THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The Los Angeles Rams are trying to get to where the Atlanta Falcons were last season — the Super Bowl.
That’s a lofty goal for the NFL’s youngest team. But Los Angeles (11-5) can take its first step in that direction when hosting the Falcons (10-6) in an NFC wild-card game Saturday night.
In the Rams’ second year in their return to L.A., they will host a playoff game at the storied Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time since the 1978 season.
Atlanta returns to the playoffs after last season’s painful loss in Super Bowl LI. The Falcons led the New England Patriots by 25 points before succumbing, 34-28 in overtime.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn isn’t expecting that meltdown to haunt his squad.
“I love the resiliency and the toughness of this team,” Quinn said. “When you’ve been through some of the fire together, you come out the other side stronger as a brotherhood.”
The Rams have done little wrong under rookie head coach Sean McVay. At 31, McVay is the league’s youngest coach and is directing its most prolific offense.
Behind a unit averaging nearly 30 points per game, McVay helped flip a team that went 4-12 last season to NFC West champions and back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Quarterback Jared Goff has gone from bust to being accurate and efficient. Running back Todd Gurley churned out a league-best 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns.
With wide receivers Sammy Watkins, Roberts Woods and rookie Cooper Kupp, there’s no shortage of targets for Goff to aim his passes.
But the Falcons have a core of players and the motivation from that painful Super Bowl lesson tucked away. They are older and maybe wiser, but the No. 3-seeded Rams, aren’t fretting over their lack of postseason reps.
“I don’t think it is a concern,” McVay said. “When I say that, I have a whole lot of respect for experience and what that does and the value that it provides. But I do think that we’ve got a confident group, a mature group for a young football team.”
How Goff responds to the oversized setting is among the red flags the team’s detractors mention. But after going 0-7 in his rookie year, Goff has thrown for 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions this year in leading a balanced attack. He seems at-ease with the task at hand.
“I think more than anything it’s a big game,” Goff said. “I think that’s what it boils down to and we do have experience with that stuff.
“We played a big game in Seattle a couple weeks ago. We played a big game two weeks ago against Tennessee. We played a big game against the Eagles … we had a bunch of big games against top teams this year and so I think that experience will translate mostly to this game.”
Quinn is familiar with Goff’s offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur. He held that same position with the Falcons last year.
“What I have been most impressed by is you have to defend the entire field,” Quinn said of LaFleur’s approach. “When you have a team that has the run, has the play-action, the quarterback-boot and stuff, it makes it real difficult and challenging to defend.”
The sixth-seeded Falcons will lean on savvy quarterback Matt Ryan (20 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) and a deep running attack spearheaded by Devonta Freeman (865 yards, seven touchdowns).
Although Julio Jones has had an inconsistent season, he remains dangerous with 1,444 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
While McVay is the youthful vibe of offense, it’ll be the sage Wade Phillips, the Rams’ 70-year-old defensive coordinator doing his best to stop the Falcons.
All of this will be played out in the historic L.A. Coliseum venue with an expected 70,000 on hand to toast the Rams return to the playoffs in L.A. The Rams left Los Angeles and relocated to St. Louis after the 1994 season, an absence that lasted until 2016.
“It’s definitely a cool thing,” Goff said. “After football has been gone here for so long and we came back year two and being able to bring a playoff game to the Coliseum is very cool.”