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Defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons claw way into playoffs behind defense

By The Sports Xchange
Defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons claw way into playoffs behind defense
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws downfield against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of an NFL game at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, November 12, 2017. File photo by David Tulis/UPI | License Photo

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons are back.

The Seahawks, Cowboys, Giants, Packers and Lions are not.

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With a gritty win over the Carolina Panthers, the Falcons became the only NFC team to make the playoffs in 2016 and 2017.

The Falcons earned their second straight playoff berth -- 14th in franchise history -- with a 22-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers Sunday.

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This is also the first time since 2011-12 that the Falcons have recorded back-to-back 10-plus winning seasons and just the third time in franchise history they posted back-to-back 10-plus win seasons.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is set to return to the playoffs for the sixth time over his 10-year career with the Falcons.

"I'm really excited to be in," Ryan said. "Now, we've got more work to do. It's a short week for us."

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After reaching the Super Bowl last season and losing in historic fashion, the road back to the playoffs was bumpy for the Falcons and Ryan.

The offense wasn't always in sync under first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

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Ryan missed a lot of deep passes. The wide receivers led the league in dropped passes with 28 leading into the final game. There were untimely penalties and even a rash of fumbles late in the season.

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But when the offense could get a few things going and manage to get over 20 points, the Falcons were 10-0.

"I think we've got a tough football team," Ryan said. "It wasn't perfect throughout the regular season by any stretch of imagination, but we battled and found a way to play ourselves into this situation."

The defense has elevated its play this season.

"We always say on the defensive side, we don't take nothing around from our offense," free safety Ricardo Allen said. "We are not battling with them, but we want people to know this is a defensive team too.

"This is a three-headed monster. You have to fight our offense, defense and special teams. You not only have to play against Julio (Jones) and Matt (Ryan). You have to worry about us also."

Ryan guided the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie in 2008. With a strong rushing attack behind Michael Turner, the Falcons finished 11-5.

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The Falcons didn't return in 2009, but Ryan led them back in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The 2012 team came within 6 yards of going to the Super Bowl, but lost to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers.

After two down seasons, Mike Smith was fired and Dan Quinn was hired as the head coach. The Falcons went 8-8 in his first season before going 11-5 last season and reaching the Super Bowl.

"I've played long enough to know that all that you want is an opportunity," Ryan said. "All that you want is a chance this time of the year. We gave ourselves that opportunity."

Ryan has dealt gracefully with the questions about the Super Bowl collapse, his relationship with Sarkisian and why he can't throw more touchdown passes to Julio Jones.

"I'm really proud of that," Ryan said. "We answered a lot of questions all year about a lot of different things, and I thought our guys handled ourselves the right way. We had the right mindset to come back and try to be the best football team we could be this year. We put ourselves in position to move forward and we're excited about that opportunity."

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REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS

--PASSING OFFENSE: B plus -- Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan completed 28-of-45 passes for 317 yards and one touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 90.7. Running back Devonta Freeman was targeted 11 times, which tied a career high for a single game. He caught nine passes for a career-high 85 yards. His reception total was the second-most in his career. He also added the Falcons' only touchdown of the game on a 19-yard catch in the first quarter. Mohamed Sanu chipped in with seven catches for 71 yards and Julio Jones had five catches for 80 yards.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: F -- The Panthers whipped the Falcons' offensive line. There was no room to run. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman both had 11 carries for 23 yards. The Falcons were held to 60 yards on 26 carries. It was their second-lowest output of the season. The Panthers held them to 53 yards rushing in the previous meeting on Nov. 5.

--PASS DEFENSE: A-plus -- The Falcons intercepted Cam Newton three times and held tight end Greg Olsen to one catch on his nine targets. Cornerback Robert Alford, free safety Ricardo Allen and strong safety Keanu Neal all had interceptions. Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey caught five passes for 40 yards. Quarterback Cam Newton finished with a 31.5 passer rating.

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--RUSH DEFENSE: A -- Falcons linebackers asked for the challenge -- and they got it. With the playoffs on the line, the unit wanted to play the Panthers man-to-man in an effort to stop quarterback Cam Newton and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Deion Jones led the way with 10 tackles as the defense bottled up the Panthers' multi-faceted duo on the way to a 22-10 victory on Sunday that wrapped up the sixth and final playoff berth in the NFC. Newton and McCaffrey rushed for 201 yards in the previous meeting on Nov. 5, a 20-17 Carolina victory. Newton was held to 59 yards on 11 carries and McCaffrey had just 14 yards on six carries.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Matt Bryant was money on 5-of-5 field-goal makes, but the coverage units were sloppy. They picked up four penalties that resulted in 90 yards of lost field position. Brian Poole and LaRoy Reynolds had holding penalties on punt returns that set the offense back. Safety Damontae Kazee interfered with returner Kaelin Clay's opportunity to catch a punt. Instead of the drive starting at the 25-yard line, the Panthers started at the 40. Reynolds also had the fourth special teams penalty, which was essentially a 27-yard loss. Instead of starting at the Atlanta 47-yard line after a 23-yard return by Andre Roberts, the Falcons started at their 20. Reynolds was busted for blocking Carolina's Shaq Thompson in the back.

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--COACHING: A -- With the gritty, 22-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, the Falcons finished the regular season 10-6 and earned the sixth and final playoff berth in the NFC playoffs. The Falcons lost to five playoff teams (Patriots, Vikings, Bills, Saints and Panthers) and the Dolphins. If they had won that Dolphins game, they would have won the NFC South and would be playing at home as the No. 3 seed. But who's quibbling, now? They are back in the playoffs for the second consecutive season for only the second time in franchise history. The only other time the Falcons went to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons was in 2010, 2011 and 2012 under Mike Smith.

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