ATLANTA -- Good thing for the St. Louis Rams that the Atlanta Falcons weren't exactly picture perfect during their practices in the days leading up to Saturday night's divisional-round matchup here at the Georgia Dome.
A little more fine-tuning on the part of the Falcons, a smidgeon more precision, and there is no telling how embarrassing things might have gotten. As it was, the Falcons fashioned a 47-17 rout out of the week's imperfections, the most lopsided score in an NFC division-round game since the San Francisco 49ers smoked the New York Giants by 41 points in a 1993 meeting.
The pasting of the Rams, who defensive end Bryce Fisher acknowledged "tackled like we were wearing handcuffs," included a 62-yard touchdown run by Atlanta tailback Warrick Dunn in the first quarter on an off-tackle play behind the offensive line, whose cohesiveness has been suspect much of the week. And a 68-yard Allen Rossum punt runback on a gimmick play that misfired every time Atlanta rehearsed it during the week. And, oh, yeah, an 18-yard touchdown catch by tight end Alge Crumpler on the game's opening possession, on a seam route that quarterback Michael Vick often overthrows.
But botched plays in practice were transformed into brilliant calls for much of Saturday evening. And riding the team's one constant, a league-leading running attack that simply chewed up the overmatched St. Louis defensive front, the Falcons will awaken Sunday morning just one victory shy of a Super Bowl berth.
The Falcons, who advanced to the conference title game for the first time since 1998 and only the second time in franchise history, will face the winner of Sunday's other division-round game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings. If the Eagles win, the game will be contested at Lincoln Financial Field. Atlanta would host the game if the Vikings can author a second straight playoff upset.
"Nobody in here has any preference about who we play next week," said Falcons tailback T.J. Duckett. "We feel like we're playing with great momentum and [passion]. We're on a roll and, when we get going downhill like this with the running game, we feel that we can play with anybody. You run the ball like we did tonight and, man, it's a lot of fun."
Indeed, the NFL's most prolific rushing attack more than lived up to its billing against St. Louis, pounding out 327 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries. Both Dunn (17 rushes for 142 yards) and Vick (119 yards on eight runs) went over the century mark, and the bullish Duckett added 66 yards and an exclamation point, scoring on a four-yard run with 1:54 to play.
Clearly, the Falcons coaching staff never heard of taking a knee with a 23-point margin at the two-minute warning. Just as clearly, the Falcons entered the game confident that they could impose their will upfront. In the second game of the regular season, a 34-17 Atlanta victory at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 19, the Falcons rushed for 242 yards, and Vick toted the ball 12 times for 109 yards.
"We ran the ball pretty good tonight," noted Falcons rookie head coach Jim Mora.
Uh-huh. And Van Gogh was pretty adept with a paint brush.
Part of the game plan on Saturday night was to control the tempo and keep the explosive Rams offense on the bench. The other part was just the positive reinforcement of having bludgeoned the Rams once already this season and the realization that, unless the sorry St. Louis front seven filled holes better than it had much of the year, a physical encore performance was possible.
"You always want the running game to be a factor," said the miniscule Dunn, who had already surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark with 1 ½ minutes remaining in the opening quarter. "But it's big in the playoffs. If you can come out and basically announce, 'No matter what you do [defensively], we're going to keep slamming it up in there,' well, it sends a pretty powerful message."
The message the Falcons delivered to a Rams team that last week became the first 8-8 playoff qualifier to register a postseason victory was like an anvil chorus. Time and again in the early going, Dunn found wide spaces, and also Rams tacklers out of position. On his first eight carries, Dunn had four rushes of 13 yards or more, and on three of those occasions, including the 62-yard scoring romp, Rams strong safety Adam Archuleta was either out of position or took a poor pursuit angle.
Of course, the Atlanta offensive line consistently opened huge alleys, and Falcons backs were often three or four yards beyond the line of scrimmage before they encountered the first hit or any manner of even flimsy resistance. We would applaud the Atlanta blockers a lot more by name but, since they don't speak to the media during the week, we see no sense of offering them the opportunity to blow their own horns on the weekend.
And since neither Atlanta management nor league officials have the temerity to stand up to offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who brought the gag order with him from Denver, let someone else serve as the mouthpiece for the excellent quintet comprised of tackles Todd Weiner and Kevin Shaffer, guards Kynan Forney (a member of the ESPN.com All-Pro team) and Roberto Garza and center Todd McClure.
"Those guys were just knocking people off the line," said Duckett, "and we were jumping into holes and finding nothing but space. All week long, we talked about getting into the hole, making just one move, and getting upfield. That's what you saw tonight. There was no need to fake anyone. It was just, get into the hole, run downhill, pop out the other side of the hole. All night long."
Notable was the standout, albeit quiet, performance of Falcons fullback Fred McCrary. Signed in the final month of the regular season, after Atlanta had lost three fullbacks to injury, McCrary buried St. Louis linebackers all evening.
So dominant was the Atlanta running game that the Falcons had 239 yards, and a gaudy 13.3-yard average, at halftime. The 327 rushing yards represented the third most in NFL playoff history since the 1970 merger. Atlanta's generous 8.18-yard average per carry is the third-highest in NFL postseason history. Vick, who once again had more rushing than passing yards, established a new record for postseason ground yards by a quarterback.
It seemed that just about everything the Falcons did resulted in some sort of team record and the game was so far out of hand that Atlanta owner Arthur Blank didn't even have to make his usual sideline appearance, to stoke the crowd, until five minutes remained. This was, even with the early offensive action by the Rams and quarterback Marc Bulger, a butt-kicking of the highest order.
And as if just playing it straight wasn't enough, the Atlanta staff dug deep into its bag of tricks. Vick played some at wide receiver, catching a two-yard pass from Dunn, who was aligned in the shotgun. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall also played a snap at receiver, and had a six-yard catch. On the 68-yard punt return for a touchdown by Rossum, who established a new league playoff mark with 152 yards on punt runbacks, Atlanta dropped three guys deep. Rossum faked a lateral to Hall before bursting up the middle through a yawning creased in the Rams' abysmal cover unit.
"When that kind of [gimmickry] works, hey, that's gravy," allowed Rossum. "The best thing for us tonight was that the simple stuff we do well, running ball right at people and controlling the flow of the game, worked great, too."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.