The Atlanta Falcons have spent much of their NFL lives as the league’s also-rans. They’re one step away from changing that reputation.
In the final NFL game at the Georgia Dome, the Falcons steamrolled the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, in the NFC championship on Sunday to advance to Super Bowl LI in Houston, where they’ll face the New England Patriots. It is Atlanta’s second Super Bowl, one the Falcons have a legitimate chance to win.
It’s validation for a long-haunted franchise, second-year head coach Dan Quinn and its quarterback, Matt Ryan, who entered the championship as the least successful QB in the field. He’s now onto Houston having answered the bell time and time again.
Ryan and the Falcons’ offense was running on high octane on Sunday against a decimated Packers secondary — one that couldn’t afford anymore attrition but lost big contributors Micah Hyde and Kentrell Brice to injuries during the game. The Falcons took a 24-0 halftime lead and rolled up 325 first-half yards of offense, as Ryan was terrific early despite four drops by his receivers.
Even Aaron Rodgers wasn’t pulling off one of his signature comebacks. Not on this day. He finished 27-of-45 passing for 287 yards with three TDs and one INT, fortunate not to throw a second on a dropped pick by cornerback Jalen Collins. But it was hardly all Rodgers’ fault. This was an unstoppable offensive machine that the Packers had few answers for early on.
The Falcons opened with a beautifully balanced 13-play, 80-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead on Ryan’s shovel pass to Mohamed Sanu. After the Packers drove 52 yards, kicker Mason Crosby — last week’s hero with two 50-plus-yard kicks in the final two minutes — missed a 41-yard field-goal try. It was the first miss of the postseason by an NFL kicker (who had been 33-of-33 before that).
The Falcons tacked on a field goal on another 80-yard drive, and they stripped Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski at the Atlanta 11-yard line and recovered in their own end zone — and might have received a favorable ruling in the process on the spot of Collins’ recovery.
Ryan got the Falcons moving again and hit Julio Jones — who had a monster game — on a 19-yard slant on third-and-10 to land inside the Green Bay red zone. All game, the Falcons peppered the Packers with devastating in-cuts after attacking the edges early in the game. And for good measure, just to show the diversity and danger of this Falcons offense, Ryan scrambled in from 14 yards out to make it 17-0 late in the second.
Rodgers had a shot to salvage something in the first half, but he was hammered on a blitz by defensive back Brian Poole. After a rattled Rodgers was tripped up on a soft sack, he was picked off near the end of the half on an ill-fated deep pass that never was close to Jordy Nelson, who was gutting through this game with painful fractured ribs and a cumbersome flak jacket to protect him. The Packers were all out of sorts a mere 18 hours after they landed in Atlanta following flight delays.
Ryan then struck again to hit Jones, who caught nine passes for 180 yards in the game, for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Falcons the 24-0 lead. And after the Packers punted on their first possession of the third quarter, Ryan and Jones hooked up a second time — this one for a 73-yard catch, stiff arm and run that in essence was the knockout blow with a 31-0 lead.
The league’s presumed MVP, Ryan completed 27 of 38 passes (and that’s with the early drops) for 392 yards with four TDs, a touchdown run and no interceptions — another terrific performance prior to the NFL awards, which are announced the night before the Super Bowl. The league will have to find a stand-in while Ryan prepares for his first Super Bowl. He so far has shed his sullied reputation as a late-game choker by helping the Falcons blow teams out well before the fourth quarter in both playoff victories over the battle-tested Seattle Seahawks and Packers.
Also credit a feisty, fast and hard-hitting young Falcons defense for growing — especially late in the season — and delivering a big performance in this game. The Packers drove for a score in the third quarter, with Rodgers finding Davante Adams (another banged-up receiver) to get on the board, but it was too little too late.
Green Bay had no answers defensively. The Falcons came right back, and they left no doubt that it was their day when they had a score — originally called short of the goal line on fourth down — ruled a touchdown with 4:15 left in the third quarter. Even with the missed extra point that followed, the Falcons were up 37-7. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the presumed next coach of the San Francisco 49ers, left no doubt about his candidacy with another brilliant play-calling performance even after his team made a few early flubs that were easily forgotten.
Rodgers got the Packers back in the end zone, finding Nelson for a touchdown. They tacked on the two-point conversion with a run from Ripkowski to make it, 37-15. But Ryan, Jones and the run defense were too much for the Packers, who lost seven players to injury during the game. They recovered the onside kick attempt and barreled through the Packers with Tevin Coleman running in the Falcons’ sixth touchdown of the game and their fourth straight possession with a TD.
Rodgers tacked on a touchdown pass to Jared Cook with 6:43 remaining, but their playoff heroics of the week prior in Dallas were not being reprised in this game. This was the Falcons’ stage on which to celebrate in their final game in their old stadium before opening the 2017 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is located next door to the Georgia Dome. Forget any demolition plans … Ryan, Jones and Shanahan blew the roof off this sucker on Sunday.
The Falcons have had a fairly nondescript history since their birth in 1966, 96 games below .500 in the regular season and 9-12 in the playoffs. Their only other Super Bowl appearance, in XXXIII following the 1998 season, was seen as more of a shocking gift than anything else. John Elway and the Denver Broncos dispatched that team in his final NFL game — one few expected the Falcons to win.
But their 51st season has been the Falcons’ best to date, and they have a chance to add to make their history in two weeks.
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