Falcons have been transformed into team Atlanta has waited for


Exhale. This team is different.

Marvel. This offense is otherworldly. The Falcons just put up 36 points against the NFL’s No. 3 scoring defense, which had been allowing half that — and the offense could’ve busted 40 again if not for taking pity on their opponent in the final two minutes (because that’s what it has come to).

Drink it up. Atlanta postseason success doesn’t happen often. The same Falcons team that won 11 games during the regular season just rolled in its postseason debut, dispatching one of the league’s model franchises and a two-time Super Bowl team like it was an afterthought.

Yes — this team, in this building, in this city.

The Falcons dumped the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 on Saturday at the Georgia Dome, moving to within one win of the Super Bowl. This is real.

“Pretty cool,” said center Alex Mack, whose offseason signing might’ve been the greatest free-agent move in franchise history. He never made the playoffs as a Cleveland Brown.

“Right at the end of the game there, we take a knee and the fans are cheering. I was able to take a moment and appreciate it all. I had been trying to block it out all week.”

Some fans might’ve tried to block out the ramifications of Saturday’s game as well, given the Atlanta sports backdrop has seen so much pain. But now the Falcons are among the NFL’s final four in coach Dan Quinn’s second season. They will face the winner of the Dallas-Green Bay game in next week’s NFC Championship game. The Cowboys will host the game if they win. The Falcons will host the Packers if they win.

That would give the Falcons one more game in the Georgia Dome before it’s smacked by a wrecking ball — unless owner Arthur Blank suddenly issues a stay-of-execution, now that things are getting good.

Fans chanted “M-V-P” early, often and with every Matt Ryan touchdown pass (there were three). He would have won the electorate in a landslide today.

Ryan threw for 338 yards, three scores and no interceptions. He took that 1-4 career playoff record and stomped on it. It also was Ryan who, after leading the Falcons to a touchdown drive to open the second half and give his team a 26-10 lead, huddled teammates on the sideline for an impromptu screaming pep talk, as if to say, “Close the door.”

And they did. The Falcons could have added another touchdown after having a first-and-goal at the Seattle 2 with two minutes left. But they saw no reason to pile on. They had done enough — pounding Richard Sherman and the Seahawks for 422 yards in offense.

Uncle.

Atlanta fans have a reputation for not showing up or sitting on their hands when they do. Neither was true Saturday. They showed up early and were loud, very Seattle-like.

It was a celebration. It was a party. It was like a city’s sports fans erupted with joy after so much misery. One would’ve never guessed it all took place in the middle of Georgia’s “horrible” fifth congressional district.

Seattle was a fitting opponent for Quinn’s first playoff game. He has sought to build and coach this team with a blueprint similar to the one he witnessed as the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator under Pete Carroll. Seattle went to two Super Bowls, winning one, riding a fast and physical defense, a power running game and a smart quarterback in Russell Wilson.

The Falcons’ young defense still needs some seasoning, but it has shown the speed and physicality Quinn has been seeking.

Quinn gave players T-shirts during the week that read, “Arrive violently.” They did just that.

“We had some big hits today — that’s just so energizing,” rookie safety Keanu Neal said. “Those shirts were for everyone — defense, offense, special teams. Whatever role you have, do it violently and with purpose.”

The Falcons’ offense drove 75 yards for a touchdown on their first possession (Julio Jones with the 7-yard catch). They drove 99 yards for a touchdown on their fourth possession in the second quarter after punt-return man Eric Weems committed a blunder by not making a fair catch and allowing the ball to bounce and roll to the Falcons’ 1-yard line. (Tevin Coleman was left alone in the end zone for a 14-yard TD, with the closest Seattle defender somewhere in East Cobb.)

When the second half started, the same offense showed up. Even with Jones pacing on the sideline for several plays on the drive, Ryan kept clicking and Devonta Freeman kept cutting to daylight. Another 75-yard touchdown drive, this one capped by Freeman from the Seattle 1.

We saw some amazing things:

• Sherman was called for a penalty (It’s true. There were witnesses.)

• Devin Hester, the 34-going-on-24-year-old punt returner, made his return to Atlanta with an 80-yard return to the Falcons’ 7-yard line, only to have it nullified by a Seattle holding penalty.

• On that ensuing Seattle series, we saw a two-time Super Bowl team give the Falcons’ defense a safety when quarterback Russell Wilson got his feet tangled with right guard Rees Odhiambo and get buried in the end zone.

But mostly what we saw was more wonder from the Falcons’ offense. It produced six scoring drives (four touchdowns) in its first eight possessions. They couldn’t be stopped. The backdrop of the 540-point regular season says if they’re stopped next week, it won’t be because of the offense.

Mohamed Sanu referenced offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan , saying: “I don’t know how he does it. It’s pretty awesome what we were able to do.”

It has been amazing to watch.

Subscribe to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. All episodes can be downloaded and heard on iTunes or via WSBRadio.com. New episodes every Monday and Thursday.



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