LOS ANGELES -- They always say defense wins championships.
This Atlanta Falcons defense may be what helps the team that was once described as being in a hangover to push forward in the NFL Playoffs towards Super Bowl LII.
The Falcons defeated the Rams 26-13 on Saturday night in the NFC Wild Card and will face the Philadelphia Eagles next weekend. The Falcons relied on a rushing touchdown from Devonta Freeman and four field goals from Matt Bryant to help them run up the score before Matt Ryan threw a fade to Julio Jones in the fourth quarter.
It wasn't a masterful offensive performance, and it's still nothing like the high-powered offense that helped the Falcons become NFC Champions last season.
The focus this season is the defense, which held the Rams-- the NFL's highest scoring offense-- to just 13 points and were able to contain Todd Gurley most of the night. Gurley still rushed for 101 yards, but he only had 10 yards on four catches.
The defense's ability to get pressure on quarterback Jared Goff especially helped. Goff gifted Vic Beasley a sack by falling down, but Takk McKinley and Adrian Clayborn were able to muscle through the line and get to the quarterback. Goff was making poor throws throughout the game.
The special teams also forced two turnovers. The Rams muffed a punt and the Falcons were able to come up with it, leading to a field goal. Damontae Kazee stripped the ball out of Pharoh Cooper's hands on a kickoff that set up Freeman's touchdown.
Deion Jones was able to prevent any sort of comeback by breaking up Goff's pass to Sammy Watkins in the end zone with two minutes to go for a turnover on downs. Unlike last season, the defense is finishing games.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense may struggle at times, and their efficiency in the red zone is still underwhelming. But the defense is keeping him in games, just like last season when he bailed the defense out of a lot of bad performances.
"It's awesome. It's fun to watch. Our defense has played really well this year, and specifically the second half of the season." Ryan said. "They've been one of the tougher defenses to go up against, and that's been fun to watch."
It's a shame that this defense couldn't have been up to this standard last season, or the Falcons would have surely closed out the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. The Falcons would be just as dominating if the offense were still scoring 34 points per game this season.
But head coach Dan Quinn is satisfied with how all three groups are putting together performances that result in wins.
"What I love about about our team is that it's all three phases. And that's when I think a team can be at its best. Nothing beats teamwork," Quinn said. "That's when all three groups are working together, and not having to rely on this score or a high percentage of score and hang in there is a good feeling. But more importantly I love what this team stands for because all three phases are connected and knowing they have a responsibility to each other."
The Falcons offense has made strides since their slump in the middle of the season. They are relying more on the running game-- 124 yards on Saturday night-- to put them in better situations. Plus, that's helping them control the clock.
The offensive line, which is battling injuries, still needs to do better to protect Ryan. But holes are starting to emerge for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who have the strength to keep pushing forward.
"I thought it was a good plan by Steve [Sarkisian] and our staff," Ryan said on the team's commitment to the run, even after the first half when they struggled to get positive yardage.
The Falcons continue to hang on and fight. And with them traveling to Philadelphia to battle a team that is without its starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, one has to wonder if this defense will continue to push them towards Minnesota.
"We're not here just to get here. We want to make noise while we're here," Ryan said. "This is what it's all about. It's about giving yourself the opportunity this time of the year to compete and play in games like this and win in games like this."