NFC Wild Card Preview 2018: Why the surprising Rams will advance

For the first time since 1994, we have playoff football in Los Angeles. 

The Rams were a disaster in their first season back in L.A., but the regular-season portion of Year 2 could not have gone any better. Sean McVay and his coaching staff engineered one of the more unlikely playoff runs in recent memory as the Rams jumped from 4-12 to 11-5 and secured the No. 3 seed in the NFC. 

Their opponent this weekend was the NFC's Super Bowl representative a year ago. The Falcons seemed to struggle for large stretches of the 2017 season, mostly because everyone kept comparing them to their 2016 selves. The truth is Atlanta started the year 3-0, went on a three-game AFC East losing streak, then went 7-3 over the remainder of the season -- with all three of those losses coming to playoff teams (Panthers, Vikings, Saints). 

The road to the Super Bowl will be much tougher this time around. There won't be any home games for the Falcons no matter how far they advance. Can they get things started off right in the wild-card game? We'll find out Saturday. 

How to Watch

Who: Falcons vs. Rams
Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles
When: Saturday, Jan. 6, 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: NBC

Rams' offense made major strides

The Rams' offense underwent one of the most impressive turnarounds in NFL history. Los Angeles ranked dead last in the NFL in scoring in 2016, then scored more points than any other team in the league in Year 1 of the Sean McVay Era. The last team to pull a similar "worst-to-first" run was the 1965 49ers, who did it when the league only had 14 teams. L.A.'s 15.9 points per game increase is the third-largest year-over-year jump in the history of professional football.

Not only did the Rams finish first in scoring, they also fared well in offensive efficiency, checking in sixth in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA rankings. (DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a per-play efficiency metric that adjusts performance for down, distance and opponent.) The Rams were also one of five teams to rank in the top five in both rush and pass offense DVOA. 

McVay's offense reinvigorated running back Todd Gurley, who fell off the face of the earth during his final season under Jeff Fisher. A year after stumbling to 3.2 yards per carry and six touchdowns, Gurley led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,093) and total touchdowns (19) -- and he did it while playing only 15 games. He's going to be an inner-circle MVP candidate due to his dual-threat capabilities, and it's his skill set that formed the backbone of the Rams' newly powerful offense. 

Of course, we would be remiss if we did not mention the massive step forward taken by Jared Goff and the Rams' passing game. 

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Source: Pro-Football-Reference

Goff looked absolutely lost in his seven starts during his rookie season, but he was one of the NFC's best passers this season. McVay schemed Goff into simple throws through wide windows, allowing him to flourish while minimizing the risk of turnovers. A year after leading the NFL in the percentage of his throws to receivers with less than a yard of separation from the closest defender, per NFL.com's NextGen Stats, Goff ranked 37th out of 41 quarterbacks in the same stat. With an upgraded pass-catching corps featuring former Bills receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins, plus rookie Cooper Kupp, Goff made major strides and helped the Rams find the balance they sorely lacked a year ago. 

While not many people expected such a leap from the Los Angeles offense, the Falcons defense was a unit we had pegged for a big step forward. Alas, that only sort of came to pass. The Falcons ranked ninth in yards allowed and eighth in points allowed, but checked in 22nd in defensive DVOA. They were also one of eight teams to rank in the bottom half of the league in both rush and pass defense DVOA.

That's not to say they don't stand a chance of dealing with the explosive Rams -- it's just going to take a dominating performance up front. Gurley's running lanes need to be choked off. Goff needs to be under pressure from the jump. And the receivers need to be jammed at the line so they never get a chance to create separation.

Falcons are coming in banged up

On the list of things you do not want to have happen during the lead-up to your first playoff game, the following things rank pretty high: 

  • Your star guard who was to be partially responsible for blocking Aaron Donald -- arguably the best defensive player in football -- goes on injured reserve. 
  • Your Pro Bowl center who will have to pick up the slack for the absence of that star guard is dealing with a calf injury that limits him in practice. 
  • Your No. 1 running back appears on the injury report with a new knee ailment and misses Tuesday's practice. 
  • Your No. 1 wide receiver is still dealing with lingering injuries and also misses Tuesday's practice. 

Alex Mack, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones will probably all play Saturday; Andy Levitre will not, and his absence will likely be noticeable against the Los Angeles defensive front. Ben Garland, who made three starts in Levitre's stead this season, will slide back into the lineup, and it's difficult to think of a more challenging matchup for him than Donald. 

Donald is a game-plan wrecker with the ability to completely short-circuit a team's offense because of his quickness and strength in the middle of the defense. If the Falcons' offensive line can't keep him under control, it could be a long day for Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Matt Ryan. Atlanta has at times been just as explosive this season as a year ago, but there have also been stretches where they struggled to recapture what made them so unstoppable in 2016. 

Ryan still has a ton of weapons to spread the ball around to when given enough time, and the Freeman-Coleman combination is still electric at its best. If the Falcons are to come up with a dominating offensive performance Saturday, they'll have to make use of their speed on the perimeter. Get Coleman out in open space with the ball in his hands. Get Jones moving across the formation and let him run away from press coverage. Get Taylor Gabriel involved. Turn the game into a track meet. 

Who ya got?

It's typically a safe move picking the home team in the opening round of the playoffs, and that's what we're doing here. The Rams don't have much in the way of experience, but they have several other advantages working in their favor here: They're more rested, they're healthier, they're playing at home and they have plus matchups on both sides of the ball. 

It would have been unthinkable before the start of the season, but the bet here is the Rams advance to the divisional round of the playoffs, pushing past the Falcons with a 10-point victory. 

Final score: Rams 30, Falcons 20

CBS Sports Writer

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He joined CBSSports.com in 2014 and has since spent far too much of his time watching film and working in spreadsheets. Full Bio

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