ATLANTA, Jan. 15 -- The Atlanta Falcons ran the St. Louis Rams right out of the postseason Saturday night with overpowering blocking, slick sprints and an NFL playoff record performance from punt returner Allen Rossum in a 47-17 victory that was as entertaining to the 70,709 in the Georgia Dome as it was decisive on the field.
The Falcons (12-5) will face the winner of Sunday's second NFC divisional playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles. If the Eagles prevail, the Jan. 23 NFC title game will be in Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field. If Minnesota wins, the game will be played back here.
Falcons quarterback Michael Vick hurdles past the Rams' Robert Thomas, right, and Adam Archuleta.
(Marc Serota -- Reuters)
The Falcons entered the game as the NFL's most productive running offense, averaging 167 rushing yards a game, and they wasted no time demonstrating why. They rushed for 239 yards by halftime and finished with 327 for the game. Running back Warrick Dunn scored twice in the first 30 minutes on runs of 62 and 19 yards, never touched by a St. Louis defender.
Falcons quarterback Michael Vick set the early tone for that ground attack, taking off on a 47-yard improvised dash through a small seam on the third play from scrimmage to set up the Falcons' first score. Dunn finished with 142 yards on 17 carries, setting a franchise playoff record, and Vick added 119 rushing yards on eight carries.
"We ran the ball pretty well," Falcons Coach Jim Mora Jr. deadpanned afterward. "That's a credit to our entire offensive team. All eleven of them accepted the challenge. It's hard to ever predict a performance like that. I felt we had a certain calmness about us during the week. . . . I told them early in the week that confidence is power. I told them arrogance is poison. We were confident."
Said Vick: "It's an exciting time for us. We've got the whole world watching us, so why not go out there and enjoy it. Without the running game being effective, we won't win the Super Bowl. That was something that was emphasized all week. We don't want to talk about the Super Bowl right now; we've got one game to go play. We have to seize the moment, regardless of who we play."
Rossum, the NFL's leading punt return man, merely added to the Rams' misery, breaking a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the first half after faking a lateral to his right. He finished with 152 yards on three punt returns, a playoff record.
"Allen said afterward, 'I know I'm gonna get the game ball,' " Mora said. "Then he said, 'Just give it to my blockers.' "
His touchdown opened a 28-14 lead with 59 seconds remaining in the first half, and when Rossum returned his first punt of the third quarter for 39 yards down to the Rams 32, he helped set up the Falcons' next touchdown, a six-yard pass from Vick to wide receiver Peerless Price for a 35-17 lead with 10:05 remaining.
"I always want to make the big play, do something to help the offense," Rossum said. "Every time I step on the field, I feel like I have the opportunity to do something big for the organization and the fans. I play fearless football, and I try my best to do anything I can to help this football team."
The Falcons' defense, burned early and often by Rams quarterback Marc Bulger in a breathtaking first half of non-stop offense by both teams, finally began to take control after intermission, holding the Rams scoreless over the final 30 minutes. Bulger was shaken up on his last play of the first half when he was smacked hard to the turf by Falcons defensive end Travis Hall.
He had to be helped off the field, and initial reports were that he had a bruised right thumb and a sore hip. He was able to play the entire second half, but with the Falcons blitzing constantly and applying maximum pressure, he was a man under siege. It hardly helped that one of his favorite targets, veteran receiver Isaac Bruce, had been put on the inactive list prior to kickoff. He'd been listed as questionable because of a groin injury earlier in the week.
The Falcons had no such problems, and their front five -- tackles Kevin Shaffer and Todd Weiner, guards Roberto Garza and Kynan Forney and center Todd McClure -- easily manhandled St. Louis defenders all night. The Falcons had a decent idea they would be able to run against the Rams; in the teams' first meeting Sept. 19, they did it with their previous season high of 242 yards, 109 of them turned in by Vick.
"We just couldn't stop them," Rams defensive end Leonard Little said. "Ain't no science to it. We just couldn't stop it. With Vick, it really gets you back on your heels because you don't know if he's going to run or throw. They really had their thing going."
The Rams entered the game having won their last three games, all against teams that advanced to the playoffs (Eagles, Jets and Seahawks).
Bulger had completed 68 percent of his passes and thrown for six touchdowns in those three victories to get St. Louis into the postseason, with a passer rating of 108.7. But Saturday night, he was sacked four times, threw one interception and was hit in the end zone for a safety.
Vick had to throw the ball just 16 times, completing a dozen passes for 82 yards. He threw for two touchdowns and was sacked only once on a night he had considerable help on all sides of the ball.
"If you watched that game, you saw a team that played well together, a team that's pretty capable," said Mora, in his first season as a head coach. "The best player on our team is our team."