January 23, 2017
Falcons give Georgia Dome fitting finale with NFC Championship Game win
USA TODAY Sports' Tom Pelissero breaks down the wins by the Falcons and Patriots and looks ahead to their matchup in Super Bowl LI. USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA – What a grand finale.

The Atlanta Falcons said farewell to the Georgia Dome and punched a ticket to Super Bowl LI with all the style and panache that will be talked about in these parts for ages.

“A really, really cool way to send out the Georgia Dome,” said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who left his mark with four scoring strikes and his first rushing touchdown of the season.

Aaron who?

The Falcons crushed the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, in an NFC Championship Game that will also be remembered as the place where the table ran out for Aaron Rodgers, the magical quarterback who could come up with few answers for the young, fast and hungry defense on the other side.

 

Then again, Rodgers not only had to deal with Atlanta’s defense. He also had to try to keep up with a Falcons offense triggered by Ryan, the presumptive NFL MVP and his big-play sidekick, Julio Jones.

Yes, the stars showed up for the Falcons when it mattered most.

Ryan, now officially hotter than Rodgers, passed for 392 yards and 4 TDs while Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two TDs – and provided the signature highlight.

“He’s a beast. An absolute stud,” Ryan said of Jones, who didn’t participate in a full practice all week until taking part in a light session on Friday as he nursed a toe injury. “I’ve been so lucky to play with him for as long as I have. He was impressive. I know he wasn’t feeling his best. But he was a warrior.”

When Jones caught a pass over the middle early in the third quarter and used a stiff arm to shake free from LaDarius Gunter en route to a 73-yard TD, it made it 31-0.

By that time, though, it wasn’t so much of a game.

It was a coronation.

The Falcons are NFC champions again, earning just the second Super Bowl berth in the franchise’s 51-year history – and in only the second year under their energetic head coach, Dan Quinn.

With just five players (including Ryan and Jones) remaining from the 2012 squad that advanced to a similar spot but was upended one step from the Super Bowl in this Dome by the San Francisco 49ers, this is clearly a new deal. Seven of the starters on the defense that thwarted Rodgers have played less than two full NFL seasons, including three rookies. A fourth rookie lines up as the nickel back.

Man, have they grown up in a hurry.

“The success is always in the struggle,” said safety Ricardo Allen, who had one of the two turnovers by intercepting Rodgers on a heave deep over the middle.

The other turnover came from cornerback Jalen Collins, who stripped running back Aaron Ripkowski deep in Falcons territory early in the second quarter, then recovered it himself.

The Falcons turned that into a 9-play, 80-yard TD drive capped by Ryan’s 14-yard and they were on their way.

It’s a great formula that’s headed to Houston. If the defense holds, the offense will surely put up the points as O-coordinator Kyle Shanahan, soon to become the 49ers coach, showed just what can be accomplished in two seasons while stocked with so many weapons.

Atlanta scored the most points in the NFL during the regular season – and surely looked the part of such an efficient machine on Sunday in scoring four touchdowns and a field goal on its first six drives.

But beyond that, it was just a big ‘ol party, a fitting treat to mark the occasion of the last football game played at the raucous Georgia Dome, the team’s home for a quarter-century.

For a city that knows so much about championship droughts and heartbreak – the city’s pro sports teams have combined for one league title – at least the Falcons rose up to make the finale in the Dome an event worth savoring for their fans.

When it was over, the people made even more noise in a frenzied celebration.

They danced. They screamed. They waved their white towels with a fury of civic pride.

Actually, that’s pretty much how they did at the start, too.

It was as though they wanted to generate enough noise to see whether could raise the roof.

They deserved it, too. Many of these fans undoubtedly hung in there while enduring the fall of Michael Vick, the reign of Bobby Petrino and that stunner of a title game loss four years ago.

But there’s a new chapter now – with a team that has risen to a new throne.

 

Source: Jarrett Bell | USA Today | January 22, 2017