The Rose Bowl, which opened in 1922, was the site of a historic win for Georgia on Monday night. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which opened in 1923, is set to host a Rams’ playoff game for the first time in 38 years.
The Falcons are seeking a different kind of history. They’re just trying to get back to last year.
The NFL playoffs open Saturday night. It took until the final week of the regular season for the Falcons to qualify. The fact they’re the only NFC team from last year’s postseason to make it in speaks to the volatility of such things, but when a team goes to the Super Bowl and leads the NFL in scoring and, well, almost slams New England for the championship, it enters the following season with a certain expectation level.
The Falcons didn’t meet those expectations during the season. They finished 10-6, which isn’t bad, and they went 6-2 in the second half, which is very good. But the question of which team shows up for the playoffs lingers.
The wild-card game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Coliseum on Saturday night will provide answers about the offense and the defense.
• Defense: The Falcons’ defense has been solid this season, ranking ninth in yardage (318.4) and eighth in points (19.7), despite having only 16 takeaways (27th overall). But they’re going against a Rams’ offense led by a creative young head coach, Sean McVay, who calls plays for the NFL’s high-scoring unit (29.9 points) and ranked 10th in total offense (361.5). Former Georgia running back Todd Gurley leads the team in rushing and receiving.
• Offense: The Falcons’ offense averaged 22.1 points per game, nearly 12 less than a year ago. There hasn’t been a significant drop in several categories from 2016, but they’re far worse in the red zone. Their touchdown percentage of 50 ranks 23rd in the league and is down from 64.6 percent a year ago. The team averaged 1.7 touchdowns in the red zone this season, down from 2.7 last season.
Wade Phillips, the well-traveled but long successful defensive coordinator for the Rams, said of the Falcons earlier this week: “They’ve kind of hit their stride here at the end of the year, as far as their offense goes.”
What makes him believe that?
“I just look at the last ballgame. They’ve played some really good teams and played well against them. In the last game I thought they moved the ball really well. It’s hard to stop their running game, and the quarterback can move the football.”
The Falcons’ last game was a 22-10 win over Carolina on Sunday. They totaled 371 yards in offense, with Matt Ryan throwing for 317, and they went 6-for-16 on third downs. But the team was a horrible 1-for-5 in the red zone.
Matt Bryant kicked five field goals, including a clutch 56-yarder in the fourth quarter. That’s great for Bryant. It’s great for the Falcons. It’s bad for the offense in the big picture.
This good news for the Falcons is that while the NFC playoff field is solid, there are no dominant teams. Philadelphia is 13-3, but lost starting quarterback Carson Wentz with three games left. Minnesota is 13-3, but are you going to trust a playoff team with quarterback Case Keenum, who couldn’t cut it in his first four NFL seasons with Houston or the Rams?
The Falcons also have been on this playoff stage before, while the Rams have only five players on the active roster with playoff experience (only three starters). That includes tackle Andrew Whitworth, who played in six playoff games with Cincinnati, but lost all of them.
“I’m O-fer, so I don’t have much experience in winning,” he joked this week. “I don’t know if that really gives me value.”
It’s there for the Falcons, if only they play to the level of their talent. Too often this season, they haven’t.
They have had some impressive wins: Green Bay, Dallas, Seattle, New Orleans and to some degree Carolina at the end. But they’ve also had some ugly losses (Buffalo, Miami, New England, Minnesota) and narrow escapes (Chicago, Detroit, New York Jets).
Notwithstanding the way the Super Bowl ended, most expected a smoother ride this season. Can they flip a switch? The playoffs will either affirm that something was just off this season or much of what we’ve seen since September never mattered.