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Falcons' defense takes baton -- literally -- and runs into the postseason

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Defense guides Falcons past Panthers (0:59)

ESPN's Vaughn McClure says the Falcons were clicking on defense in their 22-10 win over the Panthers. (0:59)

ATLANTA -- Cornerback Robert Alford had the baton first on Sunday, but it eventually made its way around the Atlanta Falcons' locker room into the hands of pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr.

Beasley, the reigning NFL sack champ, twirled the baton a couple times, then grabbed it tightly, as if he didn't want to let it go.

The baton prop is something the Falcons came up with as another team-building exercise to emphasize chemistry. Whichever unit closes the game -- offense, defense or special teams -- gets the baton passed to it.

Alford's interception of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton secured the Falcons' victory and NFC wild-card matchup with the Los Angeles Rams next Saturday night. But the way Beasley squeezed the baton was symbolic of how the defense has taken the reins and ran with them heading into the postseason.

“We always said, on the defensive side, we don't ever want to take nothing away from our offense -- we're not battling with them because that's our offense -- but one thing we did say: We want to make this be known as a defensive team, too,” Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen said.

“When you know you come in, you have a three-headed monster you have to fight against. You've got to fight against offense, defense and special teams. Not just come in here and you've got to play against Julio [Jones] and Matt [Ryan] and them. You've got to come in here [and] worry about us also.”

Under first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, the Falcons made remarkable improvement. The Falcons ranked in the top 10 in both scoring defense and total defense for the first time since 1998. That '98 team made it to the Super Bowl.

Last year, the Falcons finished 27th out of 32 teams in scoring defense and 25th in total defense. They were dead last in red zone defense. And they still made it to the Super Bowl.

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett was the catalyst behind the defense's dramatic improvement this season with his quickness and ability to both stop the run and rush the passer.

“I think Grady Jarrett is a top defensive lineman in this league,” Allen said. “He's not like anybody else. He's like Grady Jarrett. That's all I know. And he's a baller.”

Allen hasn't been too shabby himself, coming up with big plays as the last line of defense, including an interception of Newton on Sunday. It was one of three interceptions by the defense, including the one by Alford and the first career pick by strong safety Keanu Neal.

Dan Quinn preached “fast and physical” from the moment he took over as coach. His defense has lived up to those words.

“We're always having the offense's back,” said linebacker Deion Jones, who ran the baton's final leg with a game-winning interception at home against the Saints on Dec. 7. “We go to battle for each other.”

Now the Falcons, who might have lost sack-leader Adrian Clayborn to injury, need to sustain their defensive momentum against an explosive Rams offense led by MVP candidate Todd Gurley and quarterback Jared Goff. The Rams took the scoring baton from the Falcons this season, averaging more than 30 points per game. But the Rams aren't playoff-tested, and the Falcons are coming off a Super Bowl run last season. In fact, none of the top three NFC playoff teams -- the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles with Nick Foles, the second-seeded Minnesota Vikings with Case Keenum and the third-seeded Rams with Goff -- has a quarterback with playoff experience. Foles is the only QB who has started a playoff game, and he has started only one.

The Falcons, who have to win three games on the road for a return trip to the Super Bowl, won't look ahead to a possible matchup with the Eagles. They have to focus on shutting down Goff, Gurley and the rest of the Rams.

“[Goff's] been playing good all year, so he has confidence that he's done it already,” Allen said. “Last year we didn't have any experience, and we played really good and went really far. I don't care about experience. You've got to go out there, and you've got to play ball.”