This game played out like that last four games the Atlanta Falcons have played dating back to the playoffs last season. Get a lead, control the game, go cold, and make it very interesting down the stretch.
Only this time, the Falcons, like in the NFC Divisional round last season against Seattle, the outlasted their opponents.
The Falcons started the game at a rapid pace. The Falcons utilized what has become a big cornerstone in their offense, Steven Jackson, on an opening drive that led to an eight yard pass to the former Ram for a touchdown.
Jackson was injured on the touchdown unfortunately, and would not return to the game. On the very same drive, starting FB Bradie Ewing was hurt after catching a pass that was good for a first down. He would not return either.
After taking a 7-0 lead, the Falcons would dominate the rest of the first half. They kept the Rams scoreless until 6:29 left in the second quarter when the Rams would scrape together a drive that was good enough for a field goal.
After the first touchdown, the Falcons offense was relentless. Matt Ryan found Julio Jones for a big 81 yard touchdown pass that was the longest of Jones' career to make it a 14-0 game.
Jones had one of the best games of his career, nabbing 11 receptions for a career high 182 yards and a touchdown.
When it couldn't get any worse for the Rams, Sam Bradford attempted a screen pass on the next drive that bounced right off the padding of Rams RB Daryl Richardson and into the hands of DE Osi Umenyiora, who sprinted excitedly to the end zone for a touchdown. This was Umenyiora's first interception of his career.
The Falcons defense looked impressive that first half. They didn't record a sack, but unlike last week in which Mike Nolan almost refused to send any extra pressure, the Falcons were able to get a good amount of pressure against Rams QB Sam Bradford. Some of this was due to sending extra men, some of it was due to the front four being able to generate a pass rush by themselves at times, which didn't happen last week.
But Nolan definitely blitzed more throughout the game, and it was the difference in stopping the Rams on a number of drives, particularly on third down.
This led to a number of erratic passes and drive stopping plays. The Falcons defense played with a lot more swagger and command this week as they were able to shut down the Rams running game and really limit their passing game due to their consistent pressure.
The Falcons had a second consecutive week of solid run defense, only allowing 69 total yards rushing.
The news wasn't all good during the first half for the Falcons defense. They lost Kroy Biermann and Asante Samuel, adding to the number of injured starters the Falcons lost during this game to a saddening four.
The Falcons were able to tack on a field goal late in the second quarter to take a 24-3 lead into the locker room at the half.
The Falcons offensive line played decently during the first half. There was pressure on Ryan, but he wasn't being roughed up too badly, despite the fact that it seemed like the pocket was collapsing on him pretty regularly. He took some hits in the first half, but it was nothing compared to the second half.
The first ten minutes or so of the third quarter was a defensive struggle on both sides. There were many three and outs, or very short drives that resulted in nothing but a back and forth punt fest between these two teams.
Ryan was getting pressured regularly, and with the loss of Jackson, the Falcons running game was non existent in the third quarter. Jacquizz Rodgers couldn't get anything going, running in Jackson's stead.
The Rams were in Ryan's face the rest of that third quarter, as Sam Baker, Garrett Reynolds and Lamar Holmes were constantly beaten by the Rams' D-line during the third quarter, resulting in Matt Ryan taking a lot of hits.
Ryan was only sacked twice, but the pressure was definitely there, and it really stymied the Falcons offensive attack.
The Rams were able to make some adjustments offensively late in the third quarter and drove down the field to score a touchdown late in the third quarter in which the Falcons defense had no answer for the Rams offense.
The Rams would stop the Falcons next drive quickly and get the ball back and tear through the defense again, which by this point, looked gassed. The Rams wouldn't let them catch their breath as every play this drive were no huddle quick passes as the Rams marched down the field to cut the deficit to 24-17.
It was here, that the Falcons were able to regain control of the game. Matt Ryan went 8/8 and orchestrated his best drive of the day, leading the Falcons to a touchdown to put the game away. Using a mixture of quick, intermediate passes that mostly featured third string running back, Jason Snelling, and Julio Jones, the Falcons were able to get into Rams territory for the first time in the second half.
After using Tony Gonzalez on a short pass to get into the red zone, the Falcons, called their first run of the entire drive. This had a hypnotic effect on the Rams as they were clearly expecting a pass, given the fact that Ryan was tearing the Rams secondary up during this drive.
But instead, Ryan handed it off to Jason Snelling who burst up the middle untouched for an 11 yard score to effectively ice the game. With only 6:12 left in the fourth quarter, the Rams would score again to cut the lead to 31-24. Even though the Rams scored, Nolan forced the Rams to stay in the middle of the field with quick passes. This took away the deep threat while also taking away the ability for the Rams to make passes near the sideline and run out of bounds to stop the clock.
This drive took up far too much time thanks to Nolan's strategy, as the Falcons would get the ball back with 2:09 left on the clock.
The Falcons would put away the Rams by converting on third and short with a play action fake by Ryan who dumped it off to Snelling for the first down. The Falcons would then run out the clock to win 31-24.
For a half, the Falcons were dominant, in the second half, we saw the Falcons repeat what held them back from reaching the Super Bowl last year. The offensive line got beaten again, allowing Ryan to take way too many hits. Somehow Ryan still had an outstanding game going 33/43 for 374 yards and two touchdowns despite taking many brutal hits.
The defense was great for a half and was beaten badly for a half. The Falcons have to figure out how to put together four quarters of football, or better teams will take advantage of them as we saw last week in New Orleans.
The injuries to Biermann, Jackson, Ewing and Samuel are all concerning. These players are all essential to the Falcons' success. We'll keep you posted when we hear more details about their injuries.
Roddy White played, but was limited. He grabbed three receptions for 21 yards. Robert McClain led the Falcons in tackles with nine. Joplo Bartu has taken the starting OLB job away from Stephen Nicholas, and recorded six tackles today. The Falcons got their hands on the ball today, recording six passes defended. The Falcons only rushed the ball 16 times for 36 total yards.
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