The Elias Sports Bureau came up with a gem about the Falcons, pointing out that they became the first NFL team to start four rookies on defense in a conference championship game when strong safety Keanu Neal, nickel back Brian Poole and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell went to the post.
After whipping the Green Bay Packers 44-21 on Sunday in the Georgia Dome, they’re on their way to the Super Bowl, along with second-year pros — and starters — Vic Beasley Jr., Jalen Collins and Grady Jarrett.
Might that be a red flag as the Falcons prepare to play the Patriots, and wily quarterback Tom Brady?
Coach Dan Quinn doesn’t think so. He’s referenced his team, the defense in particular, going through two “shifts” and ratcheting up their play each time.
The first came after the Falcons’ most recent loss, 29-28 to the Chiefs in the 12th game, and the second as the Falcons came out of their first-round playoff bye.
With a six-game winning streak as proof, Quinn said the defenders are playing faster, thinking less, and reacting quicker.
Improvement has been most notable in the young players.
The play of Neal, Poole and Collins has been impressive as the Falcons squared off against two top-shelf quarterbacks in Seattle’s Russell Wilson (a 36-20) win and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
Secondary coach Marquand Manuel has brought the youngsters along quite nicely. He’s paced like Quinn, fast.
“Yeah, his fire’s lit, and it does not go out,” Quinn said. “He’s a really passionate guy. Honestly, it’s just somebody that’s always, constantly challenging to see if it can get done a little bit better.”
The Falcons figure to have their hands full with the Patriots, as Brady has thrown just two interceptions in 14 games after missing the first four because of suspension.
But the Falcons are doing better.
Including postseason games, the Falcons have allowed a combined completion percentage of just 55.8 in the six-game winning streak compared with 67.8 in the first 12 games.
The Falcons over the past six games have allowed 10 touchdown passes and picked off eight balls versus 26-7 in the first 12.
They’ve allowed opposing quarterbacks to aggregate a passer rating of 48.2 over the past six games versus 70.4 in the first 12.
Most important, Atlanta’s allowed 19.3 points per game over the past six games after surrendering 27.6 in the first 12.
Linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich and assistant Chad Walker have done yeoman duty, and passing-game coordinator (defense) Jerome Henderson’s been prominent as well.
Manuel keeps his foot on the gas.
“It’s the communication, the training; he doesn’t back off,” Quinn said. “The players know that. They’re very perceptive. What can I get away with (with) him? Not very much.”
Of common opponents
Falcons fans who are into this sort of thing will like to know that the Falcons got the better of five opponents they played this season in common with New England.
Each team went 4-1 with wins against the Broncos, Cardinals, Rams, and 49ers, and each team lost to the Seahawks — the Falcons 26-24 out west, and the Patriots 31-24 at home.
In their four respective wins, the Patriots outscored opponents 95-51, and the Falcons rolled 144-62.
A real homecoming
Martin Ifedi joined the Falcons’ practice squad Dec. 27 after a few months out of football and he hasn’t been home since. He’ll head that way Sunday, when the Falcons will travel to his hometown of Houston.
That’s a good thing, the second-year pro said.
“I definitely have to go grab some clothes,” said Ifedi, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive end. “I think we’ll have some time to see family and stuff like that.”
Drafted by the Rams in the seventh round in 2015, Ifedi was cut and spent part of that season on Tampa Bay’s practice squad. He was cut by the team after the last preseason.
He won’t play in the game, unless the Falcons suffer injury issues between now and then and he’s activated, but he’s happy to be going along for the ride with the team.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I really just credit everything to the man upstairs. You just keep working hard, and he never leaves you hanging.”
Nobody in the threw the deep ball better than Matt Ryan in the regular season, and the Falcons may well challenge the Patriots that way — sort of.
For all of New England’s impressive defensive metrics, the Pats tied for 22nd in the NFL when it comes surrendering passes of 20 or more yards. They allowed 53. Ryan threw for 69, third-most in the NFL.
On throws traveling at least 21 yards downfield, Ryan completed 30 of 63 passes for 1,122 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. That added up to a league-best rating of 133.4, according to Sportradar.
New England is better against the super-deep ball, or bombs.
The Pats allowed just five passes of 40 or more yards with a 28.2 percent completion rate. That ranked No. 2 in the NFL.
Worth the money
Players on each Super Bowl team are entitled to buy up to 15 tickets to the game, at face value. Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel, who is from Mesquite, Texas, said, “I was able to get it right; the max, I believe.”
The Super Bowl is a very big deal for Gabriel.
His grandparents will be there. Jerry and Marcellus Breedlove live in Dallas.
“Yeah, man, my Granny and my Paw-Paw; this will be their first time seeing me play,” Gabriel said.
Ifedi said tickets are $1,700 each. Fifteen at that price would come to $25,500.
Good thing postseason bonus checks are coming.
Every player on the Super Bowl losing team’s roster will receive $53,000. Winners will double that.
The Falcons have Texas ties aplenty beyond Ifedi, Gabriel, and backup quarterback Matt Schaub, who played for the Texans from 2007-‘13 after being traded from the Falcons.
Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is from Port Arthur, and kicker Matt Bryant (Orange), wide receiver Aldrick Robinson (Waxahachie) and left tackle Jake Matthews (Missouri City) are from the Lone Star state. Plus, injured defenders Derrick Shelby (Houston) and Sean Weatherspoon (Jasper) are Texans.
Then, there’s defensive coordinator Richard Smith, who started his NFL coaching career in Houston.
After the Falcons trounced the Packers 44-21 last Sunday in the NFC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome, Smith enj0yed a reunion with one of his top pupils from his first stint with the Texans.
When he worked with special teams, tight ends and the offensive line from ’88-’92, he worked with former Texans offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, father of Jake.
After working with Denver, San Francisco, Detroit and Miami, Smith returned to Houston to serve as defensive coordinator from ’06-’08.
“Bruce Matthews is a great man and a great football player, great human being. I was really happy after the game when I saw him on the sidelines,” Smith said. “I started my [NFL] career there in 1988 back in Houston … I know [owner Bob] McNair. He treated me extremely well in my time with the Texans.
“We do have a lot of friends, and my wife is from Houston. It’s going to be nice to see some of the old friends. The main thing is having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl again. The last time I was [in the Super Bowl], Dan Quinn beat me so hopefully it turns out much better this time.”
With Quinn as defensive coordinator, the Seahawks beat the Broncos, for whom Smith was the linebackers coach, in the Super Bowl following the 2013 season. Beat ‘em like a drum, 43-8.
Henderson previously coached with the Dallas Cowboys.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator for the Texans from 2007-‘09. Quarterbacks coach Matt LeFleur worked in Houston with Shanahan, as did wide receivers coach Mike McDaniel.
Offensive line coach Chris Morgan coached a couple of years of high school football in his native Texas.