The Atlanta Falcons survived a scare in the NFL playoffs as they outlasted the Los Angeles Rams 26-13 in Saturday's NFC wildcard game.
Atlanta let an early double-digit lead slip away before holding on at the Los Angeles Coliseum, setting up a showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles in next week's NFC divisional round.
The Falcons, who famously blew a 28-3 in last season's Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots, jumped out to a 13-0 lead as Devonta Freeman scored early in the second quarter with some help from center Alex Mack.
Los Angeles scored the final 10 points of the second quarter to cut Atlanta's lead to 13-10 at half-time.
The Falcons dominated time of possession, 37:35-22:25, and a pair of clock-chewing drives in the second half resulted in field goals before Matt Ryan floated a eight-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones with 5:48 remaining to put the game out of reach.
Jones finished with nine receptions for 94 yards as Ryan went 21 of 30 for 218 yards.
Despite losing their early lead, the Falcons never panicked and Dan Quinn's team appears to have learned from last year's Super Bowl mistakes.
PLAYOFF FOOTBALL IS DIFFERENT THAN REGULAR-SEASON FOOTBALL
Jared Goff made a few fantastic throws, but he was wildly inconsistent. Goff finished 24 of 45 for 259 yards and a touchdown but it was not enough to beat a Falcons defense loaded up to stop the run. The Falcons corralled MVP candidate Todd Gurley, who led the NFC in rushing despite sitting out the season finale, for much of the game. Gurley finished with 101 yards on 14 carries, though 61 yards came in the fourth quarter.
Goff was not the only young Rams player who was off on Saturday. Second-year receiver Pharoh Cooper, who was selected to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, fumbled late in the first quarter to set up Atlanta's first touchdown to give the Falcons a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter. Cooper bobbled several other kicks as jitters were clearly a factor.
The Rams eventually settled down, but the early deficit was too large to overcome.
DONALD MIGHT BE THE NFL'S BEST PLAYER
While the Falcons eventually pulled away, Ryan was harassed for much of the game by the Rams defensive front. Leading the charge was Aaron Donald. The fourth-year defensive tackle from Pitt was a disruptive force on nearly every play. He finished with four tackles and half a sack, but even when he was not in on a play, he usually affected it.
Donald has been a Pro Bowler in each of his four seasons and, after collecting 11 sacks during the regular season to give him 39 for his career, Donald is set for a huge payday this offseason.
THIS SEASON WASN'T A FLUKE FOR RAMS
The Rams went 11-5 to win the NFC West for the first time since 2003. They made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 after going 4-12 last season. The Rams had a streak of 10 straight losing seasons, but turned things around under first-year coach Sean McVay.
Not only did McVay change the culture in Los Angeles, the Rams also made effective roster changes. They are a young team and Goff, just in his second season, hooked up with rookie receiver Cooper Kupp for a second-quarter touchdown pass.
Former Buffalo Bills receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins have found a home in Los Angeles. Woods, who is only 25, was electric on Saturday with nine catches for 142 yards. Second-year tight end Tyler Higbee has a high ceiling as does second-year defensive end Morgan Fox, who spelled Michael Brockers after he left with a knee injury.
This year may not have been the year for the Rams to win a second championship, but they are not going anywhere and will be an NFC contender for the foreseeable future.