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The Falcons showed how they can get back to the Super Bowl in wild card win over the Rams

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Atlanta’s had an up-and-down season, but the team that showed up against the Rams looks like a contender.

Wild Card Round - Atlanta Falcons v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s been an inconsistent season for the Falcons. But the team that showed up to beat the Rams 26-13 in Wild Card play looked like a team that can get back to a Super Bowl this year.

The Rams didn’t make it easy on them. Aaron Donald harassed Matt Ryan all night long. He finished with just half of a sack and one hit, but even on the plays where he didn’t take Ryan down, his presence was felt. His pressure disrupted Ryan’s timing and forced him into less-than-ideal throws.

The Falcons had to settle for field goals on four of six scoring drives. But things shifted for Atlanta in the third quarter, when they finally got a consistent ground game going. That, coupled with the defense’s success in limiting Jared Goff’s chances to hit Todd Gurley with quick, short passes let the Falcons hold on for a win.

Here’s how the Falcons got it done.

The Falcons’ defensive speed limited Todd Gurley

Gurley’s had an MVP-caliber season. So the Falcons’ best chance of success against the Rams was to take him out of the game as much as possible and force Jared Goff to make throws to win it.

Gurley was productive on the ground, with 101 yards. But Goff relies on the ability to hit Gurley with short passes to keep the offense moving, and the Falcons took Gurley essentially out of the passing game. He’s averaged 52.5 receiving yards per game this season with six touchdowns through the air. He had only four catches for 10 yards on Saturday night.

The Falcons defense is much improved this season. They finished 2017 ranked in the top 10 in both scoring and yards allowed. The speed Dan Quinn has installed on defense showed up big on Saturday.

Atlanta’s pass defense stepped up

This was most evident on the Rams’ possession right before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. The Rams had a first-and-goal from the Falcons’ 8-yard line. After a 3-yard completion on first down and an incomplete pass on second, Goff hit Tyler Higbee in the end zone, but he was blanketed and didn’t actually catch it. The touchdown was overturned on review.

Los Angeles was trailing 26-13 and had one more chance to pull within a touchdown of the Falcons. Deion Jones got away with a hold when he knocked down Goff’s pass that was intended for Sammy Watkins on fourth down. But that pretty much locked it up for the Falcons.

The speed on defense and sure, sound tackling made all the difference.

A balanced offense made it happen

Aaron Donald came after Matt Ryan relentlessly, as he does. And the best way to slow down that pressure is to establish a ground game. The Falcons were able to get some traction on the ground, especially in the third and fourth quarters. They dominated time of possession, holding onto the ball for nearly two-thirds of the matchup.

Devonta Freeman finished with 66 yards and one touchdown, despite slipping and sliding on the horrible turf conditions in the Coliseum. Tevin Coleman had 40 yards, and Julio Jones even had a nifty 13-yard end around.

Atlanta couldn’t have done this without its offensive line. Freeman even had some help on his second-quarter touchdown. Center Alex Mack physically tackled Freeman into the end zone to take a 13-0 lead.

This Falcons team has been up-and-down all year. But now they’ll go to Philadelphia to take on an Eagles team that hasn’t looked quite the same with Nick Foles behind center instead of Carson Wentz.

If this version of the Falcons shows up for the rest of the postseason, they’ll be contenders.

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