It was the best and last NFL Sunday afternoon ever inside the Georgia Dome. One half of every lighted scoreboard in the building smoldered from overuse. The fans behaved as if they could save demolition costs and just raze the place now with nothing but lung power. At the end, Arthur Blank marked the moment with one more victory dance while all in attendance rejoiced that the Falcons offense did not get its rhythm from its owner.
And, most importantly, the Falcons discovered a handy truth just in time for their trip to the Super Bowl.
Unstoppable is very hard to beat.
Six touchdowns and a field goal in the first eight possessions — yeah, that qualifies.
That’s right, the Falcons, a team that once made a tradition out of lowering expectations, are officially in the business of dreaming large. Beating Green Bay — no, make that breaking down Green Bay into little hors d’oeuvers bites of mild cheddar — in an NFC Championship will go far toward redefining a team’s place in the food chain.
“We ran into a buzzsaw,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. Indeed, the Falcons 44-21 victory had all the makings of a workman’s comp claim for McCarthy’s guys.
This will be the Falcons second-ever trip to the Super Bowl, where they’ll meet the New England Patriots in two week. But this is the first time they will go into the game with so much wind at their back. Average margin of victory in their two postseason games: Nearly 20 points.
Sunday’s anticipated shootout between Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers gained no traction. Ryan, the presumptive MVP, and his small army of pass catchers would have none of it.
Ryan out-threw his more famous counterpart in yardage, 392-287, and touchdowns, 4-3. He even out-legged him, never mind that he is statuary compared to Rodgers. It was on the Falcons second touchdown of the day — probably, after so many you kind of lose track — that Ryan took the opportunity after Green Bay’s entire defense turned its back to him to run 14 fairly nifty yards for a score. It was the first rushing touchdown in 83 games for Ryan.
“We did have some fun with that during the game — like, “Man, you looked fast today,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
But the quarterback match-up really wasn’t fair. Ryan had Julio Jones on his side, the man who Quinn rightfully described as making “the extraordinary plays seem ordinary.”
The most extraordinary of Jones’ nine receptions, and certainly the most extraordinary 73 yards of his 180 yards total, occurred on the Falcons second play of the second half. Ryan dumped a little pass his way in the middle and watched the fun as Green Bay gave fruitless chase up the sideline. Every play his way is an invitation to do something incendiary.
This will be Ryan’s first trip to a Super Bowl in nine sometimes difficult years in the NFL.
He was, not surprisingly, quite buttoned down about it all afterward.
“You can’t lose belief or confidence,” he said. “One thing about this league week-to-week you can get humbled very quickly. So many good players. So many good teams. You learn what works best for you personally and what works best for your team. That has taken time, for sure.
“I always felt we would get to this point where we’d have an opportunity to play in this game, and I’m happy that we’re there.”
And now a word from the other side of the ball.
“We showed ‘em we can play defense,” rookie safety Keanu Neal said.
Given the high level of play of the Falcons offense, all that was needed from the defense was just one stand, one play. Maybe two.
The Falcons got considerably more than that Sunday. The Packers went six-and-out with their first possession, Rodgers hurried into a third-down incompletion with another rookie, Deion Jones, draped around his waist. A promising drive with their second possession was snuffed when Jalen Collins ripped the ball from the grasp of fullback Aaron Ripkowski and recovered in the endzone.
The defense didn’t rest, even as Ryan and the fellas stockpiled points and built the lead. Then, it looked up after halftime and what do you know, it had shutout the Packers for the game’s first 35 minutes.
“Playing with a team like that,” Rodgers said, “you’ve got to start faster than that. We had zero points until the first half (was over) and you’re not going to win a game like that.”
Neither Shakespeare nor Spielberg does endings like this one Sunday. It was the last game in the Georgia Dome before everyone moves into the convertible palace across the street. The place was jammed. A sort of constant static electricity surrounded the field. Samuel L. Jackson was in the house with his No. 1 personalized Falcons jersey. Homegrown center Dwight Howard was there, taking a Falcons ski cap to new heights. Rappers galore joined them.
And the Falcons put on a show of blinding brilliance for them all.
If a building could, the Dome would have dropped the mike and invited the wrecking ball to bring it on.
Speaking for players and fans was defensive lineman Vic Beasley, who being born in Adairsville is both.
“Emotionally, I’m over the top right now,” he said. “It’s a dream for me to be able to play in the Super Bowl. I can’t explain the feeling.
And then he brought the history. “What I remember most about the Atlanta Falcons organization to the point that I got there was its ability to win games but the times it couldn’t necessarily get over the top.”
That changed Sunday, resoundingly.