Super Bowl hangovers are real. Just ask the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens, all of whom have recently followed up Super Bowl campaigns with seasons plagued by the football equivalent of headaches, nausea, dry mouth and the shakes.
You couldn't blame the Atlanta Falcons for suffering a hangover, and maybe even some post-traumatic football stress, after blowing a 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. That experience almost certainly scarred the young team, and it was lucky to sneak into the 2017 postseason as the last seed in the NFC.
But the Falcons cured all that Saturday when they went on the road and beat the league's highest-scoring team by double digits. Their performance in a 26-13 Wild Card victory over the Los Angeles Rams wasn't flawless, but head coach Dan Quinn nonetheless saw a monkey torn from his back.
It's actually good that Quinn's team nearly coughed up an early 13-0 lead. When the Rams drew within a field goal by halftime, NFL Twitter was on Falcons playoff-implosion alert. An offense that saw its productivity plummet this season wasn't crisp, lacked balance and couldn't finish drives. A Los Angeles comeback felt inevitable.
But these Falcons proved they're mentally tougher than the team that embarrassed itself in last year's Super Bowl.
The play-calling was superb down the stretch as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian displayed patience by pounding away with stud running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, despite the fact the duo struggled in the first half. Freeman and Coleman eventually found space, the offense shortened the game by controlling the clock, and some well-timed, high-percentage Matt Ryan throws were icing on the cake as Atlanta held on.
The Falcons didn't panic this time. If anything, they learned from that Super Bowl debacle. And now that they've exorcised those 28-3 demons, they could be tough to stop.
It won't be easy as a No. 6 seed with an offense that still hasn't scored more than 26 points since November, but the NFC path is clearer than usual.
In fact, the Falcons could be considered favorites to upend the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles on the road in the divisional round. That's because Philadelphia is without MVP candidate Carson Wentz at quarterback thanks to a torn ACL, but an underrated Atlanta defense would probably give it a shot anyway.
|Rams: Regular season averages vs. Saturday totals|
|Category||Regular season||Saturday's loss|
|Time of possession||30:06||22:25|
|Todd Gurley touches||22.9||18|
|NFL.com/Pro Football Reference|
See, while the Falcons scored 11.7 fewer points per game this season under Sarkisian than they did last year under Kyle Shanahan, a young defense that improved substantially down the stretch in 2016 has continued to flourish in 2017. The Falcons quietly ranked eighth in football with 19.7 points per game allowed during the regular season, with Grady Jarrett, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and Desmond Trufant all posting elite campaigns.
They generated six takeaways in their last four games, and in the season's final month they limited the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers (one of whom they'll face in the NFC Championship if they beat the Eagles next weekend) to 64 total points in four affairs (two against New Orleans).
Atlanta delivered an exclamation point Saturday, with Jones, Trufant, No. 2 corner Robert Alford and most of their fellow starters all working to shut down the league's top scoring offense. The Rams averaged 29.9 points per game during the regular season, but they managed only a touchdown and two field goals against a D that tackled exceptionally well and covered even better.
Besides, Ryan, Freeman, Coleman and Julio Jones are due to explode. They all flashed at times Saturday night against one of the league's best defenses. There's a chance they'll find a groove at the right time. If that happens and the defense continues to impress, the Falcons will be impossible to take down.
If they can slay a Wentz-less Philly team, they also have a clear-cut advantage over Minnesota at quarterback, they've won three of their last four matchups with the familiar Saints and they're coming off an easy Week 17 victory over the equally familiar Panthers.
|Atlanta's path back to the Super Bowl|
|Game||Opponent||Why they can win|
|Divisional Round||Eagles||Philly won't have Carson Wentz|
|NFC Championship||MIN/NO/CAR||They played them all well this season|
|Super Bowl||AFC winner||They held a 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI|
If they can beat the Rams by 13 points on the road despite an uneven offensive performance featuring only two touchdowns, they can defeat anyone else in this playoff field when all cylinders are firing.
And now that the Falcons have fought back successfully when facing another potential playoff collapse, there's no reason to wonder if their mental fragility might interfere with their ability to outplay beatable opponents.
This Atlanta squad takes heat for not being as dominant as the 2016 version. But if we're going to treat these Falcons as a different team than that one because the offense is less explosive, it's only fair to also consider that the defense is better, that the offense still has the ability to explode and that a single choke-job—no matter how historic—doesn't make one an artist.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.