By Tony Moss, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons will look to clear their first hurdle
in a quest for the first Super Bowl title in franchise history on Saturday
night, when Jim Mora's team plays host to the streaking St. Louis Rams in an
NFC Divisional Playoff.

The Falcons, who lost in their only Super Bowl appearance following the 1998
campaign, will be playing their first home playoff game since that season.
Atlanta's 20-18 win over San Francisco in a 1998 divisional playoff had served
as the team's only home postseason contest since 1980. The Falcons enter the
playoffs having lost their last two regular season games, though the team
rested many of its starters, including quarterback Michael Vick, for the
majority of those two contests. Atlanta's most recent victory was a 34-31
overtime triumph over Carolina on Dec. 18th.

The Rams, meanwhile, come into their second postseason game fresh off a 27-20
road victory over Seattle in an NFC Wild Card affair last Saturday. St. Louis,
which has now won three in a row dating back to the regular season, became the
first-ever NFL team with a record of .500 or worse in the regular season to
win a playoff game, a feat that was matched when the similarly 8-8 Vikings
took down Green Bay the next day.


SERIES HISTORY

The Rams hold a 46-24-2 edge in the all-time series with Atlanta, and had won
seven in a row in the series prior to a 34-17 home win for the Falcons in Week
2 of the regular season. St. Louis last defeated Atlanta in 2003, by a 36-0
count, and last won a road game in the series during the 2001 regular season.

Saturday will mark the first-ever postseason meeting between the teams.

Martz enters Sunday's game with a career record of 5-1 versus Atlanta, while
Mora is 1-0 versus both Martz and St. Louis as a head coach.


RAMS OFFENSE VS. FALCONS DEFENSE

Not surprisingly, the Rams leaned heavily on their passing game in last
Saturday's Wild Card win over the Seahawks. Quarterback Marc Bulger, who threw
for nearly 4,000 yards in the regular season, completed 18 of 32 passes for
313 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception in the victory. Wideouts Torry
Holt (6 receptions, 108 yards, 1 TD) and Kevin Curtis (4 receptions, 107
yards) were Bulger's favorite targets against Seattle, as No. 2 receiver Isaac
Bruce (3 receptions, 40 yards) was held in check. Holt and Bruce both had big
days against Atlanta in Week 2, with Holt catching nine balls for 121 yards
and a a score and Bruce chipping in with eight receptions for 102 yards in the
game. Bulger completed 24 of 31 passes for 285 yards, a touchdown and an
interception in that contest, and was also sacked five times. St. Louis ranked
fifth in NFL passing offense (265.8 yards per game) during the regular season,
but ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed (50). Bulger was
sacked five times by the Seahawks last week.

Attempting to place pressure on Bulger will be an Atlanta defense that led the
NFL with 48 sacks during the regular season. Ends Patrick Kerney (66 tackles,
13 INT) and Brady Smith (30 tackles, 6 sacks) will bring the heat from the
outside, with tackles Rod Coleman (40 tackles, 11.5 sacks) and Ed Jasper (32
tackles, 2 sacks) operating on the interior. Kerney had two sacks of Bulger in
Week 2, and Smith and Jasper were credited with one each. The Falcons'
relentless pass rush helped disguise a secondary that had its shaky moments,
and was largely responsible for the team's rank of 22nd in NFL passing defense
(220.4 yards per game). Despite their propensity for giving up big plays,
Falcons defensive backs did account for 12 interceptions, including a team-
leading four for cornerback Aaron Beasley. Beasley had the Falcons' only
interception of Bulger in Week 2, and fellow CB Jason Webster led the unit
with six tackles in that outing.

The Rams had a difficult time settling between running backs Marshall Faulk
and Steven Jackson during the regular season, a trend that did not change in
the Seattle win, when both were utilized. Faulk rushed 13 times for 55 yards
and a touchdown in the triumph, and the rookie Jackson added 36 yards on 10
carries. St. Louis managed just 30 rushing yards on 15 carries against Atlanta
in Week 2, with Faulk being held to 20 yards on 12 carries and Jackson going
for 10 yards on three totes. Faulk did score a touchdown on the ground in that
loss, and also caught five passes out of the backfield. Martz's club was tied
for 25th in the league in rushing offense (101.5 yards per game) during the
regular season.

Attempting to slow Faulk and Jackson for a second straight time will be a
Falcon defensive unit that ranked tied for eighth in NFL rushing defense
(105.1 yards per game) during the regular season. Tackles Coleman (40 tackles)
and Jasper (32 tackles) have been at the center of that effort, and an
underrated linebacking unit including Chris Draft (56 tackles) in the middle
and Keith Brooking (101 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Matt Stewart (71 tackles) on
the outside has been solid as well. Brooking, the team's leading tackler on
the year, had a team-best seven stops against St. Louis in Week 2.


