The Atlanta Falcons jumped to an early 13-point lead before the Rams mounted two swift scoring drives. Los Angeles went to the Coliseum locker room at halftime with just a three-point deficit amid raucous cheers from a home crowd thirsty for playoff success.
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Ryan passed for 218 yards and hit Julio Jones for an 8-yard touchdown with 5:48 to play, and the defending NFC champion Falcons advanced from the wild-card round with a 26-13 victory over the Rams on Saturday night.
Devonta Freeman rushed for an early score and Matt Bryant kicked four field goals for the Falcons (11-6), who spoiled the Rams’ first playoff game in 13 years with a methodical performance derived from hard-earned experience.
Atlanta’s journey to the Super Bowl last season ended infamously with that blown 28-3 lead against New England. In their first playoff game since, the Falcons allowed no surprises from the NFC West champion Rams (11-6).
”We knew it was a situation we’ve been through before,” Atlanta defensive tackle Dontari Poe said. ”We just had to keep playing and use what we’ve learned.”
Jones caught nine passes for 94 yards for Atlanta, which never trailed while winning playoff games in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Against an opponent that had just six players on its roster with prior postseason appearances, the Falcons’ experience showed through.
”I think having gone through these situations, understanding what it’s like, the atmosphere, those kinds of things, knowing that it’s going to be tough, all those things kind of carry forward,” Ryan said. ”But at the end of the day, experience or no experience, you’ve got to execute.”
The Falcons advanced to face the top-seeded Eagles on Jan. 13 in Philadelphia.
”Doesn’t matter where we’re going, we’re going,” Ryan said. ”And that’s the most exciting part.”
A raucous crowd of 74,300 packed the Coliseum on a crisp evening for the first NFL playoff game in the nation’s second-largest city since early 1994. Los Angeles went 21 years without pro football before the Rams returned last season, and the franchise emphatically ended a 13-year streak of non-winning seasons this fall with an inspiring run to the Rams’ first division title since 2003.
But the Falcons have been here before, and they showed it.
The Falcons jumped to their early lead by capitalizing on two mistakes by Pharoh Cooper, the Rams’ Pro Bowl kick returner. Atlanta’s offense then chewed up the clock and field position, with the first drive after halftime consuming 8:15.
”To end with a time of possession over 37 minutes, that’s hard to do in our league,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. ”There was a nine-minute drive to start the second half, and I thought that really set the tone.”
The Falcons’ defense did more than enough to slow down the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, harassing Jared Goff into a 24-for-45 performance in his playoff debut.
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Robert Woods caught nine passes for 142 yards for the Rams, but rookie Cooper Kupp scored their only touchdown late in the first half.
Atlanta held MVP candidate Todd Gurley to 101 yards rushing – just 43 in the first three quarters – and four receptions for a mere 10 yards.
The Falcons ruined a celebratory night for the Rams, who rebounded from a rough homecoming season in 2016 with an outstanding debut year under 31-year-old Sean McVay, the youngest head coach to reach the playoffs in NFL history.
”You see why the Falcons are the defending NFC champs,” McVay said. ”Certainly this is a humbling game. … This is an experience that we can learn from. But I don’t think this game was too big for our guys.”
The Rams’ offense finally figured it out late in the first half: Goff made several sharp throws on a 79-yard drive ending in Kupp’s TD catch, and Sam Ficken’s first field goal trimmed the halftime deficit to 13-10.
But the Rams’ defense simply couldn’t get off the field in the third quarter, whether due to missed tackles or clever play-calling by the Falcons.
Los Angeles trimmed the lead to 19-13 with 10:49 to play, but the Falcons made another drive highlighted by a beautiful 52-yard screen pass from a blitz-avoiding Bryant to Mohamed Sanu.
Jones then caught the sixth playoff TD pass of his career. Goff drove the Rams deep into Falcons territory, but LA turned it over on down at the Atlanta 5 with 2:05 to play. The Falcons stopped the Rams again on downs at midfield with 1:08 left.
Although the Falcons’ offense took a step back in production this season, Atlanta chipped away at the Rams’ defense throughout the Coliseum return of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who coached USC here until 2015.
Ryan was methodical under relentless pressure from All-Pro lineman Aaron Donald, repeatedly avoiding trouble and making big throws. Freeman rushed for 66 yards, and Sanu had that key 52-yard gain on a screen pass.
”Great call by Sark,” Ryan said.
Cooper is headed to the Pro Bowl after his outstanding regular season as a kick returner, but the second-year pro’s misadventures in his playoff debut cost the Rams Sofia Goggia used what she called her best ever downhill run to lead an Italian sweep of the podium at a women’s World Cup race on Sunday.
Racing from a lowered start due to fog in the upper part of the hill, Goggia sped down the bumpy Karnten-Franz Klammer course in gutsy style, beating the field by more than a second.
”I have never skied so strong and consistent in my whole life in a downhill,” said the Italian after landing her third career victory. Last year, Goggia won both test events on the hill for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
”The snow I found here was exactly the same as in South Korea,” said Goggia, who timed 1 minute, 4.00 seconds to beat Federica Brignone by 1.10 and Nadia Fanchini by 1.35.
”I am super happy for the podium because it’s kind of an Italian party,” she said, adding that her thoughts were with teammate Elena Fanchini. Nadia’s older sister had to end her season to get treatment for a tumor.
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Tiffany Gauthier of France missed the podium by 0.14 to finish fourth for a second straight day, matching her career best result.
Avoiding the risk of getting injured a month before the Olympics, American standout Lindsey Vonn held back throughout in a cautious run and was more than three seconds off the lead in 27th.
Due to poor snow conditions, the mandatory training run before a downhill was canceled in the last few days and was held on Sunday morning, two hours before the race.
It was the first time in the 51-year-history of the World Cup that the Italian team took the top three spots in a women’s downhill.
The result came one day after Brignone won a super-G on the same hill. She also won a giant slalom in Lienz two weeks ago.
”I love Austrian slopes. Most of the time there are difficult conditions. I like it when it’s icy and bumpy,” said Brignone, who briefly considered skipping the season because of a persistent groin problem.
”We didn’t understand what it was,” she said. ”We tried different things. It’s not healed but for now it’s under control.”
Recovered from breaking an arm and hurting her spine in a crash a year ago, Fanchini got her first podium since winning in La Thuile, Italy, in 2016, which was her second win in an injury-marred career. She also placed fifth in the super-G.
Goggia praised Fanchini because ”she has suffered so much during her career with all the injuries but she never gave up. Sometimes a fifth or third place means more than a victory.”
Through Brignone as translator, Fanchini said she never thought she would ”come back so strong” from the injury.
”Emotionally it was a tough moment for my family,” she said, referring to Elena’s illness. ”Finishing third and fifth here, that is a dream.”
In sharp contrast to the aggressive runs by the Italians, Vonn had a disappointing showing.
”I really had no grip on the ice, felt like I was skiing on marbles,” said the American, who placed ninth in Saturday’s super-G. ”This course takes a lot of aggression and like really willing to risk everything. And I am just not willing to risk everything right now. I have been waiting eight years for the Olympics.”
Vonn added she was ”not necessarily disappointed in my result as it doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that I am healthy and that I didn’t end my season this weekend. Otherwise, you know, let’s just forget about the whole weekend.”
The women’s World Cup continues with more speed races in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, next weekend.