LOS ANGELES -- Those who wondered all season what was wrong with the Atlanta Falcons might have gotten their answer Saturday night: Maybe nothing is wrong with them at all.
Maybe this team has learned from the hard lessons of its Super Bowl collapse against the New England Patriots 11 months ago. There were encouraging signs during their 26-13 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in an NFC wild-card matchup Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian unveiled a game plan that could have been borrowed from L.A. coaching legends John Robinson and Chuck Knox.
"To end with a time of possession of 37 minutes, that's hard to do in our league," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said.
There was no 25-point cushion for the Falcons to protect this time, as there was when their 28-3 lead over the Patriots turned into a 34-28 defeat. There was no Tom Brady on the other side this time, either. But in turning a 13-10 halftime lead over the Rams into a convincing victory by possessing the ball for all but 1:53 of the third quarter, Atlanta suppressed a Rams offense that had been just as prolific as New England's was last season.
Incredibly, the Falcons possessed the ball five seconds longer in the third quarter Saturday (13:07) than they had during the entire second half against New England. They did it with 16- and 10-play drives to field goals featuring 15 running plays and a series of shorter, lower-risk passes. Matt Ryan averaged 3.8 air yards per attempt, a career low for the regular season or playoffs. His pass to Mohamed Sanu for a 52-yard gain provided the largest gain for either team -- on a second-and-13 screen.
They gained 124 tough yards on 39 carries.
"It was tough sledding, for sure," Ryan said, "but we felt like that was our best plan for success, and the guys bought into that. We all had that belief, and we were very clear about our plan coming into this game, and it shook out the way we wanted it to."
Even the Falcons' pass plays were an extension of the ground game. There were 39 rushes and 30 pass attempts overall and a combination of game management and execution that served the Falcons well in this matchup and could carry over.
"We had to stay committed [to the run]," Quinn said. "Their pass-rushers are talented, where we didn't want to make it into a drop-back game. We thought there would be more space early on in the run game. There wasn't, but we knew we were going to stay committed as part of our plan."
Ball control could be the way to go against the Eagles, as well, especially if the weather conditions are difficult (some warming from this week is expected by kickoff, but early forecasts suggested there also could be rain). Philly allowed a league-low 3.3 yards per carry to opposing running backs this season, while the Rams ranked 30th with a 4.6-yard average against. That suggests the Falcons might do no better than their 3.2-yard average from Saturday. They could be more weatherproof than the stereotypical dome team, however.
"Atlanta will go from playing on a damp, embarrassing track like that in L.A. to a game in Philly that could be in a snowstorm," a defensive coach from another team said. "They are going to play D, run the ball, throw short passes, run reverses, protect the ball, and you wonder how well Philly can score without its quarterback."
During the Doug Pederson era, the Eagles are averaging an NFL-high plus-4:58 time of possession per game, an unreal increase of 12:16 per game from the Chip Kelly era, when Philly's average deficit was 7:18, largest in the league. There is an asterisk, however. The Eagles are at minus-2:22 per game since a knee injury knocked quarterback Carson Wentz from the lineup for the final three games. That could be problematic against the Falcons.
With Devonta Freeman runs blending into Ryan screens and even a Julio Jones reverse Saturday night, it was finally possible to envision the hand-wringing over Sarkisian's initial season as the Falcons' offensive coordinator becoming a footnote instead of the headline that won't go away.
Predecessor Kyle Shanahan had coordinated a 2016 Falcons offense that led the NFL in scoring at 31.6 offensive points per game. At one point during the NBC broadcast Saturday, a graphic that could have accompanied a change.org petition calling for Sarkisian's ouster juxtaposed the Rams' record-setting, year-over-year gains against the Falcons' sizable year-over-year declines.
The numbers did not lie, but by game's end, the Falcons had held the Rams to 13 points, which was beneath L.A.'s league-worst 13.6-point average for offensive points per game last season, before head coach Sean McVay arrived.
"Atlanta is really intriguing now," the defensive coach from another team said. "They were able to close out a game on a tricky, bad surface with a dynamic offense on the other side, which they did not do in the Super Bowl and have not done consistently enough. They are running the ball, the D is playing well, their kicker might be the best and they managed the game well."
It looked like the Falcons had learned their lesson -- for a night and perhaps longer.