FALCONS OFFENSE VS. RAMS DEFENSE

Atlanta comes into Saturday's game boasting the league's most prolific rushing
offense (167 yards per game), one that relies heavily on the "DVD" trio of
quarterback Michael Vick (902 rushing yards, 3 TD) and running backs Warrick
Dunn (1106 yards, 9 TD) and T.J. Duckett (509 yards, 8 TD). It was Vick that
had the most success against the Rams in Week 2, rushing for 109 yards on just
12 carries in the victory. Dunn was held to 43 yards on 14 carries but scored
two touchdowns in that game, and Duckett provided an effective change-of-pace
with nine carries for 42 yards.

The Rams ranked a distant 29th in the league in rushing defense (136.2 yards
per game) during the regular season, but were able to hold an ailing Shaun
Alexander in check last Saturday. Alexander, who was nursing a wrist injury,
managed just 40 yards on 15 carries after going over 100 yards in each of his
first two 2004 meetings with St. Louis. Linebacker Tommy Polley tallied a
team-high 12 tackles in the victory, and Pisa Tinoisamoa, who led the team in
stops during the regular campaign, added five. Martz's team also received a
strong run-stopping effort from the line, with defensive tackle Ryan Pickett
and end Leonard Little combining for 10 tackles.

The Falcons have struggled in the passing game this year, and finished the
regular campaign ranked third-to-last in passing offense (150.8 yards per
game). Vick (2313 passing yards, 14 TD, 12 INT) had strong games and bad, and
one of the former came against St. Louis in September. Vick completed 14 of 19
passes for 179 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions, and was sacked just
once. The signal-caller's favorite target that day was fullback Justin
Griffith (4 receptions, 78 yards, 1 TD), who has since been rendered out for
the year with a broken ankle. Tight end Alge Crumpler, who led Atlanta in
receptions (48), receiving yards (774) and TD receptions (6), had three
catches for 49 yards against the Rams. No. 1 wideout Peerless Price (45
receptions, 3 TD) was held to two catches for 18 yards in that game. Though
Vick was not pressured often in his September meeting with the Rams, Atlanta
ranked near the bottom of the league with 50 sacks allowed in 2004.

The St. Louis secondary was somewhat porous in the Wild Card victory, allowing
Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck to throw for 341 yards and two touchdowns in the
game. A team that had managed just six interceptions in its first 16 games did
receive a rare strong moment from its secondary, however, with cornerback
Travis Fisher intercepting Hasselbeck in the first half. Fellow CB Jerametrius
Butler, who had five of the Rams' six interceptions during the regular season,
led the secondary with six tackles against Seattle. Safety Antuan Edwards had
four stops in the win. The Rams sacked Hasselbeck three times last Saturday,
with backup tackle Damione Lewis, who had five in the regular season, notching
one of those. The Rams ranked 11th in NFL passing defense (198.4 yards per
game) during the regular campaign, and were tied for 24th with 34 sacks.


SPECIAL TEAMS

Rams punter Kevin Stemke had a poor day against the Seahawks, averaging just
29 yards on his three punts. Kicker Jeff Wilkins fared better, connecting on
field goal attempts of 38 and 27 in the victory. A St. Louis team that broke
few big plays during the regular season continued that trend against the
Seahawks, when Aveion Cason averaged 20.2 yards on five kickoff returns and
Shaun McDonald totaled 14 yards on three punt returns.

Atlanta punter Chris Mohr (40.9 avg.) and kicker Jay Feely (18-23 FG) have
been steady but unspectacular this season. Mohr punted for a 46.9 average
against the Rams in Week 2, and Feely connected on both of his field goal
attempts, from distances of 35 and 25. Feely has not attempted a kick of 50 or
yards or greater this season. Allen Rossum (12.4 punt return avg., 1 TD, 21.6
kickoff return avg.) is a candidate to break a big one in the return game.


OVERALL ANALYSIS

St. Louis has played impressive football during its three-game winning streak,
but for all their improvement, the Rams don't match up particularly well with
Atlanta. The team is weak on both lines, a bad sign against a Falcon team that
was the NFL's best in both running the football and sacking the quarterback
this year. Even if St. Louis contains Dunn and Duckett, a Rams defense that
made few big plays all season is unlikely to corral Vick. And though Bulger,
Holt, and Bruce should be able to make some strides in the passing game, the
pressure that the quarterback will face will likely lead to some costly
turnovers. Look for the Falcons to keep the Rams at arm's length throughout.


Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 31, Rams 16.