed on injured reserve, effectively ending his season. That news came prior to the Falcons facing one of the top defensive players in the NFL: Aaron Donald.
Now in his fourth season, Donald has established himself as arguably the best defensive tackle in the league. He has 11 sacks this season – the second time he's accomplished that feat – and his 98.4 grade from Pro Football Focus is the second-highest grade among all NFL players.
"What makes him unique, he has really good get-off and that's part of being a good defensive tackle," Quinn said of Donald. "But the use of his hands is excellent. He's got leverage, he can use his hands to get up field. So all of us from a challenge standpoint, he's a factor in this game for sure."
2. Falcons' third-down offense has been NFL's best
Despite a few hiccups in individual games, the Falcons finished the regular season with the NFL's best third-down offense. Atlanta converted 44.67 percent of their third-down opportunities in 2017, but the numbers are even more impressive when you dig a bit deeper.
The Rams' defense allowed opposing offenses to convert on 37.89 percent of their third downs this season, the 14th-best mark in the league. 3. Wade Phillips' magic continues
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips continued one of the league's most interesting streaks this season. With Los Angeles making the playoffs, it marked the eighth straight time that a team has made the postseason in Phillips' first season as either a head coach or a defensive coordinator. The streak began in 1989 with the Denver Broncos. Here is the complete list:
- 1989 Denver Broncos (DC)
- 1995 Buffalo Bills (DC)
- 2002 Atlanta Falcons (DC)
- 2004 San Diego Chargers (DC)
- 2007 Dallas Cowboys (HC)
- 2011 Houston Texans (DC)
- 2015 Denver Broncos (DC)
- 2017 Los Angeles Rams (DC)
4. Falcons beat Rams in their last playoff appearance
The Rams' last playoff run came to an abrupt halt when they arrived in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 2005. With an offense led by Marc Bulger, Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt, the Rams mustered just 17 points in their Divisional Round loss to the Falcons, a 47-17 blowout.
Atlanta had a slew of explosive plays in the victory, including a 62-yard touchdown run by Warrick Dunn and a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown by Allen Rossum.
Now back in the postseason for the first time since the 2004 season, it's only fitting that the Rams' first opponent is the team that knocked them out of the playoffs over a decade ago. 5. Rams hold a big series lead over their former NFC West foe
Although the Falcons have won six of their last seven games against the Rams, they are far behind their former NFC West rival in the all-time head-to-head series. The Rams hold a 47-29-2 all-time record against the Falcons with long stretches of dominance.
In fairness, many of those losses came at the very beginning of the Falcons franchise. Atlanta didn't earn its first victory against Los Angeles until their 12th meeting in 1972. In fact, the Falcons tied the Rams twice before ever beating them.