WC – Falcons at RamsEditor’s note: Brian Edwards went 2-0 in the NFL last week and has a 3-0 record since Christmas Day. Don’t miss out on his pay-if-it-wins-only selection for tonight!
Atlanta (10-6 straight up, 7-9 against the spread) is the only team in the NFC that is back in the playoffs from the field of six teams that composed the conference’s postseason entrants last year. Of course, that was when the Falcons coasted into their second Super Bowl in franchise history with blowout wins over Seattle (36-20) and Green Bay (44-21) to close down the Georgia Dome.
We all remember what came next, as New England pulled the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. The Patriots trailed 28-3 late in the third quarter before rallying to win 34-28 in overtime.
I made my debut at the club’s new stadium, the Mercedes-Benz Dome, this past Sunday when Atlanta went into its regular-season finale vs. Carolina needing a win or a Seattle home loss to Arizona. As it turned out, both of those circumstances came to fruition to leave the Falcons as the sixth seed.
They’ll venture to The Coliseum in Tinseltown on Saturday night to face the third-seeded Los Angeles Rams. The winner will advance to the NFC semifinals to take on the second-seeded Eagles in Philadelphia next weekend.
As of Friday afternoon, most betting shops had the Rams installed as 5.5-point favorites with a total of 48. The Falcons were +205 on the money line (risk $100 to win $205). For first-half wagers, L.A. was favored by three with a total of 24. The line for the side had been at six or 6.5 for most of the week before moving down to 5.5 late Thursday.
Atlanta captured a 22-10 win over the Panthers as five-point home favorites. Matt Bryant buried all five of his field-goal attempts in the second half to propel his team into the postseason. With the Falcons struggling to punch the ball in the end zone on a slew of sustained drives, the 32 combined points easily stayed ‘under’ the 44.5-point total.
Dan Quinn’s team enjoyed a 371-248 advantage in total offense. Atlanta found the end zone only once in five trips inside the red zone. Clinging to a 16-10 lead with 6:37 remaining in the fourth quarter, Bryant drilled a 56-yarder to make it a two-possession game. His 33-yard FG with 2:27 left provided the final points, but Atlanta got the stop it needed to avoid its supporters enduring a backdoor push that was potentially in play.
Matt Ryan completed 28-of-45 passes for 317 yards and one touchdowns without an interception. Devonta Freeman had nine receptions for 85 yards and one TD, while Julio Jones finished with five catches for 80 yards. Mohamed Sanu had seven grabs for 71 yards.
Carolina QB Cam Newton was intercepted three times, with one pick apiece for Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen and Robert Alford. Deion Jones had a team-best 10 tackles.
Ryan hasn’t duplicated the stats that made him the NFL’s MVP in 2016. He has connected on 64.7 percent of his throws for 4,095 yards with a 20/12 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Freeman has rushed for a team-high 865 yards and seven TDs, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. The FSU product missed a pair of games, but he still had 36 catches for 317 yards and one TD.
Jones had another sensational campaign, hauling in 88 receptions for 1,444 yards and three TDs. Sanu has 67 catches for 703 yards and five TDs, while TE Austin Hooper has snared 49 balls for 526 yards and three TDs.
Tevin Coleman is Atlanta’s second-leading rusher, gaining 628 yards and five TDs while averaging 4.0 YPC. The University of Indiana product has 27 receptions for 299 yards and three TDs. WR Taylor Gabriel, who has 33 catches for 378 yards and one TD, suffered a hamstring injury last week vs. the Panthers. Nevertheless, he’s listed as ‘probable’ at L.A.
There are only two injuries of note for the Falcons. They’ll be without starting OG Andy Levitre due to a triceps injury. Also, special-teams ace Andre Roberts is ‘questionable’ with a knee injury. Roberts is the only Atlanta player to return punts this season, averaging 7.3 yards per return with a long of 27 yards and 21 fair catches. Roberts has returned 38 kicks with a long of 61 yards, and he's averaging 22.6 yards per kickoff return.
Atlanta has won six of its past eight games to finish strong. The only two defeats came at New Orleans and at home to the NFC’s No. 1 seed, Minnesota. Two of those wins came over playoff-bound foes, as the Falcons edged New Orleans at home by a 20-17 count and, as noted, knocked off the Panthers this past weekend.
