Falcons can change narrative by beating Rams in L.A.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates after the Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Credit: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Credit: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford celebrates after the Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Arthur Smith’s defiant outburst after his team’s loss to the Saints in Week 1 may have been cathartic for the Falcons coach. I doubt it will be productive. Trying to make enemies out of the team’s critics will do nothing to help the Falcons win football games. Still, I get why Smith reacted that way.

The Falcons outplayed the hated Saints for most of the game, only to give back a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter. That’s bad enough on its own. Worse, Smith knew that the stink of past Falcons flops would attach to his team even though it’s a new group. Smith was denied his I-told-you-so moment, and his team’s doubters got a here-we-go-again punch line.

I also understand if Falcons players are tired of hearing from the skeptics. Criticism from outsiders, some of it unfair, is part of their (well-paying) job. I’m sure it still can hurt their professional pride. Players who care don’t want to constantly told that their team stinks, especially before they’ve had much of a chance to prove otherwise.

Well, now the Falcons have a great opportunity to change that narrative. They are in Los Angeles on Sunday to play the Rams, who won the last Super Bowl. The Rams opened the season with the second-shortest odds among NFC teams to win the next Super Bowl. Los Angeles lost its season opener at home to the Bills, the AFC’s best team, but are 10½-point favorites against the Falcons.

The Rams are relatively rested. They played on Thursday night in Week 1. The Falcons played the Saints three days later. If the Falcons come home as long-shot winners, it would make the collapse against the Saints a bad loss rather than a defining moment. All the things the Falcons did well in that game would be recast as evidence of their ascension, instead of footnotes to the way they folded.

It’s not outlandish to believe the Falcons can win in L.A. Even their biggest skeptics, a group that includes me, must acknowledge that the possibility seems more realistic now than it did before Week 1. Blowing the lead was bad, of course. But the Falcons looked like a good team while building it.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota’s running ability gives the Falcons’ offense an element that could keep opponents off-balance. Against the Saints, play-caller Smith made heavy use of run fakes with Mariota on the move. The downfield passes weren’t working, but Mariota’s instinctive running helped move the chains, and he also rushed for a touchdown.

Running back Cordarrelle Patterson’s combination of power and short-area quickness makes him a problem for opponents. Rookie Drake London helped the Falcons steal a field goal with his team’s longest catch of the day. And probably the best development for the offense was that the long-maligned offensive line held up well against a good defensive front.

The defense was aggressive. Coordinator Dean Pees said he sent an extra pass-rusher on about half of the snaps, which he believes might be the highest percentage of his long career. The Falcons bothered the quarterback more than we’ve seen in a long time. Rookie edge-rusher Arnold Ebiketie had a high-energy and impactful debut. The Falcons held star back Alvin Kamara to 39 yards on nine carries with no scores and took the ball away from him near midfield.

The Falcons lost because of big mistakes at key moments. There was Mariota’s fumble after gaining a first-and-goal and a botched QB-center exchange on a third-and-1. Saints utility man Taysom Hill turned a third-and-short into a 57-yard run when the Falcons lined up wrong. Hill ran for a TD on a similarly designed play as the Falcons messed up again.

The Falcons weren’t overwhelmed physically or outsmarted on those plays. They made mental errors that are, in theory, easily correctable. The Falcons will have a real chance to beat the Rams if they repeat their Week 1 performance, minus the self-inflicted mistakes.

“Plays here and there were the deciding factors of the game,” Mariota said. “We’d love to be on the other side of it, but overall, I’m happy for our guys. We have something to build off of.”

Now, I’m not saying the Falcons are going to beat the Rams. I picked the home team to win, with the Falcons covering the spread. That’s a reasonable prediction based on what I saw from the Falcons against the Saints, who are a good team. The Rams are better.

Pro Football Focus ranks their roster as fourth-best in the NFL. In Week 1 they lost 31-10 to the Bills, who are No. 1 on that list. New Orleans is 12th. The Falcons are 30th. They staggered the Saints with a strong effort before fading. Beating the Rams on the road is a much tougher task.

The typical offseason roster defections for a great team left the Rams thinner with pass rushers and on the offensive line. They’re still a formidable team. The Rams can make a case for having the NFL’s best defensive and offensive players: defensive tackle Aaron Donald and wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey also is a first-team All-Pro.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is the wild card. Stafford, the Georgia Bulldogs great, escaped NFL purgatory when the Rams acquired him from the Lions after the 2020 season. Stafford never won a playoff game over 12 years in Detroit. He immediately won a Super Bowl in L.A.

Stafford also led the NFL in interceptions (17) last season. He’s a highly competitive QB with a strong arm and likes to take chances. The Falcons didn’t create many takeaway chances against Jameis Winston, who usually provides plenty of openings. They were credited with only two passes defended on Winston’s 34 attempts. Maybe the Falcons earn an upset victory by catching a couple of Stafford’s passes.

The Falcons pulled off improbable road victories twice during the dying days of the Dan Quinn era. They were 10-point underdogs at New Orleans in November 2019 and won 26-9. Five weeks later the Falcons won 29-22 at the 49ers, who were favored by two touchdowns. Those victories were among six for the Falcons over the final eight games of 2019.

That 6-2 finish influenced Arthur Blank’s ill-fated decision to allow Quinn to return for another season. The Falcons accumulated more salary-cap bills that came due after Smith was hired, forcing a roster rebuild. Smith’s Falcons were 7-10 in 2021. They opened the 2022 season with a performance that showed they could be better than expected, but lost in a fashion that invoked the worst memories of Quinn’s teams.

The Falcons can change the story by winning in L.A.