Los Angeles — Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons visited the Coliseum late last season on their path to the Super Bowl, and they easily racked up a blowout victory over the woebegone Los Angeles Rams.
When they return tonight for their NFC wild-card playoff opener, they might hardly recognize the guys in the horned helmets on the other sideline.
That 42-14 loss to the Falcons was a catalyst in the Rams’ transformation from L.A. laughingstocks into NFC West champions, because coach Jeff Fisher was fired the next day. One month later, Sean McVay was hired to lead the most incredible one-year turnaround in recent history.
“People are excited, and that was our goal when we came back here,” McVay said. “We wanted to be able to provide a good football product that our fans can be proud of, and they want to come out and support.”
Led by the 31-year-old McVay, who grew up near Atlanta, and a roster of playmakers including Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, the Rams (11-5) are in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The NFC’s third seed drew a tough matchup with 2016 league MVP Ryan and the Falcons (10-6), who appear capable of making another conference run.
But the Rams expect to feed off the excitement of a city hosting its first playoff game since the L.A. Raiders’ last postseason trip 24 years ago.
“It’s definitely a cool thing,” Goff said. “After football has been gone from here for so long, and we come back in Year 2 and are able to bring a playoff game to the Coliseum, that’s very cool.”
Goff, the second-year pro coming off a transformative 3,804-yard season , is eager to face off with Ryan, who is in the playoffs for the sixth time in 10 years. Both teams have a wealth of offensive playmakers, from Rams MVP candidate Gurley to star Falcons receiver Julio Jones.
The Falcons are back for their first postseason game since that memorable Super Bowl collapse against New England. That loss could have broken weaker teams, but coach Dan Quinn kept this bunch together — and now they’re the only group in the six-team NFC field that also made the playoffs last season.
“I love the resiliency and the toughness of this team,” Quinn said.
“When you’ve been through some of the fire together and you come out the other side stronger as a brotherhood, we’re certainly improved.”
Although both defenses are statistically solid, this game could turn into a shootout. The Falcons led the NFL in scoring last season, but the Rams took over the top spot this year in McVay’s worst-to-first revitalization of the L.A. offense.
Ryan and Jones have the skills to pick at the Rams’ secondary if Donald can’t be disruptive, while Goff and the versatile Gurley are eager to make their first mark on postseason football.
While the Falcons know everything about playoff pressure, the Rams seriously lack experience: Just six of their players have been in postseason games — including star left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who went 0-6 in Cincinnati. McVay also is the youngest head coach in a playoff game in NFL history.
“That’s really not an excuse for us,” said Whitworth, who cited the Rams’ series of games against playoff-bound teams down the regular-season stretch as good experience under pressure.
“I think we just need to go out there and execute.”
Titans vs. Chiefs
Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland was in swaddling blankets the previous time Kansas City won a home playoff game.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill was nestled comfortably in the womb.
It was January 1994, Joe Montana was the quarterback and the Chiefs beat the Steelers on an overtime field goal by Nick Lowery to advance.
And it’s hard to believe anybody packed inside Arrowhead Stadium that day imagined a quarter century would pass without another home playoff win.
“It would be nice to break that,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said, “but you can’t add any extra motivation once you get to this stage. This is all the work we’ve been putting in as this team from day-one — this team. When we were putting in our goals and talking about that.
“It’s tough to add any more motivation with historic streaks.”
Besides, the Titans (9-7) are trying to end their own maddening stretch of playoff futility.
Tennessee rumbles into Kansas City for the wild-card round today in its first postseason trip since 2008, when the Titans were the AFC’s top seed.
If they can waltz out with a win, as they did in 2016, it would be their first playoff victory since January 2004.
“It’s playoff time,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “I dream about … matchups, about going up against guys like (Travis) Kelce and going up against Andy Reid, a Hall of Fame-level coach. He’s a great coach. And going into Arrowhead Stadium, one of the louder stadiums, I don’t think there’s better you can ask for in the first week of the playoffs.”
Indeed, there are story lines galore in a game that could be overshadowed by higher-profile matchups, or perhaps overlooked because of the Chiefs’ midseason swoon and the Titans’ late-season slump.
Smith is trying to validate the best season of his career in what could be his final game for the Chiefs (10-6). Hill is hoping to show off his world-class speed on a national stage.
And running back Kareem Hunt, who won the NFL rushing title this season, will have a chance to etch his name alongside the likes of Gurley and Le’Veon Bell as the league’s best.
On the flip side, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota will try to rewrite the story of an up-and-down season with his playoff debut. Running back Derrick Henry and his supporting cast will help. And embattled coach Mike Mularkey will try to prove he was the right man for the job all along.
“The intensity and everything goes up when you get to this point,” Mularkey said.
No. 6 Atlanta at No. 3 L.A. Rams, tonight, 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
No. 5 Carolina at No. 4 New Orleans, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. (FOX)
First-round byes: No. 1 Philadelphia, No. 2 Minnesota
No. 6 Buffalo at No. 3 Jacksonville, Sunday, 1 p.m. (CBS)
No. 5 Tennessee at No. 4 Kansas City, today, 4:20 p.m. (ESPN)
First-round byes: No. 1 New England, No. 2 Pittsburgh