When the NFC playoff field was finalized last week, the Falcons were far from the most intimidating team in the bunch. Atlanta snuck into the postseason at 10-6 on the heels of a 22-10 win over Carolina in Week 17, and as the no. 6 seed in a loaded conference, its road back to the Super Bowl figured to be daunting. Yet after knocking off the Rams 26-13 on Saturday in the wild-card round, the Falcons look like real contenders to return to the NFC championship game and maybe go even further. Part of that comes down to what they showed in Los Angeles; part of it is a product of the favorable way their path is unfolding.
Let’s start with Atlanta’s upside, which was most evident this weekend in its defense. L.A. finished the regular season as the NFL’s highest-scoring team (29.9 points per game) and the sixth-ranked unit in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. By any measure, head coach Sean McVay’s crew boasted one of the most efficient attacks in football, and much of its consistency came from the MVP-caliber production of Todd Gurley. The league’s second-leading rusher did some damage on the ground against Atlanta, tallying 101 yards on 14 carries, but he was nearly blanked as a receiver. Gurley hauled in just four of 10 targets for a paltry 10 yards.
During the regular season, the Rams made short screens and checkdowns to Gurley a staple of their offensive approach. Getting Gurley into open space and allowing him to turn easy tosses into massive gains was a weekly occurrence. Against the Falcons, those types of plays were nowhere to be found. Atlanta used a combination of team speed, relentless discipline, and excellent open-field tackling to completely silence Gurley as a receiver.
At the center of that effort was second-year inside linebacker Deion Jones, who put on a clinic in coverage. Jones has emerged as one of the fastest, rangiest linebackers in football, and every one of his tools was on full display against the Rams. He made 10 tackles and the game-sealing deflection on a fourth-down throw to Sammy Watkins in the end zone (a play that may have also involved defensive holding). And while the Falcons’ ceiling on defense begins with the ground that Jones can cover as a pass defender, he was hardly the only standout in the group on Saturday night.
Cornerback Robert Alford enjoyed a brilliant game in coverage, no matter which receiver he was following. On a deep throw to Watkins down the left sideline in the first quarter, Alford slapped the ball away so casually that he almost looked insulted that quarterback Jared Goff even threw it. Atlanta also managed to collect three sacks and consistently put the heat on Goff by using a combination of pressure from the front four and dialing up some well-timed blitzes. Both of the Rams’ first two possessions were sabotaged by third-down sacks, including one on a speed rush by Takk McKinley that roasted right tackle Rob Havenstein and forced a punt.
Two special teams fumbles involving Rams return man Pharoh Cooper helped to swing the game, but even without those lucky bounces, the formula the Falcons showed on Saturday can make them a frightening proposition for anyone in the NFC. This is not the scoreboard-exploding team that it was a season ago. It remains dangerous, though, and the dramatic steps forward it’s made on defense compensate for its maddening regression on offense.
Atlanta’s offensive inconsistency has been frustrating in 2017, especially given what the unit accomplished last season and the sheer amount of talent in the huddle. This group sputtered again in stretches against L.A.; Atlanta’s opening two possessions ended with three-and-outs, and Matt Ryan’s bunch managed only 6 yards after Cooper’s first gaffe before settling for a field goal. The Falcons’ backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for just 106 yards on 32 carries.
Yet even on days when this offense isn’t firing on all cylinders, its star power can produce a respectable output. Julio Jones hauled in nine of 10 targets for 94 yards with a score, reprising the spectacular role we’ve come to expect from him in the postseason. Jones had another stellar campaign in 2017 (finishing with 1,444 receiving yards, the second-highest mark in the league), but the playoffs seem to bring out an entirely different level. It’s almost expected that Jones will be the best player on the field at this point, and that alone makes Atlanta a sleeping giant. Meanwhile, Ryan had a steady outing against a terrifying Los Angeles defense, completing more than two-thirds of his passes (21-of-30 for 218 yards) while avoiding any backbreaking mistakes.
