Defense helps Falcons secure playoff berth, but offense needs to awaken

ATLANTA -- As strange as it sounds, the defense is the primary reason why the Atlanta Falcons secured a playoff berth on Sunday.

Now it's time for the offense to step up.

A 22-10 win over the Carolina Panthers means the Falcons, at 10-6, earned the No. 6 seed and last NFC wild-card spot a year after advancing to the Super Bowl. They'll play the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night.

For all those folks who poked fun at the Falcons regarding a Super Bowl hangover, they now are the only team in the NFC field from last year's group, with Dallas, Green Bay, Detroit, Seattle, and the New York Giants all sitting at home.

"We're excited," quarterback Matt Ryan said of making the playoffs. "Obviously happy to come away with the win today and play our way in. I thought we competed really well today. ... I'm proud of the effort. Really excited to be in. And now we've got more work to do."

The pressure and playmaking of nose tackle Grady Jarrett spearheaded a Falcons' defensive effort that stymied Cam Newton and the Panthers, when Newton wasn't overthrowing his receivers. Safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, along with cornerback Robert Alford, stepped up with interceptions, with Neal's and Alford's coming in the fourth quarter. And Matt Bryant was 5-for-5 on field goals, including a 56-yarder on a day when the Falcons needed every point they could muster against a fast and physical Panthers' defense.

Ryan praised the defensive effort.

"I really appreciate it," Ryan said. "I see how hard they work every day, going out there working at their craft, trying to get better, putting in incredible amounts of effort to improve. And those guys have really done that. They've played extremely well this year."

But despite the Falcons' defensive resurgence throughout the 2017 season, there's little time to celebrate. While the defense needs to continue playing in the same fashion against Jared Goff, MVP candidate Todd Gurley and the Rams, the offense needs to rediscover some of the magic that made them the most feared unit in the league a year ago.

Despite the win over the Panthers, some of the same offensive woes were on display again. The Falcons were 1-of-5 in the red zone and 6-of-16 on third down. They had dropped passes and false starts at key times.

"You'd like to walk away with more touchdowns than that," Ryan said. "But we got the job done. And ultimately, that was the mission coming into it. ... Hopefully we can be better in the red area as we move through the playoffs."

The Falcons will need to score points against the Rams, who averaged a league-leading 31 points per game leading into Sunday's regular-season finale. The Falcons led the league last year at 33.8, but their production dropped to 22.1 points this season.

Ryan will have to display the same type of form that made him the MVP last season. Julio Jones has to be Julio Jones. And Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have to find running lanes despite dominating Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald being in front of them.

The offensive line has to be stout after an average performance during the regular season. In the season finale, Pro Bowl center Alex Mack played through a calf strain and left guard Andy Levitre exited after aggravating a triceps injury.

Defensively, the Falcons know what type of challenge they'll have against Gurley, one of the best running backs in the league. And they won't underestimate Goff, either.

"It just means we have to go out and be on our stuff," Allen said. "We've got to go out there and do what we do, just try to get the ball back to our offense as much as possible. If we go out there and play football like we do, ain't too many people that can do nothing on us."

We'll see if the Falcons rise up to the challenge.