The pressure's all on Atlanta against upstart Rams
By Jim Thomas
ATLANTA • The numbers speak volumes and help explain why all the pressure is on the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday in the Georgia Dome.
Since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only 22 teams (11.5 percent) of the squads that started a season 0-2 have made it to postseason. Only three teams in that span have won the Super Bowl after starting 0-2.
For a team with a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality, that’s bad math. Atlanta absolutely, positively wants to avoid getting tripped up by the upstart Rams in Sunday’s game that has a noon (St. Louis time) kickoff.
When you coax a 37-year-old tight end (Tony Gonzalez) back for another season, when you sign a 30-year-year old running back (Steven Jackson) and a soon-to-be 32-year-old pass rusher (Osi Umenyiora) in free agency, you’re not building for the future. You’re trying to win now.
A year ago, the Falcons were stopped on the 10-yard line with 1 minute 13 seconds to play in a 28-24 loss to San Francisco in the NFC title game. After coming that close, the Falcons want to take that last big step to football’s big game.
After losing their 2013 opener 23-17 to division rival New Orleans, the Falcons don’t want to fall to 0-2 at the hands of a Rams team that has everything to gain and nothing to lose in this one. Nothing to lose because when the schedules came out last spring, it was universally marked down as an “L” by almost everyone who doesn’t draw a paycheck from Rams Park.
However, just one week into the season, the task doesn’t seem nearly as daunting for the Rams. For one, the biggest problem area for the defending NFC South champion Falcons is pass-blocking; the biggest strength for the Rams is their pass rush.
For another, Atlanta’s dynamic duo at wide receiver — Julio Jones and Roddy White — are banged up and listed at ‘‘questionable.’’
White in particular has a high ankle sprain and isn’t anywhere near to full strength. Overall, the Falcons’ injury list reads more like it would in late November when bodies start to wear down, than for Week 2 of the regular season. No fewer than six Atlanta starters are listed as questionable, which by NFL definition means they have a 50-50 chances of playing.
After parachuting into Atlanta at the end of the preseason, Gonzalez looked a little rusty against New Orleans and might need more practice time to get up to speed. Jackson, the long-time Rams great, still is feeling his way in terms of his role in Atlanta and how much he will be used.
So for a team that remains under the radar league-wide, what would it mean for the Rams to somehow head home from Atlanta with a 2-0 record and a signature road victory?
“It would mean a lot to us,” right tackle Rodger Saffold said. “I prefer us to just stay under the radar, just let us keep chipping away.”
“It’s a huge challenge,” said linebacker James Laurinaitis. “They’re going back home, home opener for them. So they’re gonna be all fired up. They’re gonna try to get back on track.
“They’re a team that was arguably a play or two away from the Super Bowl. So they deserve the respect that they get and they deserve all the attention they get.”
The Rams, meanwhile, won almost in spite of themselves in their opener last week against Arizona. Despite the record-setting receiving day by Jared Cook, the pass-rushing exploits of Robert Quinn and the fourth-quarter cool displayed by Sam Bradford, the Rams left that game with a lengthy to-do list.
Against a team the caliber of Atlanta, four personal foul penalties, a touchdown lost on a fumble and a TD allowed on an interception return won’t cut it. Neither will 2.8 yards per carry on the ground. Or failure to convert a pair of defensive takeaways into touchdowns after taking over on the Arizona 4 and Arizona 22 in the second half.
“We have to improve in all areas,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “At least we have a sense for were we are now. You talk about reducing penalties, protecting the football, scoring in the ‘plus’ territory — those kinds of things. Those are the things we’ll continue to work on.”
In a game as close as the 27-24 triumph over the Big Red, there are many plot twists and momentum-chasers. If just one of those go differently, the outcome might be different. For example, what would have happened if a scrambling Bradford’s fumble with 3½ minutes to play had been recovered by Arizona at the Rams’ 13 instead of by the Rams’ Daryl Richardson?
Or what if the Rams’ badly-botched 2-minute defense at the end of the first half resulted in a successful 50-yard field goal by Jay Feely instead of one that barely missed, wide right?
“We have to clean it up,” defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “We’ve just got to match that stuff up better underneath and deny those balls. We can’t allow them to go down and hit three passes and drive right down the field.”
But when all was said and done, Bradford led the Rams downfield for a winning field goal by Greg Zuerlein as the Rams scored the game’s final 14 points after trailing 24-13. In what’s a fourth-quarter league, Bradford found a way to get it done in the fourth quarter.
“Young guys, nobody lost their composure; (they) stayed real poised, calm,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “Sam’s kind of made that his deal. He can bring us back when we’re down.”
The Rams can only hope to find themselves in a similar situation Sunday against the Falcons. And see what happens.