Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Falcons open playoffs with upset -- and now it’s about defense


A year ago, we watched for the offense. The Falcons dazzled us with X’s and O’s that short-circuited scoreboards, blinded opposing defenses and made Atlanta sports fans stop and think, “Wait. Is this our team? Is this a trick?”

Then the season-long euphoria ended in a way that could only be reserved for Atlanta’s own little dark corner of the sports universe.

This year, don’t watch for the offense. The Falcons opened the playoffs Saturday night and affirmed that will not be the side of the ball that gives them their best chance for a long playoff run.

Defense -- the part of the team that collapsed in the Super Bowl, the part of the team that coach Dan Quinn, a long-time defensive coordinator wanted most to fix in the offseason -- began these playoffs by stuffing the NFL’s highest-scoring offense. The Los Angeles Rams, who averaged nearly 30 points per game during the regular, were held to less than half that, as the Falcons opened the playoffs with a 26-13 upset in the NFC wild-card game.

This win came at the end of a week in which the Falcons were largely ignored in their own city, given the run of a certain college team.  So maybe this gets them back on the radar.

Some fans, probably too many, turned away from this team when it couldn’t match last year’s pyrotechnics. They went 10-6 this season, certainly not awful but less than what was epxected, particularly with so many unimpressive performances. But look at them now. The Falcons will be underdogs again next week at Philadelphia, but the Eagles are a wobbly No. 1 seed, having lost starting quarterback Carson Wentz a few weeks ago.

Another Super Bowl run isn’t out of the question.

“We’re not here just to get here,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We want to make noise while we’re here.”

This game was held on grass. Or ice. Sometimes it was hard to tell.

Players on both teams slipped throughout the game. The Coliseum field apparently was re-sodded in late November after the USC-UCLA game. The Rams had played on it once since then – last week’s regular-season finale against San Francisco – and there was some slipping, but not nearly as much as we witnessed Saturday.

Maybe it was the night air. Maybe it was the ghosts of Falcons’ playoffs past, just up to their usual mischief.

Falcons offensive coordiantor Steve Sarkisian, the former USC coach who played home games here, had forewarned the team that the grass gets slick in night games. Something about the “marine layer.” Several players changed to longer cleats in the shoes.

“That field was terrible,” Adrian Clayborn said. “They need to do something about that. I changed (cleats) but it didn’t do anything.”

So it wasn’t ballet. But the Falcons jumped out to an early 13-0 lead. They had some help. A muffed punt set up a Matt Bryant. Another fumble by Rams kickoff returner Pharoh Cooper to open the second quarter gave the Falcons’ possession at L.A. 32-yard line. This time the offense made it into the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown run by Freeman for a 13-0 lead.

If offensive linemen got more respect, center Alex Mack would’ve been credited with the touchdown, as he literally grabbed Freeman and pulled him across the line after it appeared the running back was stopped.

Mack, defusing credit: “I should’ve been blocking the linebacker.”

Freeman: “That’s never happened to me before.”

At 13-0, everybody could relax.

Kidding.

Nothing has come easy this season. Nothing figured to for a franchise that hadn’t won a road playoff game since 2002 (the Michael Vick-led 27-7 upset of Green Bay at Lambeau Field).

The Rams had bupkis after four possessions, and they lost the chance for two others on fumbles. But in the second quarter, a  26-yard run by Todd Gurley, compounded by a Ricardo Allen’s personal foul for a late hit, moved the ball to the Falcons’ 34. Four plays later, defensive back Brian Poole got caught in a pick, giving wide receiver Cooper Kupp enough of a head start to get open in the end zone for a touchdown from Goff.

But that would be the Rams’ only touchdown.

Bryant kicked two more field goals, giving him four in the game. Two traveled more than 50 yards. Suddenly, every wide-eyed young football player in Atlanta is thinking, “One day, I want to grow up to be Matt Bryant.”

The Falcons added another touchdown later. Ryan slipped and had linebacker Connor Barwin in his face but he managed to loft an 8-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones. The play was set up by offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s best call of the game: a screen pass wide right to Mohamed Sanu against the blitz, with Sanu jetting for 52 yards.

A legion of critics on Twitter were forced to pull one dart out of Sarkisian’s picture.

The Rams tried to come back. But their last real threat ended when Deion Jones broke up a fourth-down pass to Sammy Watkins in the end zone. It was fitting the win was secured by the defense.

“We’re playing with confidence. We’re just clicking,” Clayborn said.

It was a nice view for Ryan. He was at the center of this team’s success last season but he’s just fine with defense taking center stage.

“It’s awesome. It’s fun to watch,” he said. “Our defense has played really well this season, particularly in the last six to eight weeks. For our defense to do that against the Rams was special.”

Fresh podcast: On Falcons’ playoffs and Georgia’s national title game

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.