When the Falcons have the ball: Matt Ryan has rarely played like the reigning MVP this season, and Steve Sarkisian’s group has barely resembled its record-breaking form of a year ago. But the parts — RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, WRs Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and an offensive line with the ability to maul susceptible defenses (see: Week 15 in Tampa Bay) — remain dangerous on the NFL’s eighth-ranked offense (15th in points).
The keys are C Alex Mack being healthy, unlike last Sunday when he fought through a leg injury, and Sarkisian creatively providing ample opportunities for Freeman and Coleman as runners and receivers and ensuring Jones gets his touches. A potential problem: the dicey status of OG Andy Levitre (triceps), with holy terror Aaron Donald (11 sacks, 5 FF) — the centerpiece of Wade Phillips’ attacking ‘D’ — looming.
In addition to Donald, OLBs Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin provide the edge heat, flanking rangy ILBs Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree. But the run ‘D’ (No. 22 in Football Outsiders DVOA) has ceded some big games to multi-dimensional ground attacks. Franchise CB Trumaine Johnson has size and physicality to challenge Jones and Sanu, but feisty slot Nickell Roby-Coleman and Lamarcus Joyner are both smaller and steadier.
When the Rams have the ball: The NFL’s No. 1 scoring attack resembles the 2016 Falcons more than Atlanta does this season. Sean McVay’s matchup-based offense spins off an MVP candidate in Todd Gurley, the NFL’s hottest player. Although Jared Goff’s profound Year Two development has come without an All-Pro wideout such as Jones and complementary game-breaking RB like Coleman, he judiciously finds Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Sammy Watkins and has enjoyed upgraded protection thanks to the arrival of a blockbuster vet free-agent signee, LT Andrew Whitworth.
But Gurley — NFL-best 19 touchdowns and 2,093 total yards, including 591 and eight scores, respectively, in his final three games — is where Dan Quinn’s focus starts. Fortunately, his top two front-seven defenders, LB Deion Jones and DT Grady Jarrett, and enforcing S Keanu Neal are playing their best ball, too, helping Atlanta hold five of its past six foes below 100 rushing yards.
Can the pass rush that was missing in the second half of their Super Bowl collapse rise up? Like in the Super Bowl, it was better early than late in 2017, and Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley must buoy secondary mates, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford outside, and nickel Brian Poole, in a tough matchup with Kupp.
Special teams: Los Angeles’ Pro Bowl kicking battery was depleted two weeks ago with Greg Zuerlein heading to I.R. and rookie Sam Ficken struggling in his first call from the pen. Meantime, Matt Bryant kicked Atlanta back into the postseason by converting all five field goals in a must-win situation vs. Carolina with the red-zone offense faltering. Rams Pro Bowl RS Pharoh Cooper is the NFL’s leader in kickoff average and second on punt returns, and even with Zuerlein’s injury, the Rams’ third phase under John Fassel is markedly better than Atlanta’s.
Coaching: McVay and his exceptional staff have done as good a job as any in the NFL, while Atlanta’s offense under Sarkisian has disappointed. But Quinn and Co. deserve credit for returning to the postseason with the wounds of 28-3 still fresh. Atlanta may be battle tested, but that’s part of the beauty in McVay’s work —the rookie balancing his youth with the venerable Phillips and an experienced staff, including Fassel and QB coach Greg Olson.
Prediction: Nothing has come easy for the Falcons in their quest for Super Bowl vengeance, including playing a must-win Week 17 while the Rams rested. That matters for the Rams, much like not having to travel cross country on a short week. L.A. may have this game’s two brightest stars — Donald and Gurley — and they’ll again shine in the franchise’s first playoff game since Michael Vick’s Falcons throttled Mike Martz’s Rams 13 years ago.