Overview: A year ago, or even last summer, few people would have predicted this match up in the playoffs. The Rams will be hosting their first playoff game in Los Angeles since January, 1986, when they beat the Dallas Cowboys 20-0. It's been even longer since they hosted a game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. That last happened on January 7, 1979, when they lost the NFC title game to Dallas by a score of 28-0. This time the Rams go in as 6 point favorites against the defending NFC Champion Falcons. A win will send the Rams on to the next round of the playoffs, with a road game against the Minnesota Vikings This week's match up is a classic battle between the up-and-coming Rams, led by the youngest Head Coach in NFL history, 31--year old Sean McVay, against the playoff hardened Atlanta Falcons team that many people felt under performed for much of the regular season. Does playoff experience really matter? We may find out on Saturday.
Rams Defense vs Falcons Offense: Anytime you discuss the Rams defense, you have to start the conversation with Aaron Donald, arguably the best defensive player on the planet right now. Donald logged 11 sacks despite missing three games, and he is the proverbial force to be reckoned with. It doesn't help Atlanta that starting left guard Andy Levitre has been placed on injured reserve and won't be available. AD always has the potential to take over a game, as he did a few weeks ago against the Seattle Seahawks. If that happens the Rams will likely win. Of course, as good as Donald is he isn't the only player Atlanta will have to worry about up front. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn, after a slow start, seemed to get the hang of the Rams 3-4 defensive scheme and is someone who can't be ignored when Matt Ryan drops back to throw. Overall the Rams finished fourth in the NFL in sacks in 2017. One of the big match ups when the Falcons have the ball will be Atlanta receiver Julio Jones vs. Rams corner Trumaine Johnson. Overall, though, I am guessing Atlanta will try to run the ball rather than get into a shootout that they would probably lose with the high-flying Rams offense. That means they need a big day from running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman against the Rams 28th-rated rushing defense. While Freeman was held out of the Falcons Tuesday practice and was limited on Wednesday, he is expected to play on Saturday. If the Falcons can run the ball effectively, eat up the clock, and avoid turnovers, they could win this game. I just don't happen to think that will happen. This isn't Rams Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips first playoff game, and I am betting he will have the Rams defense up to the task of limiting the Falcons running game.
Rams Offense vs Falcons Defense: The Rams are the first team in NFL history to go from last in points scored to first, and running back Todd Gurley had a lot to do with that. Not only did TGII rush for over 1300 yards, he also had 64 catches for 788 yards. That's exactly one yard less than Eagles wideout Alshon Jeffrey had in receiving yards...and Jeffrey played one more game. Every week opposing defenses pledge to stop Gurley, and usually they fail. While Atlanta's linebackers appear to be among the quicker, more athletic linebacking units in the NFL, for some reason they had problems with running backs catching passes out of the backfield. Atlanta's pass rush wasn't ''all that'' in the regular season either. They are 8th among the 12 teams making the playoffs in sacks. Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has a high respect for the the Rams offense. He was quoted as saying this week “They’re making a lot of big, explosive plays. They’re doing a good job of dividing defense’s down the middle and that’s where Gurley is getting a lot of those runs. Getting into that second level — a back that big going that fast, you don’t want to let him get to the second level. He’s playing with a whole new motor about himself than the year before and guys upfront are playing really hard. So, it’s going to be fun. I’m excited.” Jarrett is the son of legendary Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle. The Rams will want to contain defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who logged 9.5 sacks in the regular season and turned into a one-man wrecking crew against the Dallas Cowboys in a key Monday night game. The Falcons head coach is former Seattle Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn, and the Atlanta defense has a lot of similarities to the Seahawks scheme-wise. The Rams got some good news on the injury front this week with the news that rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp will play despite a nagging knee injury. Kupp, Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins where the Rams go-to wide receivers in the regular season. It's hard to shut down all three of them at once as well as Gurley.
Special Teams: I consider the Rams special teams to be the best in the NFL, and that hasn't changed since the regular season. Having said that, there are a couple of concerns here. Placekicker Greg Zuerlein is out for the year with back problems. Replacement Sam Ficken was two for two on field goal attempts Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, but he did miss a field goal and an extra point in his debut against the Tennessee Titans. He's still something of a question mark. Kick returner Pharoh Cooper was limited in practice this week, but last time I checked he was expected to play. Let's hope so, he's a big weapon in the return game. Otherwise the Rams are solid on special teams. Johnny Hekker is the best punter in the NFL, and a good enough passer to be a threat on the fake punts that the Rams will try every so often. The Rams excel at blocking punts, with linebacker Cory Littleton excelling in particular in that role. This is still an advantage for the Rams, but if Ficken has to win the game with a long field-goal attempt, things could get a little dicey.
Prediction: On paper the Rams should win this game, but as we all know, games aren't won on paper. I don't think Atlanta can win a shootout, but if this turns into a low-scoring grind-it-out battle they have a chance. The x-factor here is playoff experience, which heavily favors the Falcons. However, the NFL released the AP All-Pro Selections this morning, and would you know six Ram players were listed! Aaron Donald, Andrew Whitworth, Todd Gurley, Greg Zuerlein, and Pharoh Cooper (first time selections), with Rodger Saffold being named as a second All-Pro team. I'll take talent over experience and predict a Rams win.
Rams 34 Atlanta 24
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