The Atlanta Falcons faced a must-win situation in Week 17 and took care of business to sneak into the NFC playoffs and have a chance to repeat as NFC champions. The task at hand is not an easy one, as the Falcons travel cross-country on a short week to take on the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams, who used last week as a pseudo bye week to rest up for this Wild Card Weekend affair. As a result, we’ve seen some initial investment on the Rams. The line opened 4.5 at Bookmakerand has gone up to 5.5 pretty much industry-wide as early-week numbers grabbers are getting out in front of the market.
The Falcons went 10-6, but needed every one of those 10 wins to qualify for the playoffs in the top-heavy NFC. Atlanta was just 7-9 ATS in what was honestly a disappointing season, which is hard to say with 10 wins. After last season’s statistical dominance, the Falcons rarely looked the part of a top contender, but the slate will be wiped clean for the Wild Card Weekend. Atlanta is 7-3 over its last 10 games, but 5-5 ATS in that span. The Rams went 11-5 and won the NFC West for the first time since the Greatest Show on Turf was a thing. The Rams have not lost consecutive games this season, but have dropped three of the last four against the spread.
The Falcons are a dangerous team to face in the playoffs. Even though Atlanta finished 15th in points, the Falcons were tied for third in yards per play with 5.9. The Falcons just had horrible issues in the red zone, ranging from untimely turnovers to dropped passes and just about everything in between. A team with as much talent as Atlanta, and a future Hall of Famer in Julio Jones, should never go 50 percent in the red zone over the course of a season, but that’s what the loss of an offensive guru like Kyle Shanahan can do. The Falcons missed his play design and non-Super Bowl play calling. The Falcons were the top team in the NFL on third down, so this is definitely a scary offense to go up against. Matt Ryan wasn’t as comfortable in this Steve Sarkisian offense. After a career year in 2016, he had a 20/12 TD/INT ratio in 2017. The Falcons were more effective running the ball with 4.3 yards per carry and seemed to force offensive balance a bit too much at times, rather than leave it up to Ryan. Either way, this is an offense that moved the ball with relative ease and extended drives, but had problems finishing off drives. In smaller samples like the playoffs, a positive regression to the mean in the red zone with an already-potent offense could create some upsets.
While the offense was down 0.8 yards per play from last season, the defense was 0.5 yards per play better than last season. Head coach Dan Quinn has all of the personnel in place that he needs. The formula is quite simple in today’s NFL. Get some guys that can rush, whether they play DE or OLB. Have a stud middle linebacker and a stud safety. The Falcons check all of those boxes with Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal. The Falcons did their best to cancel out their offensive red zone woes by being the fifth-best defense inside the 20. One glaring issue for the Falcons was that they only forced 16 turnovers, which was tied for 27th, but that makes the defensive performance that much more impressive without the luxury of takeaways. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel has a lot of skill position talent to contend with here.
It is fair to say that there will be some skeptics out there about the Rams this week. Jared Goff is playing in the brightest spotlight that he has ever experienced. First-year head coach Sean McVay has done this song and dance as an offensive coordinator, but he hasn’t been front and center as the head coach. Goff completed 62.1 percent of his throws with a 28/7 TD/INT ratio. Todd Gurley ran for over 1,300 yards. McVay molded a lot of raw talent into a top offense. The Rams led the NFL in points scored this season, but ranked tied for seventh in yards per play, below the Falcons. The Rams weren’t even that great in the red zone with a 55.1 percent success rate. Even though the Falcons were forced to play out last week’s game, the Rams may be in worse injury shape, with Cooper Kupp questionable for this week and Rodger Saffold also labeled as questionable. Kicker Greg Zuerlein is also out, which is an injury that carries increased importance in the postseason.
The Rams allowed 5.3 yards per play, so they also trailed Atlanta in that department. The big difference is that the Rams had 28 takeaways, which ranked fifth in the NFL, and opponents only scored on 30.6 percent of their possessions as a result. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will be a tremendous asset for McVay in this game and throughout the duration of the Rams’ stay in the playoffs, much like he was during the regular season. One concern in this game, though, is how well Atlanta ran the football against a very porous Rams rush defense. The Rams were sixth in adjusted net yards per pass attempt against and had 48 sacks, which ranked fourth, but Los Angeles had the second-worst defense in the NFL from a yards per carry standpoint. With a balanced Atlanta offense coming to town, how will Phillips structure the defense? Will he fill the box to stop the run and force Ryan to beat him or will he go with what has worked throughout the season?
Free NFL Pick: Atlanta Falcons +5.5
The early move on this game looks like a setup to push the line up and come back later in the week at higher limits. The spot isn’t ideal for Atlanta, coming off of a must-win game with cross-country travel on a short week, but the Falcons stack up really nicely from a statistical standpoint. Turnovers and red zone success were the two biggest differences between these teams. In a one-game sample in the playoffs, there is a little more variance in play. Playoff rookie QB Jared Goff is going to see a solid defense here coached by one of the best defensive minds in the league in Dan Quinn. The Falcons are set up well to pull off an upset, but take the points just to be safe.