This may seem like a fairly lukewarm endorsement for a Falcons team a year removed from smashing offensive records and obliterating defenses, but by now there’s no sense in thinking that the 2016 version of Atlanta is suddenly going to resurface. Coordinator Steve Sarkisian is calling the shots, and Kyle Shanahan isn’t walking back through that door. After 17 games, these Falcons have shown enough to develop their own distinct identity. The offense can be streaky, but it does damage more often than not. And head coach Dan Quinn is still a damn good defensive mind who’s in charge of a collection of game-wrecking talent.
That recipe was already enough for one playoff win, and there’s a chance it could serve as the basis of more. Atlanta’s victory sets up a divisional-round meeting with Nick Foles and the Eagles, who were reeling toward the end of the regular season. The Falcons opened as 2.5-point favorites on the road against the conference’s no. 1 seed. Philadelphia has been in steep decline since losing Carson Wentz to an ACL tear in mid-December, and next week the Eagles will be underdogs in their own building.
If Atlanta can knock off Philly, it’ll be right back where it was a year ago: in the NFC title game, one win away from the Super Bowl. This group may not instill fear in opponents like the 2016 Falcons did, but its championship hopes remain alive all the same. Atlanta isn’t going away, and at its best, this version of the team can knock off any opponent standing in its way.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Chiefs’ second-half collapse against Tennessee is likely the end of Alex Smith’s tenure in Kansas City. Blowing a 21-10 halftime lead and falling to the Titans 22-21 is a brutal way for the Smith era to end. It also falls in line with so many other postseason disappointments for head coach Andy Reid. Smith looked excellent for much of Saturday afternoon and was able to overcome a few early drops to march the Chiefs down the field for touchdowns on two of their opening three possessions. Things fell apart late, though, and the unraveling happened slowly.
Reid and his offensive staff will get ripped apart this week for giving Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s leading rusher, only five carries in the second half. Yet the truth is that the Chiefs simply didn’t have the ball much over the final 30 minutes. Kansas City ran seven plays and tallied barely four minutes of possession in the third quarter. There were two big problems at hand. The Chiefs’ offense desperately missed tight end Travis Kelce, who suffered a concussion late in the second quarter, as a way to move the chains. And Tennessee bled Kansas City dry with a series of sustained drives.
Marcus Mariota had an average game throwing the ball, but was a menace when he decided to take off and run. He picked up four first downs with his legs, including breaking free for a 10-yard scramble three plays before catching his own deflected pass for a touchdown. The combination of Mariota wreaking havoc with his legs and running back Derrick Henry repeatedly punishing defenders represents the best route for the Titans’ offense to shock the world against the Patriots. As was the case with Kansas City, New England’s run defense is its biggest weakness, and Tennessee will have to replicate the way it controlled the clock on Saturday to have any shot at upsetting the Pats.
The Chiefs season is over, meaning that decisions now have to be made. Smith’s contract carries a cap hit of $20 million in 2018, and Kansas City would save about $17 million if it chose to trade (or cut) him. With almost no cap room available and 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes II waiting in the wings, one of those outcomes is all but guaranteed. Smith just ended the best season of his career, and he’ll likely be in demand among other quarterback-needy teams. This iteration of the Chiefs has run its course.
2. In case anyone forgot, Drew Brees is still more than capable of taking over a game. The Panthers limited the Saints’ dynamic duo of running backs to just 45 yards on Sunday afternoon. Brees had no trouble carrying the load to make up for it. New Orleans’s 31-26 win over Carolina was a vintage Brees outing in just about every way. The Saints pushed the ball down the field with Brees subtly navigating the pocket to neutralize a pass rush that led the league in sacks, and his precision on several throws was downright magical. His back-shoulder pass to Josh Hill down the seam late in the second quarter couldn’t have been more perfectly delivered if Brees had walked over and handed the ball to him.
