By Matt Citak
The 2017 NFL regular season has come to an end, which means it's time for playoff football. This year's NFC Wildcard Weekend consists of two great matchups, starting on Saturday when the Falcons travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams, and finishing on Sunday with the Saints welcoming the Panthers to New Orleans for their third meeting in the last few months.
The Rams were one of the NFL's biggest surprises this season. After going 4-12 and finishing third in the NFC West in 2016, Sean McVay was hired to replace Jeff Fisher as the team's head coach. The hiring of McVay has done wonders for the Rams, as Los Angeles finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in points per game (29.9), No. 10 in passing yards per game (239.4) and No. 8 in rushing yards per game (122.1). Second-year quarterback Jared Goff was solid in his first campaign under McVay, throwing for 3,804 yards, 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 15 games. But it was the play of running back Todd Gurley that really sparked the Rams' offense all season. Gurley carried the ball 279 times for 1,305 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns, while adding 64 receptions for 788 yards and six receiving touchdowns. His performance has made him a serious candidate for MVP, and was a big reason the Rams took home their first NFC West title since 2003.
Los Angeles will have their hands full going up against the Falcons on Saturday. Atlanta secured the six seed in the NFC with their 22-10 victory over the Panthers in Week 17, ensuring that last year's NFC Super Bowl representative would be in the postseason for the second consecutive season. The Falcons return the same offensive core as last year, with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman leading the way. Jones finished as the league's second-leading receiver with 1,444 yards on 88 receptions, but managed to reel in just three touchdowns, his lowest touchdown total since 2013 when he played in only five games. While Atlanta's offense has been up-and-down, its defense has remained steady all year. The Falcons rank 8th in points allowed per game (19.7), 9th in total yards allowed per game (318.4), and 9th in rushing yards allowed per game (104.1). Don't let the No. 6 seed fool you- this is a well-rounded, fundamentally strong football team.
In Sunday's contest, the Panthers and Saints meet for the third time this season, with Carolina still looking for their first win against their division rivals. Despite the two losses to New Orleans, quarterback Cam Newton led the Panthers to an 11-5 record and the No. 5 seed in the NFC. Newton did not have his strongest season throwing the ball. The 28-year-old completed just 59.1 percent of his passes for 3,302 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, his highest interception total since he threw 17 during his rookie season. While he may have struggled throwing the ball, Newton made up for it with his abilities as a rusher. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback finished with career-highs in both rush attempts (139) and rushing yards (754) while adding six rushing touchdowns. But Carolina's biggest concern on Sunday will likely come on the other side of the ball, where their No. 3 ranked rushing defense, allowing a mere 88.1 yards per game, will attempt to slow down one of the most explosive run games in the NFL.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees ended the season with his lowest passing yard and touchdown total since signing with New Orleans in 2006. Knowing that, you would probably think the Saints offense struggled this season, right? Wrong. New Orleans finished in the top 5 in points per game (28.6), total yards per game (391.2), passing yards per game (261.8), and rushing yards per game (129.4). And while his 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns were his lowest since his days with the San Diego Chargers, Brees set the all-time NFL record with a 72.0 completion percentage. The future Hall of Fame QB had a great season, but New Orleans was not forced to lean on him as heavily as they have in previous seasons due to the phenomenal play of running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The pair became the first running back tandem in NFL history to both have more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and closed out the year with a combined 25 touchdowns. Ingram and Kamara helped take a lot of the pressure off Brees, which the Saints are hoping will have their 38-year-old quarterback fresh and ready to go as they attempt to make a deep postseason run.
INSIDE THE NFL analyst Ray Lewis weighed in on this weekend's NFC Wildcard matchups, and how the opening games of these NFC playoffs may go.
Lewis, along with Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms, and James Brown break down this and other NFL storylines all season long each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime's Inside The NFL.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Los Angeles Rams
CBS Local Sports: Will the lack of playoff experience between head coach Sean McVay and second-year quarterback Jared Goff affect the Rams in this Wildcard Weekend showdown?
Ray Lewis: That's one of the things that I think is big this weekend- experience. You have an Atlanta team who has a ton of experience. They went to the Super Bowl last year. They had the MVP of the league in Matt Ryan. Now they face off against a very inexperienced team in the Los Angeles Rams. We're talking about over a decade since the Rams were in the playoffs. Now you have to ask yourself a real question - who do you pick? Do you go with youth? Because Todd Gurley is probably my MVP of the league. It's a tough one, but I'm leaning towards Atlanta because of their experience.
CBS Local Sports: The Falcons seem to be one of the more well-rounded teams in the playoffs. How dangerous can this Atlanta squad be now that they're back in the postseason and looking for redemption for last year?
Ray Lewis: You have to remember, this is the team that just came from the Super Bowl last year and had a double-digit lead over the New England Patriots. If you can get hot at the right time, it doesn't matter [how you performed earlier in the season]. Everybody says, "Oh the Falcons had an up-and-down season." Guess what? This is a new season now. This Atlanta team is probably the deadliest six seed that we've seen in a long time in the NFC playoffs.
Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints
CBS Local Sports: The Panthers have one of the top rush defenses in the league, but struggled to limit New Orleans' run game in their first two meetings. How can Carolina slow down Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara on Sunday?
Ray Lewis: Honestly that's one of the matchups I'm most looking forward to this weekend. I watched that game a few weeks ago and I was really impressed on how the Saints ran the ball. But Carolina still has guys like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. You watch that film from a few weeks ago and you're saying, "Okay how can this get better? How can that get better?" This is the best matchup [of the game], but I don't think the Panthers have enough to slow them down. Alvin Kamara is one of the very special talents in this game. It's going to be really challenging for Carolina.
CBS Local Sports: If the Saints are able to keep Cam Newton in the pocket and force him to beat them with his arm, do the Panthers have enough firepower surrounding him on offense to keep up with New Orleans' much-improved defense?
Ray Lewis: That's what makes Cam magical. Even when he's inside the pocket, he can still beat you outside the pocket. There really is no keeping him inside the pocket. I played against Michael Vick years ago. We used to create a web around him to make sure he couldn't bounce out. But Cam isn't worried about bouncing the ball outside. He goes through the middle of the defense because he's bigger than most linebackers. In terms of the outside positions, even though you may think there is a lack of firepower surrounding him in the offense, Cam seems to always figure it out. But this game is definitely going to be tough for him and the Panthers.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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