Sarah Woodall: Though different in style, this year's Falcons team should not be overlooked in playoffs
Resurgent defense, offensive talent make Atlanta a serious postseason threat
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, right, scores ahead of Los Angeles Rams strong safety John Johnson during the second half of the wild-card playoff game Jan. 6 in Los Angeles. - photo by Associated Press

The Atlanta Falcons are playing the underdog card in the NFC. 

Fine by them.

It tends to happen when you’re tagged as a six-seed for the playoffs. It certainly adds to it with last year’s Super Bowl collapse continuing to resurface.

Quite frankly, the defending NFC champions don’t really care — nor are aware of —what the outside voices indicate, and coach Dan Quinn made that apparent when he quickly shut down the rumors of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s possible departure to Seattle next season.

“Zero chance of that,” the third-year coach told a Falcons beat writer Wednesday, despite being visibly caught off-guard by the question seconds prior. 

He also asked the writer to get him up to speed, as his only focus this week has been Philadelphia’s blueprint. One playoff game down, and on to the next.

That’s been the mentality of the 2017 Atlanta Falcons — keeping all focus on the next game. And over the last few weeks, it has shown merit.

After going 3-1 down the home stretch of the regular season to secure the NFC’s last remaining playoff spot, the Falcons (11-6) muted the league’s highest scoring offense orchestrated by Los Angeles first-year coach Sean McVay in a 26-13 road playoff victory last weekend. They are just the fifth team in 20 years to win a playoff game after losing the Super Bowl the previous season.

Be as it may, the "28-3" references continue to pile on. But the Falcons are a team to be feared, not overlooked, moving forward in the postseason.

In fact, they appear better equipped for something more meaningful.

Amazingly, fans are still waiting to see last year’s electrifying offense that ran roughshod over its opposition on the way to the franchise’s second-ever Super Bowl appearance. But Atlanta continues to show signs of, if not already proven itself to be, a different breed of NFC title contender.

Once you take away the early misfortunes and look at the second half of the season, you have possibly one of the more complete rosters in the team’s existence.

Quinn and first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel have forged a top-10 defense that flies around the ball. Atlanta’s defense tackles well, gets to the quarterback and can dissect opposing offenses in the vertical passing game. 

Despite some speed bumps, a Sarkisian-run offense is a balanced attack, gaining more ground in third-down efficiency while milking clock with long, sustained scoring drives. Quarterback Matt Ryan watched his numbers take a significant dip following his MVP season a year ago, but still continues to get the job done under his fourth offensive coordinator, eclipsing 4,000 passing yards for the seventh-straight year while leading the franchise to its sixth playoff appearance since 2008.

Through the wild-card round, Atlanta continues to fit the billing of a poised, battle-tested squad and enters Saturday’s divisional round as a three-point favorite over No. 1 seed Philadelphia (13-3).

Just revisit last weekend for a refresher.

The Falcons put to bed their explosive, high-scoring identity that yielded so much success in 2016. 

Instead, Atlanta dominated time of possession, holding the ball 15 minutes more than Los Angeles. The Falcons used hard-nosed runs by Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to gradually wear down LA’s front seven. Ryan efficiently moved the chains against LA, despite slipping and sliding from inside the pocket in some unfavorable field conditions, and even kept his balance to find Julio Jones for a scoring strike inside the red zone.

Place kicker Matt Bryant, Atlanta’s ageless wonder, continued to show his range, drilling four field goals — including a booming 54-yarder to cap a long drive toward the end of the third quarter. 

Defensively, the Falcons got after it up front, sniffed out balls thrown by Rams quarterback Jared Goff in the secondary and held MVP candidate Todd Gurley out of the end zone despite his 111 yards from scrimmage. Atlanta finished plus-2 in the turnover margin, converting two Pharoh Cooper kickoff-return fumbles into 10 points.

And another trait this Falcons team exhibited? It did not waver once the margin thinned.

The Falcons offense twice answered the call when the Rams trimmed their lead to single digits in the second and fourth quarters. At 13-10, Atlanta opened the second half with a 16-play, 76-yard drive spanning eight minutes to stretch it back to 16-10. And at 19-13 with less than 11 minutes to play, the Falcons put the final nail in the coffin with a five-minute drive capped by a Jones touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. 

Clearly, the Falcons have turned the corner at the right time.

They will once again put it all on the line against a Carson Wentz-less Eagles team with something to prove and that still boasts a slew of playmakers on both sides. Wentz, who tore his ACL last month, will be watching as backup Nick Foles attempts to lead Philadelphia to its first playoff win since 2008.

The Eagles too are embracing a new role as just the fifth top-seeded team since the 1970 merger to be labeled as a home underdog for a divisional-round playoff game. Despite winning 13 games on the way to clinching the NFC East and securing a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Eagles offense has regressed in the last two games with Foles under center, and the defense has struggled at times.

They still begin their postseason journey in the hopes of exploiting Atlanta’s weaknesses in the second-straight meeting at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles grounded the Falcons to their lowest scoring total last season in a 24-15 win on November 13, 2016. 

Quinn, who acknowledged some similarities between both offenses, said looking through the game film of last season’s clash was painful to watch. He pointed out the lack of touches in their run game and the Eagles’ ability to elongate a pair of drives to keep Atlanta’s offense off the field.

The tandem of Ryan Mathews and Wendall Smallwood racked up the yardage in the Eagles’ highly effective rushing attack that had the Falcons defense gassed.

“We thought we missed some opportunities in that game,” Quinn said in a press conference Thursday. “You do go back and you learn from them. But you knew it was one that was coming. … It was one that bothered us, for sure.”

Philadelphia has one of the best defensive lines in the league on top of a dangerous but recently dormant run game fueled by Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount. Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor have yet to flourish under Foles, but are still another dangerous combo beside tight end Zack Ertz in the passing game.

The Falcons' chances bode well in this matchup, pending which Foles shows up. Foles, who is 22-17 as a starter for his career, has struggled to match a breakout 2013 season in which he tossed 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He is 2-1 as the Eagles’ starter in 2017, though he finished the regular season with an ugly passer rating of 79.5.

Staying ahead in the turnover margin is crucial for Atlanta. The Falcons have generated five takeaways over the last two weeks while not turning the ball over in that same span.

In addition, if Atlanta can find a way to get its back tandem of Freeman and Coleman churning while reducing the number of penalties and drops, it can very well advance with ease this weekend, then give either Minnesota (13-3) or New Orleans (12-5) a go in the NFC title game.

Underdog? How about underestimated. 

Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at swoodall@gainesvilletimes.com or @Woodall8Sarah on Twitter.

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