Sunday dawned dark and dreary, the sort of weather than might have presaged gloom and doom beneath the Georgia Dome. But there was something about this day and this game that made you believe the sun would shine, figuratively if not meteorologically. For once in our civic existence, we had a team to trust.
And here they stand, Atlanta’s Falcons – too brawny to buckle, too swift to break stride, too sassy to be cowed even by Aaron Rodgers. Here they stand, NFC champions, and there they’ll go – to Houston for Super Bowl LI.
These Falcons put Rodgers and his Packers to sleep in a first half that can stand as the finest hour in the history of this city’s professional sports. (Francisco Cabrera’s single to left took a few seconds, though Sid Bream needed 10 minutes to get from second base to the plate. The Braves’ 1-0 victory over Cleveland in Game 6 lasted three hours.)
The Falcons led Green Bay 24-0 after two quarters. They would win 44-21. The second half had no moments of unease, nothing that would make us recall the whiffs of our city’s past. This team, an Atlanta team, left no doubt.
Pregame consensus held that the team that got the ball last would win. The team that got it first did. The Packers, possessors of the NFL’s second-worst pass offense, won the toss and chose to defer their option the second half. The team with the historically great offense moved smartly to a touchdown. Apart from Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who didn’t see that coming?
The Packers’ Mason Crosby missed a field goal. Matt Bryant made one. Green Bay fullback Aaron Ripkowski was divested of the ball by Jalen Collins, starting because Desmond Trufant was hurt two months back. The Falcons scored another touchdown. It was 17-0 and the back-and-forth we expected had up and went.
We’ll remember the rest of the game for those Julio Jones moments, but mostly we’ll recall it as a giddy blur. It wasn’t just that the Falcons kept scoring; that part we expected. It was that the Packers took so long to start. The suspicion has been that the Falcons’ defense was better than its sub-mediocre stats, and here was the proof. Here was domination.
Atlanta domination. Atlanta validation.
Validation for Dan Quinn, the coach whose first Falcons team fell to pieces but whose second proved Super. Validation for Arthur Blank, who’d lusted after a Super Bowl since buying this team in 2002 and who made the decision to fire Mike Smith and make Quinn, never a head coach, his czar of football. (Though Blank conceded Sunday, “I can’t say I thought it was going to happen this year.”) Validation for a team nobody saw coming until it was running over them.
Mostly, though, it was validation for the quarterback whose first few seasons were devoted to proving he could win as many games than Michael Vick; for a quarterback who turned 30 without a Super Bowl – or the hoary stamp “elite” that comes with it – to his name. That quarterback has his Super Bowl now, and late Sunday he was asked if he felt any different because of it.
And Matt Ryan said: “I feel exactly the same.”
Which is what you knew he’d say. Because to be Matt Ryan is to deal in the here and now, not the yesterdays and tomorrows. “I know it’s hard to get to this point,” he said. “I know that from experience.”
After falling 10 yards short of the Super Bowl four years ago, the trip back to this game had to feel as if it took eons. But for Ryan, the second time around proved a walk in the park. The Falcons’ defense made it tough on Rodgers. Ryan and his raging offense met no such resistance. A backhand flip to Mohamed Sanu became the Falcons’ first touchdown. A back-shoulder throw to Jones became the third at 0:03 of the first half. A Jones slant that became a tackle-shedding sprint yielded the fourth.
And the second touchdown? That was Ryan on, of all things, a 14-yard run. And that was the moment when you knew this day would not be like other Atlanta days, other Falcons days. A guy works nine years to get to this point, and even the men still hard at work made merry over that.
“We had some fun on the sideline,” Quinn said. “I told him, ‘Man, you look fast today.’ He said, ‘Really?’ ”
This was Matt Ryan at age 31 in the NFC championship game – 27 completions in 38 attempts, 392 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, a quarterback rating of 139.4. (Rodgers’ rating this day was 91.6) Deep into the third quarter, Ryan was also the Falcons’ leading rusher. Really.
Quinn on Ryan: “He is such a hell of a competitor.”
The fourth quarter was a party, but then the whole day had been. Quinn again: “When I walked out for pregame, I could feel the intensity and juice from the crowd. I told one of the coaches, ‘Isn’t that something, man?’ ”
Final two minutes, Rodgers having taken seat, last dance at the doomed Dome, Houston and Super LI beckoning … how did that feel?
“It’s amazing,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “It’s everything we worked for. Sometimes the days get long and the nights get longer … (but) this was amazing.”
Said Keanu Neal, the rookie strong safety: “It was surreal, the moment we had.”
It was surreal, but it was also real. These Falcons are going where they deserve to be. This was domination. This was validation. Wasn’t it something?