LOS ANGELES -- The Atlanta Falcons, the team that always talks about taking things one game at a time, just cleared a major hurdle in their quest for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Maybe it's too early to start booking hotels in Minneapolis, but Saturday's 26-13 road victory for the No. 6 seed Falcons over the third-seeded Los Angeles Rams proved they are ready to make another deep postseason run. The high-scoring Rams, who averaged almost 30 points per game to lead the NFL, looked like an average offense against a Falcons defense that continues to ascend.
"We're not here just to get here," quarterback Matt Ryan said of winning the postseason opener. "We want to make noise while we're here. This is what it's all about. It's about giving yourself the opportunity this time of the year to compete and play in games like this, and to win games like this."
Nothing symbolized a team poised for the moment than reigning MVP Ryan's 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Julio Jones with just under six minutes left in regulation. Ryan, pressured by Connor Barwin, slipped on the shoddy field yet still had the presence to loft a perfect pass to Jones for the most important touchdown of the game. Ryan hit on 21 of 30 attempts for 218 yards with a touchdown, his fifth consecutive postseason game completing 70 percent or better of his passes. That's one away from tying Troy Aikman's NFL record, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Now the Falcons, who went 5-3 on the road during the regular season, find themselves set for a trip to Philadelphia next Saturday to face the top-seeded Eagles. But here's the catch: The Eagles are without quarterback Carson Wentz, the guy most considered the MVP front-runner before he went down with a season-ending ACL injury. It's a break for the Falcons, who most likely won't face as much a challenge trying to slow down Nick Foles, Philly's new starter.
"We know that they're a good team, and we know that they beat us last year," Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen said of the Eagles. "We know we're going to have to go there and fight."
A win over the Rams might not have happened had it not been for a couple of fumble recoveries on special teams, with one of those forced by rookie defensive back Damontae Kazee. Those turnovers led to 10 points. It was an example of the Falcons getting it done in all three phases.
Ryan and the offense missed on two red-zone opportunities, although they converted the one that counted most with the touchdown to Jones. A 52-yard catch-and-run by Mohamed Sanu off a screen helped make the score possible. What the Falcons were able to do more than anything was control the clock by sticking to the running game with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. As a team, Atlanta rushed for 124 yards and a Freeman touchdown on 39 carries, the primary reason why the Falcons dominated time of possession 37:35 to 22:25. Such an emphasis on the run will be important moving forward, particularly if the Falcons have to face ugly weather conditions in Philadelphia.
The Falcons know they can outscore anyone despite seeing more than a 10-point drop-off in their scoring average from a season ago. But what makes them even more dangerous now is the way the defense has played. Saturday's game against the Rams showed how dominant the unit can be, with the Falcons limiting MVP candidate Todd Gurley's ability to be effective, particularly as a receiver in the passing game.
The Falcons made plays on the ball, led by cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant and linebacker Deion Jones. They got after the quarterback, with key sacks and QB hits by Vic Beasley Jr., Takk McKinley and De'Vondre Campbell. And they tackled well, none better than what nickelback Brian Poole showed in the open field.
The Falcons also have a reliable kicker in Matt Bryant, who made four field goals, including a career postseason long from 54 yards.
In other words, the Falcons have all the ingredients to be a Super Bowl team. And as they've said for the past few weeks, everything they want is still right in front of them.
Now they just have to go a win two more on the road to claim the NFC championship and return to the Super Bowl. Their new motto of "any time, anywhere" seems to be catching on.