FALCONS 47, RAMS 17
EVEN THE Atlanta Falcons were surprised by their big numbers. As they huddled late in the fourth quarter of their 47--17 NFC divisional playoff win over the St. Louis Rams last Saturday night, a handful of Atlanta's offensive players glanced at the stats posted on the scoreboard, then stared at one another in disbelief. They knew they had dominated the line of scrimmage, but 300 rushing yards? "When we saw the numbers, we thought, Damn, we've done all that?" tight end Eric Beverly recalled later.
The Falcons had gone 11--5 and won the NFC South, but they had never looked this good in the regular season. Against the Rams they finished with a franchise-playoff-record 327 rushing yards and sent a message to the Philadelphia Eagles, their opponent this Sunday in the NFC Championship Game: There's more to the offense than quarterback Michael Vick.
Having yielded 242 rushing yards in a 34--17 loss to Atlanta in Week 2, St. Louis had a good idea of what it was in for. Yet the Rams could not stop Warrick Dunn (a team-playoff-record 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns) or Vick (119 yards on eight carries), and T.J. Duckett (66 yards, one touchdown) gave them problems as well. That trio, which has dubbed itself DVD, did almost all of the work for the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack (167 yards per game) in 2004 and ran the ball so effectively against St. Louis that Vick threw only 16 passes.
The Falcons may still not have a total grasp of the West Coast attack that new coach Jim Mora installed this season, but their big-play capability often makes up for inconsistency. "We may not have a lot of 11- or 12-play drives," says offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, "but we've had some very impressive four- and five-play drives." Vick is the best improviser in the NFL, and his athleticism and deception create another advantage for Atlanta: When he expertly fakes a bootleg--as he did often against the Rams--opponents have to decide whether to pursue him or the running back headed in the opposite direction. The notion of Vick zipping around end untouched is enough to freeze defenders and open wide running lanes for Dunn or Duckett. That helps explain why the Falcons led the league with 22 rushing plays of 20 yards or more.
When the season began, Dunn was still recovering from an injury--torn ligaments in his left foot--that had sidelined him for the final five games of 2003. He was not comfortable making the hard cuts required in running behind Atlanta's zone-blocking system, but he found his rhythm midway through the season. In fact, by then he was a more patient runner and reading blocks better than he had been, finishing with 1,106 rushing yards and career highs in carries (265) and touchdowns (nine).
Dunn felt so confident entering the postseason that he told Mora not to be concerned about overworking him. Though he started all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his eight-year career, the 5'9" 180-pounder wasn't worn down. "I told him that he didn't have to protect me," says Dunn, who throughout his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Falcons has fought the perception that he's too small to be an every-down back. "I said he could run me as long as he wanted."
Late in the game, Dunn at first declined the opportunity to replace Duckett and add to his record-setting total. Mora, who finally persuaded Dunn to go back in, says that kind of team-first attitude has been instrumental in Atlanta's success. The players don't care who gets the glory. "This team is confident because the players know they've done the work to get here," Mora says. "They know it's not a fluke. People on the outside might think it's all Mike Vick, but we have a different view of it. Our best team is [all of] us." --Jeffri Chadiha