ATLANTA – When Championship Sunday began, the Atlanta Falcons stood in the background as that other team. They were fourth of four remaining, the least celebrated in a field of stalwart giants. You had the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers – NFL old money – winners of a combined 14 Super Bowls. And way back there hid the Falcons, who taught us the Dirty Bird dance that one time.
Then the Falcons came out and showed history where it can go. They ended the Packers’ late-season fantasy run with offensive precision and speed all over the field, rarely letting up in a 44-21 NFC championship game victory at the Georgia Dome. In doing so, they gave new meaning to why they weren’t like the others on this day.
It’s because they’re better.
The Falcons are not standing in the background anymore. They’re standing alone, as the most impressive team in these NFL playoffs. If they’re not the favorite in Super Bowl LI, it’s only because of ignorance and lack of name recognition.
Forget that this is just Atlanta’s second Super Bowl appearance. Never mind that, when the Falcons lost Super Bowl XXXIII, 34-19, to Denver in 1999, Julio Jones was a few days shy of 10 years old. This is a dangerous team sizzling at the right time.
The Falcons have won six straight games, and they have averaged 39 points per game during the streak. They haven’t scored fewer than 33 points in any of those contests. Just one of the six games has been decided by fewer than 16 points. In their last five wins, the offense has gained at least 408 yards.
It’s going to take a whole lot of alternative facts to claim the Falcons aren’t the dominant team that this mundane NFL season has desperately needed.
If numbers aren’t your thing, let’s sum up the Falcons in a tidier way: Their offense is an unfair combination of talent, depth, creativity, play design and excellent quarterbacking. Their defense, under the influence of second-year Coach Dan Quinn, isn’t great, but it’s a nice, aggressive complement that turns into a menace if given the lead. And their entire team is so fast the players should be forced to take the field in weighted cleats.
“We played a hot team,” said Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, conceding that title after guiding his team to eight consecutive victories after a 4-6 start. “You’ve got to give them credit. Matt [Ryan] is playing incredible right now.”
Ryan, the very good quarterback who hadn’t been allowed to sit at the elite QB table, should be having a chair made now. It’s funny sometimes how we judge individual stars in team sports through our championship-obsessed prism. Ryan and Rodgers both completed their ninth season as starters this year. Most of Ryan’s statistics are comparable, and his 37,701 career passing yards are slightly more than Rodgers’s 36,827. But Rodgers is a transcendent player, and Ryan is a good one with a few grating shortcomings.
Why? Because Rodgers has a ring and a highlight reel of clutch moments. And Ryan had a 1-4 playoff record just two weeks ago. But this January, he has led his team to blowout victories over Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks and Rodgers’s Packers. He threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns against Seattle in the divisional round. On Sunday, with a Super Bowl berth at stake, he threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns and added a rushing touchdown. Jones, his top receiver, had 180 yards and two touchdowns, including an electrifying 73-yard gallop, despite playing with sprains in his toe and mid-foot.
Ryan is one victory from joining Drew Brees in accomplishing a historic postseason trifecta: beating three consecutive Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks en route to a championship. When Brees did it seven years ago, he took down Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. No one has doubted his credentials as an elite player since. Now Ryan, who is the same age (31) Brees was when he won his championship, has a chance to match the feat.
“I feel exactly the same,” Ryan said, dismissing validation. “I mean, I’m happy. I’m happy for everybody in our organization. We’ve worked hard to get to this point. But the challenge is still in front of us.”
The Falcons seem to have everything but tradition. This is just their 13th playoff appearance in 51 seasons. On Sunday, the Falcons played their last game at the Georgia Dome after 25 years. In that quarter century, the dome saw just seven playoff games. It’s not exactly Soldier Field. But this old place, which stands as tall as a 27-story building and requires 11.1 miles of cable to support its roof, hosted one raucous goodbye party. As the dome retired with towels waving and “Suuuu-per Bowl! Suuuu-per Bowl!” chants, that other team couldn’t be overlooked anymore.
“Absolutely, I feel like we’ve been too under the radar,” said Austin Hooper, a rookie tight end from Stanford. “I feel like that’s just how it is in Atlanta. Growing up in California, I never watched the Falcons on TV. When I got drafted there, I didn’t know what an Atlanta Falcon was. I mean, I knew about them, but I didn’t know them. We’re just a tucked-away organization. We deserve more respect.”
Their respect is about to multiply, especially if they can play like this for one more game. Super Bowl Sunday will put the team on an international stage. But Championship Sunday was about being an impressive host city, and this event was so irrepressibly Atlanta. Saxophonist Mike Phillips played the national anthem, holding the note at the end of “land of the free” for a good 15 seconds as the crowd roared and then finishing with an even greater gust. Music artist Jermaine Dupri did the halftime show and brought out fellow hometown stars Jeezy and Ludacris to help him perform anthems synonymous with the city.
By the end of the day, Arthur Blank, the Falcons’ 74-year-old owner, was standing with his team on a stage at midfield, dancing as confetti fell. He wore a red sports coat and swayed as best he could to the music, whipping his arms and bouncing with the beat.
The song blaring through the speakers? “Welcome to Atlanta,” of course.
Welcome to the home of the new NFC champions, an organization that refuses to remain tucked away.