Bonded by a Super Bowl collapse, the Falcons are a threat after extinguishing the Rams
By ADAM KILGORE | The Washington Post | Published: January 7, 2018
LOS ANGELES — Arthur Blank ambled past the entrance of the Atlanta Falcons locker room, shaking hands and accepting hugs deep inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, surrounded by the chaotic din of a visiting team moving on. A table served up trays of burritos and plastic fruit cups. Equipment managers pushed massive carts. Players lugged bags. As some of them passed, Blank grinned and offered congratulations.
The Falcons had returned to the postseason with a resounding smackdown of the upstart Los Angeles Rams, a 26-13 NFC wild card victory that opened a pathway for the Falcons to return to the Super Bowl, the stage that has haunted them for the past 11 months. The way Atlanta stifled the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, coupled with the diminished state of the Philadelphia Eagles, offered legitimate hope the sixth-seeded Falcons, still the defending NFC champions, could make another deep run.
"We're not here just to get here," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We want to make noise while we're here."
Blank, the Falcons' owner, was last seen in the postseason on the Falcons sideline, a celebratory smile turning slowly into a funereal countenance. For the rest of the football, the Super Bowl collapse has defined the Falcons all season. Their unevenness this year, as they broke in new, untested offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, suggested that 28-3 remained in their collective headspace. Blank challenged that notion, going so far to say that the Falcons wouldn't be here if Coach Dan Quinn had not guarded against it.
"Last year, honestly, was over and done with during the offseason," Blank said. "I didn't carry any of that forward. I think our team didn't. It's one of the reasons Coach (Dan Quinn) is as good as doing what he does. He doesn't let the players or the coaching staff think about what could have been or what should have been, what happened last year. We live in the present, and live for the present and the future."
With the way the immediate future looks for the Falcons, why not? Atlanta faded as an apparent Super Bowl threat during the first half of the season, dropping to 4-4 after a loss at Carolina in Week 9. Since that point, the Falcons are 7-2 and have evolved into the kind of team that can win, and win on the road, in the playoffs.
Atlanta opened as a 2 ½-point favorite against the Eagles, surely a nod to Nick Foles playing quarterback in place of the injured Carson Wentz. But it's also a reflection of how dangerous the Falcons are. The Rams averaged 29.9 points this season, and the Falcons stifled them not only with a menacingly fast defense, but also with a pounding running game that allowed to possess the ball for 13 minutes in the third quarter alone.
"This is a high-scoring offense," Blank said. "They're where we were last year. To hold them down the way we did, it's a great credit to our defense, which played consistently tonight. It wasn't just at one point. That's going to be important going to Philadelphia. They don't have Carson Wentz, but Nick Foles is a hell of a good quarterback. And the temperature will be a little bit different."
Safety Keanu Neal said the Falcons have developed a new rallying cry, handed down from Quinn: "Anytime, anywhere." Ryan said the Falcons have heard the mantra "probably thousands" of times from Quinn.
"Whoever it is, as long as we do what we do, everything else will take care of itself," Neal said.
In Los Angeles, Atlanta proved it has the capability and ingredients to win a cold-weather road game. Saturday night, the Falcons' offense and defense worked hand in hand in precisely the way they did not last Super Bowl.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 106 yards rushing, but the more meaningful total was 32: the number of rushes they totaled. During the week, Sarkisian stressed to the Falcons they would run the ball for the entire game even if it proved fruitless at first, trusting the Falcons' offensive line would wear down the Los Angeles front.
"We felt like we could crease them in the run game a little bit," Ryan said. "It's tough sledding, for sure, but we felt like that was our best plan for success. The guys bought into that. We all had that belief. We were all very clear about our plan coming into this game."
It is hard not to view the Falcons through the lens of their collapse against the Patriots. When they built a 13-0 lead in the first half, taking advantage of a muffed punt and fumbled kickoff return by Rams return man Pharoh Cooper, it became easy to wonder if the Falcons would blow another double-digit lead. It became even easier when the Rams mounted two scoring drives in the final minutes and nipped the deficit to 13-10.
"That's a tough way to go into halftime," Ryan said.
But the Falcons knew they were getting ball. On their opening drive of the second half, the Falcons struck to Sarkisian's gameplan. They ran 16 plays, 12 of them runs, and held the ball for nearly nine minutes. They had to settle for a field goal, but they extended their lead, seized total control and enabled their defense to conserve energy.
In the Super Bowl, the Falcons kept trying to outscore the New England Patriots even after they had taken a massive lead, leaving their defense helpless and breathless. Saturday night, they kept the reins on a tight game by controlling the ball. Through punishing runs and short passes, the Falcons possessed the ball for more than 37 minutes.
"We were fresh. We were ready. We were antsy," Allen said. "We were ready to get out there as a defense. We didn't want our offense to stall. But you're sitting down so much, you're just ready to roll. Because our offense was doing so good, we had enough time to go through all our adjustments we needed to go through."
The defense deserved plenty of credit. During their 7-2 run, the Falcons have surrendered only 17.3 points per game. Shutting down the Rams, and holding them to three points in the second half, may have been their most impressive showing.
"We're growing," Neal said. "We haven't even reached out peak yet. That's the beauty of it. But the camaraderie, playing together, playing as one, that's definitely a beautiful thing."
In the locker room, Falcons players talked about their "brotherhood" and the close bonds they share, having experienced last year's Super Bowl run together. It is easy for teams to boast about togetherness in the wake of a playoff win, but Atlanta seems to mean it. Allen called it the closest team he's ever been apart of, on any level of football.
If one play encapsulated the Falcons' idea of brotherhood, it came on Atlanta's first touchdown. Freeman plunged toward the goal line, and Rams defenders stoned him. Center Alex Mack rammed the pile, pushing the entire thing, Freeman included, into the end zone to put the Falcons ahead, 13-0.
Afterward, Freeman saw a few reporters standing around Mack and craned his neck around a bank of lockers. "Hey, that was his touchdown," Freeman said. "I wouldn't have got in."
"I should have been blocking somebody," Mack said, laughing. "He should be able to walk in."
Even in the postgame giddiness, the Falcons were reticent to evaluate their Super Bowl chances. Outside the locker room, Blank formed a slight grimace when just presented with the idea of how far Atlanta could go.
"You don't think that way in the NFL," Blank said. "You take it a game at a time, and during the game, you take it a series at a time. That's really all you can. I think that's the healthiest place to be. The minute you look past who you're playing, there's too much talent in this league."
The Falcons learned that the hard way last year, in the most wrenching way on the biggest state. They are back now, for another chance. They are not here just to be here. They want to make noise, again, and they may be better suited to than ever.