The ascendant Falcons make short work of Seattle

There might be some team out there that can beat these guys, but I wouldn’t want to be the one that has to try. These Falcons are functioning at such an exalted level that the question isn’t if they can reach the Super Bowl — they absolutely can — but if any defense is capable of halting them now.

The Falcons just destroyed the best defense they’ll see in these playoffs. They beat Seattle 36-20 on Saturday, and it wasn’t that close. After trailing 7-0 and 10-7, they led 26-10 not six minutes into the second half. They had touchdown drives of 75, 99 and 75 yards.

By then, Matt Ryan had completed 15 of 20 passes for 221 yards. (“He stayed exactly on the same path he’d been on in the regular season,” coach Dan Quinn said afterward.) By then, Julio Jones had all but run Richard Sherman off the field.

After 46 minutes, the Falcons had punted once — and even that worked out. Devin Hester, briefly employed in Flowery Branch, had returned it to the Falcons’ 7, putting the Seahawks within sight of the touchdown that would give them a 10-point lead. But Seattle’s Kevin Pierre-Louis was called for holding at the line of scrimmage, a penalty that made the visitors start on their 7, a reversal of 86 yards.

Brooks Reed dropped Thomas Rawls for a 4-yard loss. On second down, backup guard Rees Odhiambo — in because starter Germain Ifedi had been hurt — stepped on Russell Wilson’s foot and sent him sprawling in the end zone. The safety brought the Falcons within a point. The field goal after the ensuing free kick put them ahead. More than half the game remained, but it was essentially over. You cannot mess up so egregiously and hope to stop this offense. You have to play without error and hope this offense stops itself, which hasn’t happened for a while.

We offer this contrast: Pinned to their goal line, the Seahawks gave the Falcons two points that became five; pinned to theirs, the Falcons moved 99 yards in nine plays without facing a third down. Ryan completed seven of nine passes. When the inevitable touchdown came, it was scored by Tevin Coleman, whom the Seahawks neglected to cover. Remember the Falcons’ raging third quarter in Seattle in October? That was basically this entire game.

Ahead 19-10, the Falcons took the ball to start the third quarter. Here we essentially saw the proud Seattle defense surrender. The Falcons faced third-and-8. Jones aligned himself wide right. Then he shifted into the slot. Sherman went with him, though it hardly mattered. Ryan found Julio for the first down, leaving Sherman fuming yet again.

Three plays later it was third-and-10, and the Seahawks bore down on Ryan. Again, it mattered not. Hit as he delivered, he still found Taylor Gabriel for a back-shoulder catch. Another conversion, the ball across midfield now. And here we saw why Kyle Shanahan is the hottest play-caller alive.

Having turned Seattle’s Legion of Boom — admittedly without free safety Earl Thomas coming in, and by now without cornerback DeShawn Shead — inside out, Shanahan chose to … run the ball! Six of the next seven plays were rushes. They gained 15, 7, 6, 7 and 6 yards. Finally Devonta Freeman scored from 1. The Seahawks, who blunted the Falcons early and late three months ago, hadn’t laid a glove on them this time.

That tells us something about Seattle, but far more about the Falcons. They were a good offense all along, but they’ve become one of the NFL’s all-time finest. And for those who point to total yardage as reason to believe this defense is a swinging gate, note that the Seahawks scored a touchdown on their opening drive and not again until 3:21 remained. “They settled back in and made more plays and tackled better,” Quinn said.

Inside the final nine minutes, the Seahawks trailed by 16 and still had a theoretical chance. They had it until Jonathan Babineaux sacked Wilson on second down and the Falcons brought heavy pressure on third-and-16, forcing him to dodge hither and yon before throwing downfield, which he did badly. Safety Ricardo Allen snagged the gift and returned it to the Seattle 46. The clinching touchdown — Ryan to a soaring Mohamed Sanu — was forthcoming.

Don’t misunderstand. The Falcons won’t Steel-Curtain their way to the Lombardi Trophy. But this defense is fast enough and bold enough to hold up its end, and this offense doesn’t need much help. Put it this way: If the Seahawks had somehow scored 35 points Saturday, the Falcons would have gotten 36. When they have the ball, this team truly is something to behold.

And now, not to go all Belichick here, it’s on to the NFC Championship game for the fourth time in franchise annals. It doesn’t matter who the Falcons play, or where. This offense will travel. This team will, too. This team is really good.