For the first time since 1998, the Atlanta Falcons are going to the Super Bowl. Thanks to a beautifully dominant 44-21 beat down of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, Matt Ryan and Co. left no question as to which team was best. They’ll face off with the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
Here’s what we learned…
1. After Green Bay’s 11-second, three-and-out drive to start the second half, one which included a pair of drops from tight end Jared Cook, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was caught in a moment of rare emotion on the sidelines. He was smiling ear-to-ear before snapping back into the typical blank coaching façade we’ve come to expect. In that moment, he likely confirmed his brightest wishes during halftime. The Falcons had bludgeoned the Packers for 30 minutes already, and the pounding would continue through the second half.
For a defensive-minded coach like Quinn, this is the scenario you wait for all season. One defensive coordinator I spoke to a few years back described it as hitting a baseball off a tee over and over. The opponent is down by multiple touchdowns in the second half, and you’re free to pin the ears back on your best pass rushers and let them loose. More chaos. More turnovers. More mental errors from your clearly-rattled opponents. The Packers were leaning on keeper read options by Aaron Rodgers to gain any yards in the second half.
There is much to discuss about this offense in the coming paragraphs, but that moment, for me, embodied the type of team Quinn created. Their prolific scoring attack has been discussed ad nauseam, but this defense is beginning to be maddening for whichever opponent makes it out of the AFC.
2. Julio Jones finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. He was about a split second away from a third, but was collapsed on by a pair of Packers defensive backs late in the fourth quarter. For a player with a nagging injury, his performance was nothing short of fantastic. Green Bay bracketed him in the typical dominant receiver coverage, with a press defender or nearby man-up cornerback and a safety lurking over the top. Jones was grabbed, shoved and, in one instance, flipped on his head during the course of the play but never slowed down. He scored a 73-yard touchdown after his defender was flagged for defensive holding and popped Damarious Randall with a beastly stiff arm en route to the end zone. It was one of the best individual plays in recent postseason history and, believe it or not, it had competition for Jones’ best moment of the afternoon. His toe-dragging five-yard touchdown was also nothing to scoff at.
3. Kyle Shanahan’s price just went up in San Francisco. The Falcons offensive coordinator, who is expected to take over as the head coach of the 49ers following Atlanta’s run, choreographed a brilliant opening drive that resulted in the team’s eighth straight opening-drive touchdown. Think about that for a second. Over the last two months, in each game they’ve played, Atlanta has been able to bank on a lead or a tie score barring the defensive giving up some points. In a playoff atmosphere like we saw on Sunday, it allowed Atlanta to start fast and completely bury the overwhelmed Packers.
But his impact on this team transcends the schematic sharpshooting he’s able to do from the booth. As NFL Network’s Michael Silver brought to light in a recent piece, his relationship with Matt Ryan has achieved an unconscious level. Ryan was unstoppable on third downs during Atlanta’s first two drives, with Shanahan dialing up plays that created man coverage right at the down marker on nearly every conversion. If that’s not the actions of a quarterback’s best friend, I don’t know what is.
4. Packers fans may be quick to blame fullback Aaron Ripkowski, whose fumble with 11:11 to go in the second quarter on the Atlanta 23 shifted the game from still competitive to a full-fledged blowout. However, the signs of a Falcons beat down were available early and often on Sunday. Ripkowski had nothing to do with a defense which forced just one punt over the first three and a half quarters. He didn’t control fate, which also allowed Atlanta to recover two of their own fumbles. He didn’t control the injury bug, which forced Packers defensive lineman Letroy Guion into the game to play guard. The rest of his skill position players struggled to keep Rodgers in rhythm with untimely drops. Unofficially, I counted six. They were headed into a buzzsaw one way or another. Much like the super-charged Panthers offense from a year ago, its mystique can do strange things to an opponent.
5. If we’re interested in crediting Jones for playing through injury, the same should be said for Jordy Nelson. Playing with a full Kevlar vest on, Nelson caught six passes for 67 yards and a touchdown — most of which were tightly contested. Nelson missed the team’s win over Dallas with two broken ribs but pushed his way into the lineup on Sunday.
6. When the Packers were struggling earlier this season, there was obviously speculation that head coach Mike McCarthy would be let go, but I felt like there was also unspoken suggestion that maybe it was time for general manager Ted Thompson to move on; that perhaps he let this roster slip into disrepair. While critics could point to Sunday’s loss as evidence, especially in the secondary, I challenge a general manager to create a roster that could still compete at this level after surviving the depth of injuries they did this season. I also wonder what coaching staff could be flexible enough to start a wide receiver and fullback at tailback for a majority of the season and still flourish.
“We need to reload, I don’t think we need to rebuild,” Rodgers said after the game. I agree.
7. Before Davante Adams‘ touchdown in the third quarter, Nelson could be seen at the far end of the formation throwing his hands in the air, unable to hear the play call or understand what was being said. While Bill Belichick downplayed the power of home field advantage — “Why don’t you go ask Dallas or Kansas City?” — Rodgers seemed to think it was one of the main reasons Green Bay has not reached the Super Bowl since 2010.
“If this shows us anything it’s how important home field advantage is,” Rodgers said. “We’ve played in three of these now, all on the road.”
8. Aaron Rodgers threw for 287 yards, three touchdowns and an interception on Sunday, though the interception was really just a third-and-long arm punt. He also led the team in rushing with 46 yards (a long of 28). Rodgers just turned 33, so the talk of any “window” is a little premature — but it does exist. Quarterbacks are playing longer than ever, but is it fair to wonder how long Rodgers can play like this and accentuate his mobility? It adds an incredible dynamic to Green Bay’s offense and negates some of the deficiencies or injuries the team has.
The offensive line is not the problem — “Keeping those guys together was a big part of our success,” Rodgers said. “I’m really proud of these guys. We battled. We had our backs against the wall for eight weeks in a row and won some big games. We just came up a little short” — but would the Packers possibly entertain a splashy move for another weapon this offseason? A Brady-Randy Moss type splash? There are weapons on the market this March.