LOS ANGELES –- The Atlanta Falcons players do not talk about it. They are not supposed to talk about it. That jagged arrow through their hearts, that 28-3 lead lost, those Super Bowl ashes 11 months ago when champion New England caught fire and the Falcons melted.
It colored Atlanta’s bump-and-grind maze back into the playoffs against the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday here at the Coliseum. The Falcons looked locked on their promise -- that Super Bowl would not become the defeat that permanently defeats them.
But they do not talk about it.
“Well, we’re not supposed to talk about it, but I will say that we as a team, as a brotherhood, know all there is to know about taking care of today for today, about not getting ahead of ourselves and how doing that can put you in a bind,” Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “When you talk about the do’s and don’ts of winning, we’ve learned some lessons there in the hardest way. And through it all, we’ve leaned on each other.”
After their can-we-just-get-there-already 10-6 regular season, the Falcons were there … here in the playoffs. They arrived battle-tested, alert, resilient. It translated into a physical, fundamental, inspiring 26-13 victory over the Rams.
The Falcons looked every bit the NFC defending champions they are and every inkling of a team with one foot stomping its past while the other is planted on a mission of redemption.
They confronted the NFL’s No.-1 ranked scoring offense and squashed it.
They kept picking and prodding with their own offense until they nailed it.
They took flight on special teams and flaunted it.
These Atlanta Falcons are one step closer to Super Bowl emancipation.
This is what their season is all about -– fixing, healing the torture of the one before it. There is no denying it, even as they head next to Philadelphia. They don’t have to talk about it. It’s there. It’s evident and real. It’s an inferno within them.
They unleashed it on the Rams. Atlanta jumped to a 13-0 lead, the Rams narrowed it to 13-10 and the Falcons won the second half 13-3. The Falcons start was ignited by first-quarter fumble recoveries of both a punt and kickoff deep in Rams territory.
“That is the product of great effort,” Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong said. “Gang tackling. The second man in and all the rest going for the ball. Just great effort.”
The young Rams were certainly spooked by their early mistakes and for most of the game struggled offensively to find rhythm. Was it their playoff inexperience? Was it too many starters resting in the regular-season finale preceding this game?
Rams coach Sean McVay insisted afterward that this moment was not too big for his players.
At least one of them recognized the zest in the Falcons’ eyes.
”Those guys played like they have some big dreams,” Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree said. “We didn’t do enough as a team and the mistakes hurt us. But they deserve credit for the talent and the pieces they have.”
And for the mindset.
Atlanta was forced to win against Carolina in its final regular season game to qualify for the playoffs. The Falcons knew the Rams would be rested. The Falcons planned to methodically catch up to their opponent’s freshness and speed. They hoped to keep pace early with the Rams and sustain that pace. But the Falcons accomplished more. They matched the Rams’ quickness and then surpassed it. They set the tempo. And they hit them hard all night long.
The Falcons blocked. The Falcons tackled, negating Rams potential, fancy run-after-catch plays and big yardage gains after contact, both Rams offensive staples.
Atlanta took the second-half kickoff and ran 16 plays before Matt Bryant kicked a 25-yard field goal that made it 16-10. Bryant ended the scoring in the quarter with a 54-yard field goal that made it 19-10. Atlanta won possession time in the quarter by 13:07 to the Rams’ paltry 1:53. Atlanta won overall possession time 37:35 to 22:25.
”Matt Ryan is a quarterback who can make some pretty incredible plays on third downs and more of the same even with pressure on him,” Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “He made some intelligent, incredible throws and plays at critical times.”
What was most impressive about Atlanta’s approach was the physical, fundamental nature of it. How they ran the ball 39 times compared to the Rams’ 16 attempts. How Falcons offensive linemen and especially running back Devonta Freeman kept punishing, grinding.
”There were some dogs out there on both sides tonight, some full-grown men who have no fear in this game,” Freeman said. He might have added that he was one of them.
”There was no fear,” Freeman said. “They had the extra rest. We would have been ready to play this game with three or five days’ rest. It didn’t matter. We have chemistry. We have belief.”
Brotherhood always comes up with the Falcons. It is glue that connects them. There was a moment in this game where it became more than a slogan, more than a blueprint.
Freeman scored the game’s first touchdown on a 3-yard run early in the second quarter. He was in the middle of a slew of teammates and Rams defenders about halfway there. That’s when Falcons center Alex Mack arrived, literally picked him up and driving him through into the end zone.
”I saw (tackle) Jake (Matthews) in the area, but I felt Alex,” Freeman said. “Hey, anytime you are fortunate enough to get into the end zone, you take it. Either by foot or by carrier.”
Mack said it was all instincts.
”Usually you try to mush the pile, push the pile, just try to get every inch,” Mack said. “I’d have to say that was a first for me. I came to the sidelines and everyone was saying it was a heck of a job, a great play, a real cool one.”
For these Falcons, of course it was.
They have been carrying each other since their somber Super Bowl.
It’s the only way they’ll get back.