PREVIEW: LA Rams make long-awaited playoff return vs. Falcons
LOS ANGELES (AP) Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons visited the Coliseum late last season on their path to the Super Bowl, and they easily racked up a blowout victory over the woebegone Los Angeles Rams.
When they return on Saturday night for their NFC wild-card playoff opener, they might hardly recognize the guys in the horned helmets on the other sideline.
That 42-14 loss to the Falcons was a catalyst in the Rams' transformation from LA laughingstocks into NFC West champions, because coach Jeff Fisher was fired the next day. One month later, Sean McVay was hired to lead the most incredible one-year turnaround in recent NFL history.
''People are excited, and that was our goal when we came back here,'' McVay said. ''We wanted to be able to provide a good football product that our fans can be proud of, and they want to come out and support.''
Led by the 31-year-old McVay, who grew up near Atlanta, and a roster of playmakers including Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, the Rams (11-5) are in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The NFC's third seed drew a tough matchup with 2016 league MVP Ryan and the Falcons (10-6), who appear capable of making another conference run.
But the Rams expect to feed off the excitement of a city hosting its first playoff game since the LA Raiders' last postseason trip 24 years ago.
''It's definitely a cool thing,'' Goff said. ''After football has been gone from here for so long, and we come back in Year 2 and are able to bring a playoff game to the Coliseum, that's very cool.''
Goff, the second-year pro coming off a transformative 3,804-yard season , is eager to face off with Ryan, who is in the playoffs for the sixth time in 10 years. Both teams have a wealth of offensive playmakers, from Rams MVP candidate Gurley to star Falcons receiver Julio Jones.
The Falcons are back for their first postseason game since that memorable Super Bowl collapse against New England. That loss could have broken weaker teams, but coach Dan Quinn kept this bunch together - and now they're the only group in the six-team NFC field that also made the playoffs last season.
''I love the resiliency and the toughness of this team,'' Quinn said. ''When you've been through some of the fire together and you come out the other side stronger as a brotherhood, we're certainly improved.''
Here are more things to watch when the Rams host their first playoff game in Southern California since January 1986:
BIG NUMBERS: Although both defenses are statistically solid, this game could turn into a shootout. The Falcons led the NFL in scoring last season, but the Rams took over the top spot this year in McVay's worst-to-first revitalization of the LA offense. Ryan and Jones have the skills to pick at the Rams' secondary if Donald can't be disruptive, while Goff and the versatile Gurley are eager to make their first mark on postseason football.
NEW GUYS: While the Falcons know everything about playoff pressure, the Rams seriously lack experience: Just six of their players have been in postseason games - including star left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who went 0-6 in Cincinnati. McVay also is the youngest head coach in a playoff game in NFL history. ''That's really not an excuse for us,'' said Whitworth, who cited the Rams' series of games against playoff-bound teams down the regular-season stretch as good experience under pressure. ''I think we just need to go out there and execute.''
CONNECTIONS: The teams' coaching staffs have multiple ties and similarities. Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur was Ryan's quarterbacks coach last year, although LaFleur claimed he doesn't have much insight to offer on the star passer or the Falcons' offense. That offense is run by Steve Sarkisian, who knows the Coliseum extremely well: He coached at USC as an assistant and a head coach until getting fired midway through the 2015 season. Rams GM Les Snead and assistant Brian Xanders are products of the Falcons' front office, too.
TIME OFF: The Rams didn't earn a first-round bye, but McVay essentially took one anyway by resting his biggest playmakers for last week's regular-season finale. The decision likely cost Gurley the NFL rushing title, but should pay off with rested skill-position players. In the ultracompetitive NFC South, the Falcons had to grind into the final week to secure a wild-card spot with a 22-10 win over Carolina.
FOOT QUESTION: The Rams' three top special-teams talents all earned Pro Bowl recognition, but kicker Greg Zuerlein is out for the season with a back injury. Zuerlein's reliability was an enormous asset, and Los Angeles' new kicker is Sam Ficken, who was working at a brokerage firm in Connecticut recently. If the game comes down to a kick, the pressure will be big.