This wild-card showing from the soon-to-be 39-year-old provides a window into just how dangerous the Saints could be moving forward. Even on days when the running game stalls and the defense gives up a few chunk plays, New Orleans can still conjure 376-yard performances from one of the best quarterbacks ever. No other remaining quarterback in the NFC field has the type of gear that Brees found on Sunday, and that is a terrifying thought for every team that isn’t the Saints.
3. Wide receiver Michael Thomas has emerged as a dominant force for the New Orleans offense. The second-year standout was outstanding during the final month of the regular season, and that carried over to his playoff debut. He reeled in eight catches for 131 yards against the Panthers, and his knack for finding space on crossing routes (like on his 46-yard reception to set up the Saints’ final touchdown in the fourth quarter) made him a big-play threat despite a lack of top-end speed.
The strength of Thomas’s hands makes him an ideal no. 1 target for Brees. All a quarterback has to do is put the ball in Thomas’s general vicinity, and Brees just so happens to be the most accurate passer in the NFL. The way Thomas uses his 6-foot-3 frame to stave off small corners makes him a nightmare to defend, even when he isn’t able to create much separation.
Thomas did most of his work on Sunday against Carolina cornerback James Bradberry, who had no answer for Thomas when he lined up wide to the right. Whether he was attacking the pylon on corner routes or toasting Bradberry inside, Thomas did what he pleased all game. The 24-year-old has become one of the toughest players to cover in the league, giving the Saints another explosive threat if the ground game fails to get going.
4. Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil was the latest offensive lineman to be victimized by Saints pass rusher Cameron Jordan. Jordan spent a good chunk of Sunday in the backfield and beat Kalil around the edge for a sack in the third quarter. If that roasting wasn’t enough, Jordan later referred to Kalil as “Speedbump McGee” when talking to reporters.
That may seem harsh, but right now Jordan can do all the talking he wants. He was one of the best defenders in football all season, and he used every bit of his repertoire to torment the Panthers in the wild-card round. Jordan’s ability to line up at every spot along the defensive line allows the Saints’ staff to find a game’s best matchup and hammer it repeatedly. Often, that involves Jordan working against a team’s right tackle; against Carolina, it meant Jordan seeing plenty of snaps at defensive end to work against Kalil.
Jordan did his most impactful work against the Panthers as a pass rusher on the blind side, but that was hardly the extent of his influence. He batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage, a skill that he’s honed better than any defensive lineman in the league.
5. The matchup between the Bills and Jaguars was as ugly as some people feared—and provided another reminder of what’s holding Jacksonville back. The Jags mustered only 84 yards of total offense in the first half of Sunday’s 10-3 win, and even that stat doesn’t get to the heart of just how bad Blake Bortles was. The quarterback went to the break having completed six of 14 passes for 33 yards. It’s virtually impossible to be that inefficient in a game that isn’t being played in a monsoon. Bortles somehow avoided throwing an interception against Buffalo, but that wasn’t for lack of trying. The Bills got their hands on a pair of potential picks, failing to corral either one.
Avoiding any really bad mistake was one of the two bright spots for Bortles on the day. The other was the work that he did with his legs. He carried 10 times for 88 yards, a figure that made up a disconcerting percentage of the Jags’ total output. That running back Leonard Fournette couldn’t get much going against a putrid Bills run defense is a worrisome development for this team moving forward. Stopping Fournette and the ground game will certainly be Pittsburgh’s top priority in the divisional round, as the Steelers will load up the box and dare Bortles to beat them. For the Jags, there’s not much reason to be optimistic about how that will turn out.
6. Tyrod Taylor had a rough outing in what might have been his final game as a Bills quarterback. Taylor struggled for most of Sunday before eventually having to leave the game late in the fourth quarter after being violently slammed to the turf by Dante Fowler Jr. He finished 17-of-37 passing for 134 yards with an interception against the league’s top-rated defense. Plenty of quarterbacks this season have looked terrible against this Jaguars group; the notion that this playoff loss might serve as the lasting memory of Taylor’s tenure in Buffalo would distort his Bills career in the way that so many other factors already have.
