Defending NFC champs against biggest one-season turnaround in the NFL? Yes, please.
The marquee names in the NFC may be largely absent this year (no Cowboys, Packers, Seahawks or Giants from last January, for example), but a showdown like this will do just fine. The LA Coliseum has not hosted an NFL playoff game since 1994, and the Rams have not played a postseason game there since 1979 … seven years before coach Sean McVay was born.
Enough subplots for you on that side? The Falcons led the Super Bowl by 25 points last year. (Yeah, you probably didn’t forget.) They had to win their way in last week against the Panthers, or else put an exclamation point on a Super Bowl hangover that would have devoured their offseason.
It might also end up matching the last two Most Valuable Players, 2016’s Matt Ryan vs. 2017 contender Todd Gurley.
This showdown earned the prime-time slot for the weekend.
Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams (-4 1/2): Picks, predictions
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC
David Steele: Odd stat quirk for this game: The host Rams are 4-4 in their building. The losses are to Washington in Week 2, to Seattle in Week 5, a showdown with the Eagles in Week 14 when Nick Foles had to finish the game, and last week’s finale against the 49ers, when LA rested several starters. Discount most or all of them for these purposes, considering the circumstances? It’s unlikely there will be a problem of a home-field disadvantage with a large and rabid crowd expected.
More conventional stats pit the Rams with the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, against a Falcons defense that has carried them down the stretch as Ryan and the offense has been hit-and-miss. Over the last six weeks the Falcons have given up 23 points or fewer in each game; that included two games against the Saints and single ones against the Vikings and Panthers, all potent offenses.
The irresistible force of the Rams offense — led by Gurley, who led the NFL in combined rushing and receiving yards — should still be too much. They’ve faced down their share of challenges in this renaissance year, and they should be able to handle this one.
Rams 31, Falcons 26
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Vinnie Iyer: The Falcons will start their NFC title defense far away from home against the rested Rams. The Falcons have the much better run defense, but the Rams have the more dangerous backfield because of Gurley.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman must have a big game to help the Falcons control the ball and clock, limiting the opportunities for the Rams’ explosive, quick-strike offense. Look for Wade Phillips to scheme to stop the run first, turning this into a passing duel between Ryan and Jared Goff.
Phillips will set up his secondary to contain Julio Jones with varied coverage looks and make Ryan beat them with other guys. Meanwhile, McVay, as he usually does, will get Goff focused on the best matchups, working on the advantages for the inside, intermediate passing game with Gurley and rookie slot wideout Cooper Kupp.
The Rams will get into Ryan’s face with Aaron Donald, while the Falcons won’t have the same success winning on the edge against tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein to get to Goff. The Falcons’ shaky offensive coaching with Steve Sarkisian will cost them here in the stark contrast to McVay.
Rams 31, Falcons 27