8:15 PM EST, NBC – Line: Rams -6.5, Over/Under: 48.5
Oh what a difference a year makes in the National Football League, as the reigning NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons will be heading to the City of Angels to face the revitalized Los Angeles Rams, in a matchup featuring a fading contender and a surprising upstart in the first Playoff Game to be contested at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 1993. A year after riding the most explosive Offense in the league to the franchise’s second appearance in the Super Bowl, and subsequently experiencing the worst collapse in the history of the event, the Falcons (10-6, 3rd in NFC South) have managed to return to the Postseason, after enduring a frustratingly inconsistent campaign that featured plenty of highs and lows, including a pair of 3-Game Winning Streaks as well as a 3-Game Losing Streak to boot. Simply put, Atlanta’s Offense may feature largely the same names and faces as it did a year ago, but they certainly aren’t the same attack that paced the NFL in scoring at 33.8 Points on 430.5 Total Yards per Game. With former Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan now the Head Coach in San Francisco, this unit has regressed mightily, struggling with their rhythm, timing, and consistency, which is alarming given that the majority of their key contributors have been in place for many years now. And we can’t lay all the blame at the feet of Steve Sarkisian, who replaced Shanahan as the team’s Offensive Playcaller during the Offseason, for this has simply been a case of a group that has struggled to regain the big-play magic that they utilized to devastating effect a year ago; during their run to the Super Bowl, Dan Quinn’s charges led the NFL with Eighty-Eight Plays of 20-Yards or more, with nineteen of those plays ending in a Touchdown, while that proverbial big-play well has dried up a year later, with Sixty-Six Plays of 20-Yards or more this term, ten of which went for scores. On the season, the Falcons have averaged 22.1 Points (15th Overall) on 374.5 Total Yards (8th Overall), including 259.1 Yards through the air (8th Overall) on 7.2 Net Yards per Attempt (3rd Overall), along with 115.4 Yards on the ground (13th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (8th Overall), while leading the league in Third Down Conversion Percentage (44.7%). While those figures certainly don’t paint the picture of a poor Offense, the devil is always in the details, which brings us to Matt Ryan (64.7%, 4,095 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 20 TD, 12 INT), the reigning MVP who lit the NFL on fire in 2016. A year after leading the league in a slew of categories including Touchdown Percentage (7.1%), Yards per Attempt (9.3), Net Yards per Attempt (8.3), Yards per Completion (13.3), Passer Rating (117.1), and QBR (83.3), while setting personal bests in Completion Percentage (69.9%), Passing Yards (4,944), Touchdown Passes (38), and Interceptions (7), no player on this Offense has regressed more than the 32-Year Old Quarterback. The drop-off in Touchdowns alone is remarkable (Minus-18), but anyone that has watched Ryan operate throughout this season could see that something is indeed missing. Pressure isn’t the problem, for he was sacked just twenty-four times in 2017, or in other words, thirteen fewer times than he did last year. However, Turnovers have been a bitter pill to swallow for this outfit, for a year after earning a Plus-11 Differential, the Falcons have ended the 2017 campaign with a disappointing Minus-2 Differential. This has also led to a considerable drop-off in the Red Zone, where despite being able to move the ball with ease between the 20-Yard Lines, has seen them stall repeatedly with a 50.0% Touchdown Percentage in this area of the field (23rd Overall), down from 61.9% a year ago. Furthermore, few Quarterbacks have faded as badly down the stretch as this guy, for Ryan has completed 58.3% of his Attempts for an average of 242.2 Yards on 6.95 Net Yards per Attempt, with Four Touchdowns and Four Interceptions in the month of December. And that, folks, is how perennial Pro Bowlers such as Tailback Devonta Freeman (196 CAR, 865 YDS, 7 TD) and Receiver Julio Jones (88 REC, 1,444 YDS, 3 TD) can absolutely wreck a game one week, only to appear invisible the next. This was particularly a problem for Jones, who despite posting his fourth consecutive 1,400-Yard Season, only managed Three Touchdowns, while being held under Eighty Receiving Yards on eight occasions thus far. How else can you explain dropping a ridiculous 253 Yards one week only to total Twenty-Four the following week? And with all that said, this team does deserve a lot of credit for displaying the requisite resilience to fight their through these rough patches and qualify for the Playoffs. Against a Panthers team that had the opportunity to ascend up the Postseason Totem Pole with a win in the Finale, the Falcons nonetheless grinded their way to a win, needing one to book their trip to Los Angeles tonight. After Ryan found the aforementioned Freeman for a 19-Yard Touchdown early in the First Quarter, the hosts had rely upon five Matt Bryant Field Goals to end the affair, including three trifectas in the Fourth Quarter alone.
