Mohamed Sanu

Eagles had right formula for success vs Falcons last season

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Atlanta’s high-flying offense had its way with every defense it faced in 2016 on the way to the Super Bowl except Jim Schwartz’s unit.

The Philadelphia Eagles shut down the Falcons in a 24-15 victory in Week 10 last season, holding them to a season low in points, first downs (11) and yards (303).

They’ll try to do it again with a berth in the NFC championship game at stake.

When the Falcons (11-6) visit the Eagles (13-3) in a divisional playoff game on Saturday, Schwartz will turn to the blueprint he used last season. But he knows that doesn’t guarantee success again.

“They are a little bit different than last year,” Schwartz said. “It’s a new season. Playoff games stand on their own.”

Julio Jones had 10 catches for 135 yards, but didn’t score a touchdown against the Eagles in that game. Matt Ryan completed only eight passes to other receivers for 132 yards, including a 76-yard TD to Taylor Gabriel.

Schwartz doesn’t care about allowing Jones to rack up fantasy points. Keeping him out of the end zone is more important.

“If Julio Jones has 350 yards receiving and we win the game, that’s what it took to win the game,” Schwartz said.

“If he has 10 yards receiving for the game-winning touchdown, then that wasn’t enough.

“So I think you have to look at it that way. How do you stop their offense, how do you minimize their scoring and not just concentrate on one player because they do have other players that are threats. It’s not just a one-man team.”

The Eagles blitzed Ryan more than usual and the 2016 NFL MVP had his worst game of the season. He was sacked twice, threw one interception, completed only 55 percent of his passes and had a 78.7 passer rating.

Schwartz has more talent on his defense now, including more depth on the defensive line and a revamped secondary.

The Eagles often generate a strong rush without relying on the blitz and they have cornerbacks who can handle receivers one-on-one if Schwartz wants to be aggressive.

“They are a very good offensive protection team as far as picking up blitzes,” Schwartz said.

“Blitz is not a whole lot different than pass rush. You can’t expect to have guys free. If you’re expecting to get guys free, you’re in the wrong business because the only way you can really get a guy free is to bring more than they can block and there’s some risk inherent to that.

“But blitz is really all about guys winning one-on-ones, and when you do that, then your blitz game is going to be effective and I’m not just talking about one-on-ones in pass rush, but I’m talking about one-on-ones in coverage, too. Both of those go hand in hand.”

Under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who replaced Kyle Shanahan after he left to coach San Francisco, the Falcons had a big drop-off in production. They went from No. 1 in scoring at 33.8 points per game to 15th at 22.1. They fell from second in yards to eighth.

But they still have Ryan, Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper.

“They look sharp and they’re playing at a high level,” defensive end Chris Long said. “We’ll have to bring our `A’ game.”

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Ryan leads Falcons’ 26-13 playoff win over upstart LA Rams

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons showed the upstart Los Angeles Rams what playoff poise is all about.

Ryan passed for 218 yards and hit Julio Jones for an 8-yard touchdown with 5:48 to play, and the defending NFC champion Falcons advanced from the wild-card round with a methodical 26-13 victory over the Rams on Saturday night.

Devonta Freeman rushed for an early score and Matt Bryant kicked four field goals for the Falcons (11-6), who spoiled the Rams’ first playoff game in 13 years while showing off the postseason poise they earned from last season’s journey to the Super Bowl.

“This game’s kind of the way our season’s been, tough,” Ryan said. “We had to grind it out. Defense played really well. Offensively, we’re going against a great defense tonight. We ran the football, our guys played up front so hard, and then in the second half we started to get it going a little bit. So, I’m just proud of it.”

Atlanta never trailed at the Coliseum while winning playoff games in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history.

The Falcons advanced to face the top-seeded Eagles on Jan. 13 in Philadelphia.

“Doesn’t matter where we’re going, we’re going,” Ryan said. “And that’s the most exciting part.”

Jones caught nine passes for 94 yards as Atlanta’s offense chewed up the clock and field position. The Falcons jumped to an early 13-0 lead while capitalizing on two early mistakes by Pharoh Cooper, the Rams’ Pro Bowl kick returner.

The Falcons’ defense did more than enough to slow down the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, harassing Jared Goff into a 24-for-45 performance in his playoff debut.

“We knew it was going to take all four quarters,” Falcons linebacker Deion Jones said. “All my guys were ready to fight `til the end, and it was great.”

Robert Woods caught nine passes for 142 yards for the NFC West champion Rams (11-6), but rookie Cooper Kupp scored the Rams’ only touchdown late in the first half.

Atlanta held MVP candidate Todd Gurley to 101 yards rushing – just 43 in the first three quarters – and four receptions for a mere 10 yards.

The Falcons ruined a celebratory night for the Rams, who rebounded from a rough homecoming season in 2016 with an outstanding debut year under 31-year-old Sean McVay, the youngest head coach to reach the playoffs in NFL history.

A raucous crowd of 74,300 packed the Coliseum on a crisp evening for the first NFL playoff game in the nation’s second-largest city since early 1994. Los Angeles went 21 years without pro football before the Rams returned last season, and the franchise emphatically ended a 13-year streak of non-winning seasons this fall with an inspiring run to the Rams’ first division title since 2003.

