ATLANTA — Mike Smith had a simple question for his Atlanta Falcons as they looked ahead to the playoffs:
“Why not us?” Smith asked.
The Falcons, who held off the St. Louis Rams 31-27 on Sunday to clinch the No. 5 seed in the NFC, may believe anything is possible in the playoffs after their improbable regular season.
In his first year as coach, Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan led the Falcons to an 11-5 record one season after a 4-12 finish.
“We came a long way,” said Jerious Norwood, who ran for two touchdowns, including the go-ahead 45-yard run with 3:41 left. “Whoever would have thought we’d be in the playoffs?”
Atlanta’s hopes of winning the NFC South and gaining a first-round bye ended with Carolina’s 33-31 win at New Orleans.
The Falcons hoped for a home game but instead will travel to NFC West champion Arizona for a wild-card game next week.
Michael Turner added 208 yards rushing with a touchdown to counter Steven Jackson’s 30 carries for 161 yards and two touchdowns for St. Louis.
Soon after Norwood’s go-ahead touchdown late in the game, the video board posted a score which showed New Orleans leading Carolina 31-30. Wins by the Falcons and Saints would have given Atlanta the division championship.
Some players thought the Falcons won the division as Carolina’s late game-winning field goal was lost in the celebration of the win over the Rams.
“Until the game was over, I thought the Saints had won,” said offensive tackle Todd Weiner. “It was a little bit of a letdown, but we’re still in the playoffs and we have momentum going.”
The Falcons will take their first three-game winning streak of the season to Arizona.
“It’s not a letdown,” Ryan said. “We’re excited about having the opportunity to continue to play. As we’ve seen in the past, it doesn’t matter where you’re seeded in the playoffs. It’s about having a chance and we’re happy to have a chance.”
Atlanta gave the Rams (2-14) their 10th straight loss.
“I thought we played about as well as we could play,” said Rams coach Jim Haslett. “Our guys played their hearts out. We just didn’t get it done. I was proud of the way we played. I think that the way that they played will define who they are next year.”
Haslett replaced Scott Linehan after an 0-4 start. He said he didn’t know if he’ll have an opportunity to return in 2009.
When asked if he’ll have an interview for the job, Haslett said, “I have no idea.”
The Falcons overcame three turnovers, including two in the fourth quarter.
Turner fumbled into the end zone after a 70-yard run to spoil a scoring opportunity early in the final quarter.
Then, on Atlanta’s next possession, Ryan’s short pass for Roddy White was intercepted by cornerback Jonathan Wade at the Falcons 22.
Ryan’s second interception of the game set up Josh Brown’s 27-yard field goal, giving St. Louis a 27-24 lead with 6:39 remaining.
Atlanta answered Brown’s field goal with Norwood’s touchdown run from the St. Louis 45 with 3:41 left. Norwood ran for 56 yards and two touchdowns on three carries. He set up his 8-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter with his 92-yard kickoff return.
The Falcons had to hold on after Norwood’s second score. The Rams moved quickly from their 10 to the Atlanta 29.
Atlanta’s Chauncey Davis, a fill-in starter for Jamaal Anderson, sacked Marc Bulger on second down, and Bulger threw two incomplete passes to end the drive.
The Falcons didn’t lose back-to-back games and have momentum for the team’s first playoff game since the 2004 season.
Jackson had a 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to give the Rams a 7-3 lead. His touchdown run from the 2 early in the fourth quarter pulled the Rams even 24-24.
Bulger’s 39-yard pass to Torry Holt set up the touchdown run for Jackson, who surpassed 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season.
Atlanta answered with a 70-yard run by Turner, who lost the ball inside the St. Louis 5 when hit from behind by Rams cornerback Ron Bartell. Bartell recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback. The officials huddled and ruled Turner fumbled before he hit the ground.
Smith challenged the play, but the ruling stood following the video review.
Ryan was 10-for-21 for 160 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown. Bulger was 19-for-32 for 230 yards with a touchdown.
Notes: Jackson is the first Rams running back since Eric Dickerson
(1983-86) to rush for 1,000 yards in four straight seasons. … White had three catches for 48 yards, giving him a franchise-record 1,382 yards receiving for the season, passing Alfred Jenkins’ 1,358 yards in 1981. … DE John Abraham did not play in the second half. Abraham, who was listed as questionable with thigh and shoulder injuries, said he was resting for the playoffs.