Meanwhile, there has been no better story in the NFL this season than the Rams (11-5, 1st in NFC West), who in earning their first Division Title since 2003 will be returning to the Playoffs for the first time since 2004. Simply put, the job that Sean McVay has done in his first year on the job has been nothing short of amazing, with the 31-Year Old being hands down the frontrunner for the Coach of the Year Award. The youngest Head Coach in the league has done a masterful job of turning around what was arguably the NFL’s worst Offense a year ago, and has been that was for nearly a decade. The task was indeed a daunting one for McVay, who walked into a perennial reclamation project featuring dearth of playmakers, including a disastrous Offensive Line, a regressing Todd Gurley, and proverbial basket case in the form of Jared Goff, the 2016 No. One Overall Pick, whom the franchise moved Heaven and Earth to acquire. Yeah, it was for all intents and purposes a damn mess. However, this guy has managed to miraculously turn their litany of weaknesses into strengths, vastly improving this team seemingly overnight. Free Agent additions such as Left Tackle Andrew Whitworth and Center John Sullivan have helped overhaul the Offensive Line, opening up holes for a revitalized Gurley (279 CAR, 1,305 YDS, 13 TD), who a year after being bogged down in an archaic Offense has emerged as a bonafide MVP candidate, particularly down the stretch where he’s averaged a stellar 175.4 Yards from Scrimmage over his final five games of the campaign (he was rested in the Season Finale against San Francisco). While we all knew that the former Offensive Rookie of the Year was an extremely talented Rusher, he’s expanded his game by leaps and bounds under McVay, becoming a true threat in the Passing game, hauling in a career-high Sixty-Four Receptions for 788 Yards and Six Touchdowns, with all three of those figures representing a greater total than in his first two seasons in the league combined. And he saved arguably his best for last; in a 27-23 triumph over the Titans in the penultimate weekend of the term, Gurley put Los Angeles on his back with a staggering 276 Total Yards from Scrimmage, with Two Receiving Touchdowns, highlighted by an 80-Yard scorcher in the Second Quarter. And then there is Goff, who been night and day in comparison to the clueless, overwhelmed Quarterback he was under the regime. There was truly no better coaching choice for this kid than McVay, who had a very heavy hand in the meteoric rise of Kirk Cousins in Washington over the previous three years, and this is a case in which the statistics do not lie; in Seven games as the Starter in 2016, Goff completed just 54.6% of his Attempts for an average of 155.6 Yards on 3.75 Net Yards per Attempt, with Five Touchdowns in comparison to Seven Interceptions, only to improve exponentially across the board a year later, completing 62.1% of his Attempts for an average of 253.6 Yards on 7.24 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twenty-Eight Touchdowns opposed to once again Seven Interceptions. He’s benefitted from far better protection, sustaining a sack on just 5.0% of his Drop-Backs this year, down from a dismal 11.3% in the one before, leading to a far more respectable Quarterback Rating (48.4), up an astounding 26.2 points in a year’s time. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely how a team that ranked dead-last in both Scoring (14.0 P/G) and Total Offense (285.3 Y/G) can go from worst to first, for these Los Angeles Rams finished the 2017 Regular Season leading the NFL in scoring at 29.9 Points per Game (1st Overall) on 373.5 Total Yards (10th Overall). That’s a 15.9-Point increase coupled with an 88.2-Yard improvement on this side of the ball, folks, which even in a league littered with parity every year is rather remarkable. McVay also managed to improve the Defense, which had been a solid unit for years under the previous Coaching Staff, by hiring the venerable Wade Phillips to coordinate things, representing a coup unto itself. While Phillips may be thirty-nine years older than his Head Coach, he’s proven that the game has yet to pass him by, guiding a Defense that has allowed the twelfth-fewest points in the league (20.6 P/G). Granted, they’ve given up a lot of yards (339.6, 19th Overall), particularly on the ground (122.4, 28th Overall), but a lot of that can be chalked up to this group transitioning his preferred aggressive 3-4 Defensive Alignment. Los Angeles has made up for all the yardage by creating havoc, registering Forty-Eight Sacks (4th Overall) and Twenty-Eight Takeaways (5th Overall), which coupled with the vast improvements of their teammates on the opposite side of the ball has led to a healthy Plus-7 Turnover Differential, a year after slumping to a Minus-11. Even in the new scheme, perennial Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald (41 TKL, 11.0 SK, 5 FF, 1 FR) has been a nightmare for opposing Blockers and Quarterbacks, while Hybrid Linebacker Mark Barron (85 TKL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 4 PD) and Safety LaMarcus Joyner (49 TKL, 3 INT, 9 PD, 1 FF) have made nothing but play after play. Look for these guys to be ready to pounce on the mistake-prone Falcons, who have given away the football far more than they’d like this season.