Quinn’s team won five of eight road games during the regular season, but it has limped to a 2-6 spread record in the process. Atlanta failed to cover the number in both of its road underdog spots, losing 23-7 at New England as a three-point ‘dog and 23-13 at New Orleans as a 5.5-point puppy on Christmas Eve.
Atlanta’s defense allowed only two teams to score more than 23 points on it. That was the 26 scored by the Lions at Detroit and the 31 scored by the Seahawks at Seattle. Pete Carroll’s team only scored that many because perennial Pro-Bowl QB Russell Wilson was somehow able to scramble away from pressure a plethora of times to not only avoid sacks, but to turn those would-be negative plays into big gainers.
The Atlanta ‘D’ is led by Jones, the second-year linebacker out of LSU who has produced 91 solo tackles, 47 assists, one sack, 10 passes defensed and three interceptions for 42 return yards. Neal, another second-year player from out of the SEC (Florida), has 83 solo tackles, 33 assists, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six passes defensed and one interception. Adrian Clayborn has a team-best 9.5 sacks to go with a pair of forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Vic Beasley has five sacks and one forced fumble.
The Falcons’ stop unit allowed an average of just 17.0 points per game by their five opponents in December. For the season, they are ranked ninth in the NFL in total defense, 12th versus the pass, ninth against the run and eighth in scoring ‘D’ (19.7 PPG). For whatever reasons, Los Angeles (11-5 SU, 9-7 ATS) hasn’t played its best football at home, going 3-4 both SU and ATS (it played one game in London). Nevertheless, first-year head coach Sean McVay has this franchise in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. According to the Ventura County Star, only three L.A. starters have played in the postseason before and two reserves have participated in the playoffs. Only one Ram – CB Kayvon Webster – has played in a Super Bowl and Webster is on injured reserve.
With the NFC’s No. 3 seed clinched, L.A. rested starters last week so gamblers shouldn’t read anything into its 34-13 loss to San Francisco as a six-point home underdog last week. In the 10 games preceding the regular-season finale vs. the 49ers, the Rams went 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS. The two defeats came at Philadelphia and vs. Minnesota, who are the top two seeds in the NFC.
Jared Goff, the former No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft, enjoyed a breakout sophomore campaign. The four-year starter at Cal-Berkeley completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 3,804 yards with a 28/7 TD-INT ratio. Cooper Kupp has 62 receptions for 869 yards and five TDs, while Robert Woods has 56 catches for 781 yards and five TDs. Sammy Watkins has 39 grabs for 593 yards and a team-high eight TD receptions.
RB Todd Gurley is an MVP candidate after rushing for 1,305 yards and 13 TDs with a 4.7 YPC average. The University of Georgia product sat out last week, so he’ll be extra fresh vs. Atlanta after playing 15 workmanlike regular-season games. Gurley also has 64 catches for 788 yards and six TDs.
The L.A. defense is led by a pair of former SEC players whose alma maters will square off for a national title on Monday night. Mark Barron, a safety out of Alabama, has 73 solo tackles, 13 assists, four passes defensed, one sack and three interceptions. LB A.J. Ogletree, a University of Georgia product, has 63 solo tackles, 32 assists, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, 10 passes defensed, two sacks and one pick-six.
Barron is ‘probable’ after missing the last two games with an Achilles’ injury. Ogletree also sat out last week (knee/rest), but he’s also ‘probable.’ I noted that Barron and Ogletree “lead" the defense, but that’s more of a reference to tackling numbers.
The biggest concern for Atlanta’s offense, especially with Levitre absent, is Rams’ perennial Pro-Bowl DT Aaron Donald, who has recorded 11 sacks and five forced fumbles in 14 games played.
The ‘under’ has cashed in five consecutive Atlanta games to improve to 11-5 overall. The Falcons have seen the ‘under’ go 5-3 in their road games. They’ve seen their games average combined scores of 41.8 PPG.
The ‘over’ is 11-5 overall for the Rams, 4-3 in their home games. They’ve watched the ‘over’ hit in five consecutive contests. L.A.’s games have averaged combined scores of 50.4 PPG for the season. Presuming the tally remains at 48 points, this will be L.A.’s third-highest total of the year.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Eastern on NBC.
Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.
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