Taylor is an imperfect quarterback whose skill set has given Buffalo its best chance to win despite having a flawed offensive roster. His ability to evade pressure and consistently avoid turnovers represents a floor that’s hardly guaranteed among NFL quarterbacks. The Bills’ new front-office regime seems intent on finding a different answer under center, meaning that Taylor will probably join what is shaping up to be an intriguing free-agent class of quarterbacks. Rest assured, there will be several teams that would love a chance to upgrade to Taylor at the position.
7. The Jaguars’ two interceptions on Sunday showcased their absurd defensive athleticism. The first started with a deflection by Myles Jack and ended with slot corner Aaron Colvin contorting his body in midair and somehow tipping the ball to himself. Not to be outdone, Jalen Ramsey sealed the win in the fourth quarter with a similarly jaw-dropping play: He broke on a pass intended for Deonte Thompson, knocked the ball skyward, and corralled it as he tumbled to the ground. Some picks come from being in the right place at the right time. The Jags earned these.
Jacksonville intercepted 21 passes during the regular season, the second most in the league. It forced 12 fumbles and returned a ridiculous five of them for touchdowns. When a great defense reaches a certain echelon, it can begin to feel as if everyone on the field is hunting for the ball. The Jags have reached that point, and with Bortles at quarterback, takeaways are the team’s best chance of pulling the upset in Pittsburgh.
8. Calais Campbell’s outstanding season as a pass rusher made it easy to forget just how dominant he can be against the run. The Jaguars’ 31-year-old free-agent prize racked up a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2017 and was a pass-rushing force in the wild-card round against Buffalo. Yet while Campbell’s role in the emergence of Sacksonville has gotten all the headlines, the work he does against the run has been overshadowed. Campbell is one of the best run-defending linemen in the NFL, and he’s able to affect the ground game from a variety of spots.
On the opening play of the Bills’ second possession, Campbell lined up as the right defensive end in a 4-3 front. At the snap, he pushed left tackle Dion Dawkins into the backfield, redirected LeSean McCoy’s path, and then tracked the running back down from behind. On the next snap, Campbell lined up as a defensive tackle, drove the right guard 2 yards off the line of scrimmage, and funneled McCoy into the waiting arms of cornerback A.J. Bouye for a 1-yard loss. There are only a handful of players in the league who can both consistently set the edge as a defensive end and physically dominate interior offensive linemen. Campbell is one of them.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Takk McKinley’s drive-ending sack offered a glimpse of what he can bring to the Falcons defense.
This play was mentioned in the lead section, and it’s worth exploring in more detail here. McKinley, the 26th pick in the 2017 draft, was considered a top-flight prospect because of his explosiveness. At the combine, he ripped off a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at a ridiculous 250 pounds. That burst was on display as McKinley piled up six sacks as a rookie, yet this sack against L.A. was a product of more than sheer speed.
Fluidity is an underrated trait for young pass rushers. Being able to deploy moves in one clean motion without slowing down can turn a talented pass rusher into an effective one. That’s exactly what McKinley does on this play. By hitting his outside rip move without stopping his forward movement, he gets to Rob Havenstein’s edge, bends the corner, and drills Jared Goff.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The Titans have a blueprint for getting the most out of Mariota as a passer. They just have to use it.
Pro Football Focus charted Mariota as going 16-of-19 for 188 yards on throws to the middle of the field against the Chiefs. That’s typically where he’s been the most effective, and his knack for exploiting the area between the numbers only improves when the Titans use play-action. Look at this throw from late in the second quarter. With the play fake influencing the Chiefs linebackers, Mariota has a ton of space into which he can fit a ball to tight end Delanie Walker. Mariota averaged 5.5 more yards per passing attempt this season with play-action than without, the highest mark in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. His 122.8 passer rating with play-action was the best in the league.
Tennessee’s offense is at its best when Mariota is coming off a play fake and exploiting the middle of the field. It should go to these types of plays early and often in the divisional round against New England.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us:
Of course a massive Titans comeback would start with Marcus Mariota throwing a touchdown pass to himself.