But the Falcons have been here before, and they showed it.

Although the Falcons’ offense took a step back in production this season, Atlanta chipped away at the Rams’ defense throughout the Coliseum return of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who coached USC here until 2015.

Ryan was methodical under relentless pressure from All-Pro lineman Aaron Donald, repeatedly avoiding trouble and making big throws. Freeman rushed for 66 yards, and Mohamed Sanu had a key 52-yard gain on a fourth-quarter screen pass while finishing with four catches for 75 yards.

Cooper is headed to the Pro Bowl after his outstanding regular season as a kick returner, but the second-year pro’s misadventures in his playoff debut cost the Rams dearly.

He muffed a punt that bounced off teammate Blake Countess in the first quarter, and Bryant subsequently hit the Falcons’ first field goal. After Bryant’s second field goal later in the quarter, Cooper got stripped by Damontae Kazee during a kickoff return at the Rams 32, and the Falcons drove for Freeman’s short TD run.

The Rams’ offense struggled to get moving, but finally figured it out late in the first half. Goff made several sharp throws on a 79-yard drive ending in Kupp’s TD catch.

Los Angeles then got the ball back and mounted another quick drive, but settled for Sam Ficken‘s first field goal and a 13-10 halftime deficit.

The Falcons’ offense got back to its methodical work in the second half, mounting two clock-chewing drives ending in field goals by Bryant. The Rams’ defense simply couldn’t get off the field, whether due to missed tackles or clever playcalling by the Falcons.

Los Angeles trimmed the lead to 19-13 with 10:49 to play, but the Falcons made another drive highlighted by that beautiful screen pass from a blitz-avoiding Bryant to Sanu.

Jones then caught the sixth playoff TD pass of his career. Goff drove the Rams deep into Falcons territory, but L.A. turned it over on down at the Atlanta 5 with 2:05 to play. The Falcons stopped the Rams again on downs at midfield with 1:08 left.

UP NEXT

After the Falcons’ defensive performance against Goff, they look like a potential problem for the powerful Eagles without quarterback Carson Wentz in the early Saturday divisional playoff game.

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Falcons clinch playoff spot, beat Panthers on Bryant’s 5 FGs

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ATLANTA (AP) Matt Bryant kicked five field goals, including a 56-yarder, for all of Atlanta’s second-half points and the Falcons clinched a playoff spot by beating the Carolina Panthers 22-10 on Sunday.

After the teams played to a 7-7 halftime tie, the 42-year-old Bryant kicked field goals of 30, 42, 30, 56 and 33 yards without a miss.

Atlanta (10-6) clinched the No. 6 seed in the NFC and will play at the Los Angeles Rams next week in the first round of the playoffs.

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

On a day when Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense struggled, Bryant’s 15 points provided a margin too great for Carolina to overcome.

The Panthers (11-5) had a playoff spot secured entering the weekend, but they couldn’t improve their position.

Minnesota’s 23-10 win over Chicago earlier Sunday ended the Panthers’ hopes of a first-round bye. The loss to the Falcons ended Carolina’s goal of winning the NFC South, and the Panthers will open the playoffs at New Orleans.

Matt Ryan completed 28 of 45 passes for 317 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Devonta Freeman on Atlanta’s opening drive, and no interceptions.

The Panthers pulled even on Newton’s 4-yard scoring pass to Devin Funchess late in the first half.

Newton threw three second-half interceptions. The third interception, by Robert Alford in the end zone with 8 seconds remaining, ended the Panthers’ final drive. Newton completed 14 of 34 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown.

With the game tied in the third quarter, the Falcons had an apparent touchdown taken off the board when a review showed Mohamed Sanu didn’t maintain control of a 12-yard catch in the end zone. The ball hit the ground after Sanu collided with Julio Jones, who also was crossing to the middle of the end zone.

The Falcons settled for Bryant’s first 30-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.

Newton led the Panthers on a 16-play touchdown drive that consumed more than half of the second quarter and tied the game at 7. Newton gained the needed yard on a fourth-down keeper, but the true back-breaking play for Atlanta’s defense was his 27-yard pass to Brenton Bersin on a third-and-23 play. The pass set up Newton’s 4-yard scoring pass to Funchess.

SLOW START

Newton was 0 for 9 before finally completing his final seven passes of the first half. Newton completed his first pass to McCaffrey – for a loss of 3 yards – midway through the second quarter.

MILESTONE FOR JULIO

Jones caught a 14-yard pass midway through the third quarter to reach 9,000 career yards faster than any receiver since the 1970 merger.

The two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl selection last month set the league mark with the most catches and yards receiving in a receiver’s first 90 games.

Jones finished with five catches for 80 yards. He survived an injury scare after he took a big hit from Carolina strong safety Mike Adams on the opening drive. He returned to the field on the same drive, which ended with Ryan’s touchdown pass to Freeman.

NO STEWART

Running back Jonathan Stewart was due to back tightness. The Panthers also were without two more starters: safety Kurt Coleman (ankle), and right guard Trai Turner (concussion).

UP NEXT

Panthers: Carolina will play at New Orleans next week in the first round of the NFC playoffs.

Falcons: Atlanta will visit the Rams next week in the first round of the playoffs.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL