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NFL Championship Weekend Recap: The Falcons Have Ascended to a Higher Plane

Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Atlanta steamroll the Packers and make good on the quarterback’s vision. Plus, Tom Brady and the Patriots rout the Steelers to set up a high-flying Super Bowl matchup.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

During the Falcons’ 2015 season opener against the Eagles, following one of the first scoring drives they’d ever orchestrate together, Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan regrouped on Atlanta’s sideline. Before digging into the defensive looks they’d just seen, Ryan made a proclamation to his offensive coordinator that, in hindsight, was prescient.

“I can’t wait until I know the offense inside and out, though, bro,” the then-30-year-old quarterback said. “Because we are going to kill people with it.”

Sunday, on the same field where Ryan made that declaration, the Falcons racked up 44 points with terrifying ease, ending the Packers’ season, punching a ticket to the second Super Bowl in franchise history, and cementing their status as one of the best offenses the league has ever seen.

“It was much different from what I had done in the past,” Ryan said of Atlanta’s scheme after the 44–21 win. “The play calls are a lot longer. Being on top of the details and making sure everything is just right is really important. I just felt like we could do some really good things when we all got comfortable together.”

Shanahan said last week that even as the Falcons stumbled down the stretch in 2015 (after a 5–0 start they hit a 3–8 skid, missing the playoffs for a third straight season), the team knew it was close — closer than anyone outside the organization realized. It wasn’t a matter of Ryan learning the offense. Anyone could study Shanahan’s system — implemented upon his hiring that January — and draw it up on the board. It was a matter of Ryan executing, and that required patience. “I know it inside and out, but I’d have no chance doing it,” Shanahan says. “It’s being able to react, and feel, and do stuff in the pocket. That’s not just learning it and being able to regurgitate it. That’s feeling everything.”

With more time, more reps, and some crucial offseason additions (a stabilizing force in center Alex Mack, a petrifying burner in slot receiver Taylor Gabriel, and a chains-moving machine in fellow wideout Mohamed Sanu), Ryan’s quiet optimism developed into a full-throated roar. Atlanta’s league-leading 33.8 points per game is a staggering figure (tied for the eighth-best mark in NFL history), but it doesn’t tell the entire story of this offense. Over the past 20 years, only the 2007 Patriots — a unit that featured Tom Brady at his peak and Randy Moss scoring an NFL-record 23 touchdowns — averaged more points per drive than the Falcons’ 3.06. And Atlanta reached that level by relying on an equal-opportunity approach that could burn teams in every way imaginable, a tactic it stuck with against the Packers.

Ryan set an NFL record this season by throwing touchdown passes to 13 different receivers, an accomplishment that barely seems possible. While shredding Green Bay’s secondary for 271 passing yards in Sunday’s first half, he targeted nine guys on his 32 attempts. That included consecutive completions on the Falcons’ opening drive in which he hit Sanu for a clutch third-down conversion and then fullback Patrick DiMarco for a 31-yard gain that took Atlanta inside the 5-yard line. If anyone needed more proof that the Falcons can gouge opponents any way they please, the 234-pound DiMarco leaking open into the flat and rumbling down the sideline was it.

As this offense’s architect, Shanahan — who will likely soon be the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers — has taken his rightful place among the NFL’s masterminds. Atlanta’s receivers spent all afternoon running free through Green Bay’s defensive backfield, allowing the designs of their routes to do the bulk of the work. Gabriel told reporters after the game that the Packers played Cover 2 man on a majority of snaps (a coverage that allowed Ryan to get loose on the ground a handful of times, including on a 14-yard touchdown run in the second quarter), and when Shanahan has a grasp on what his offense will see, it’s time to say goodnight. In a victory that produced his greatest flourish, he was in total control. “He’s got a great feel for our personnel, the defense that we’re going against, and what combinations our guys could get into,” Ryan says. “He’s got a really, really good feel for that.”

Julio Jones (Getty Images)
Julio Jones (Getty Images)

No team does a better job of using its system to extract the most out of its players, but it helps when one of them is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound, cornerback-consuming force of nature. With his nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns, Julio Jones became the first receiver in NFL history to register multiple 150-yard, two-score games in the postseason. The first came four seasons ago — in the NFC title game against the 49ers. Just as he’s been at every point of his mind-numbingly great career, Jones was at his best when the lights were brightest.

His first score against the Packers came on a back-shoulder throw that showcased footwork no physics professor could ever hope to explain. The second involved a pair of stiff-arms that corner Damarious Randall will see in his nightmares for years to come. Nursing a sprained toe that’s lingered for weeks, Jones was the best player on the field. “It’s just special, what he’s capable of doing,” Ryan says. “He’s a beast. He’s just an absolute stud. And I’ve been lucky to play with him as long as I have.”

Jones can stake a claim as the most talented receiver on the planet, and Shanahan has earned his due as a schematic genius, but Sunday’s win — and this entire season, really — belonged to Ryan. When the Falcons cratered in the second half of the 2015 campaign, including a six-game losing streak capped by a 38–0 drubbing at the hands of the Panthers, the outcry about Ryan’s play reached a new pitch. There was a different kind of clamor after this one: a pounding howl of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” as Ryan stood on a stage and accepted the George Halas Trophy from Terry Bradshaw. Before making his way back to the field, Ryan raised his arms and curled his fingers toward his body, inviting the crowd, after the last game ever to be played in the Georgia Dome, to give him all that it had.

Matt Ryan (Getty Images)
Matt Ryan (Getty Images)

Ryan’s regular-season numbers — 4,944 passing yards, 38 touchdowns, a 69.9 percent completion rate, an absurd 9.3 yards per attempt — all but guarantee that he’ll be named MVP. His line against Green Bay (392 yards and four touchdowns) was more of the same, but Ryan’s performance and postgame reception was about more than gaudy statistics. After living on the outskirts of quarterback greatness for the better part of a decade, Ryan has earned his moment. Two weeks from now, he’ll face off with Brady, Bill Belichick, and New England with a chance to bring Atlanta its first Lombardi Trophy. In the 2001 season, Belichick won his first title as a head coach by solving the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf offense. Fifteen years later, he’ll be tasked with stopping its present-day counterpart.

As Ryan made his way off stage and the herd of cameramen started to dissipate, he managed to find Shanahan. The pair slapped hands and shared a forceful embrace, on the same field where, a year and a half ago, Ryan told his coach they’d soon take over the football world. Before pulling away, he whacked Shanahan on the chest and delivered one final message. “I told him,” Ryan says, “that we’ve got one more.”

The Starting 11

A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.

1. When Le’Veon Bell went down with a groin injury in the first quarter of Sunday’s AFC championship game, it was curtains for the Steelers. The Patriots were doing a sound job of containing Bell when he was on the field (six carries for 20 yards), but Pittsburgh simply couldn’t afford the early loss of its best offensive player. While DeAngelo Williams is a more-than-capable backup tailback, the injury to Bell limited the Steelers to having one reliable playmaking option, and that wasn’t enough to beat New England in a 36–17 loss.

When the Patriots took away wideout Antonio Brown (via myriad bracket concepts they use so well on game-changing receivers), there was nowhere else for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to turn. Over the course of these playoffs, Bell had proved to be an invaluable presence for the Pittsburgh offense — in a way, the running back version of Aaron Rodgers. Against a team like the Pats, the Steelers had no way of succeeding without him.

2. A steady dose of zone defense and the lack of a consistent pass rush turn Tom Brady into a freaking surgeon. On 44 designed pass plays Sunday night, Brady was pressured three times. Three! The Steelers’ game plan involved flooding the defensive backfield with bodies and hoping that the traffic would bother Brady. Instead, he used the time afforded him to carve up Pittsburgh to the tune of 384 passing yards and three touchdowns. Even when the Steelers did send extra rushers at Brady, the Patriots had no problem picking them up.

Look at that guy. No one has ever been more relaxed doing anything. I’ve seen old men feeding pigeons in the park who look more frantic.

Tom Brady (Getty Images)
Tom Brady (Getty Images)

Watching Brady rip apart man-based coverage schemes with timing routes to Julian Edelman and others is always a delight, but my favorite version of Brady is the one we saw in the AFC title game — the one that can slice and dice a defense to death by always finding the right void. Atlanta’s defense is also based on zone concepts, which may sound troubling given the way that Brady dismantled the Steelers. But against the Packers, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith incorporated plenty of wrinkles designed to bother Rodgers early in downs and prevent him from feeling comfortable in the pocket. We’ll get to that, though. First …

3. … let’s give a nod to Chris Hogan, who somehow tallied nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. Belichick loves mining the rest of the AFC East for undervalued talent more than you love anything, and Hogan is his latest instance of thievery. Before this fall, Hogan’s single-game high for receiving yards was 95 — last November, when he played for the Bills, in a 20–13 loss to, you guessed it, the Patriots. One way Belichick continues to create matchup problems is by acquiring guys who’ve caused them for him in the past. Wes Welker is obviously the prime example, but he’s far from the only one. The only players a coach knows better than his own are the ones he plays against twice a year.

4. Alan Branch was a force in the middle of the Patriots defense. The 10-year veteran has been excellent against the run all season, and he put on a clinic against the Steelers. By controlling center Maurkice Pouncey and refusing to surrender leverage while commanding both A-gaps, Branch dictated Pittsburgh’s ground game in a manner that few nose tackles have.

Like so many other players on the Pats, the journeyman has been a stellar, low-cost find. The Cardinals took the former Michigan star (side note: I loved watching Branch in college) with the 33rd pick in the 2007 draft, and in Arizona he seemed like a player who had dormant talent. In this late-career stop in New England, he’s blossomed into the guy many thought he’d be all along.

5. The Steelers’ red zone woes played a key role in their demise. For a team that can be so offensively dangerous, Pittsburgh’s struggles near the goal line are a bit baffling. When Roethlisberger and Co. failed to punch the ball in from inside the 1-yard line late in the second quarter on Sunday, it felt like the team was in serious trouble. That stalled drive, coupled with an incomplete fourth-down fade to Cobi Hamilton in the fourth quarter, made for a brutal night for Pittsburgh near the end zone.

Ben Roethlisberger (Getty Images)
Ben Roethlisberger (Getty Images)

As a unit, the Patriots defense was solid in the red zone all season, finishing sixth in red zone points per drive, according to Football Outsiders. Against an Atlanta offense that’s been raining fire from the heavens, that trait may come in handy for New England. The Falcons attack has been frighteningly efficient by nearly every metric this season, but if it has one weakness, it’s the ability to cap off drives with touchdowns. Atlanta ranks a respectable ninth in the league in touchdowns per red zone drive, but that’s a far cry from the record-setting numbers it put up in other areas.

No team does a better job than the Falcons of stretching the field horizontally and forcing opponents to defend every inch of grass. That’s an advantage that disappears when the field shrinks, making Atlanta (somewhat) mortal when it gets near the goal line.

6. Falcons running back Devonta Freeman’s value is derived from doing a little of everything, and that was on full display during a two-play stretch late in the second quarter.

On a third-and-10 from the Packers’ 49-yard line, Green Bay sent five rushers after the quarterback, including linebacker Joe Thomas, who was coming on an inside blitz. Freeman, who is built like a 5-foot-8 fire hydrant, stuck Thomas at the line of scrimmage and kept him there as Ryan stood untouched and delivered a perfect strike to Gabriel for a 16-yard gain. (The Falcons went a ridiculous 10-of-13 on third-down conversions Sunday.)

The very next play, Freeman released out of the backfield, caught a short dump-off pass from Ryan, and shook safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix so bad with a jump cut that I’m pretty sure the grounds crew is still cleaning pieces of him off the turf. Atlanta’s offensive arsenal gets more absurd by the week, and it’s moments like this — when another of a seemingly endless array of weapons overwhelms a defender — that make the Falcons so potent.

7. The Falcons threw a ton of different fronts, looks, and blitzes at Aaron Rodgers, and it paid off. Atlanta declared its intentions early by dialing up a third-down blitz from linebacker Deion Jones that flushed Rodgers from the pocket and forced Green Bay to attempt a 41-yard field goal. (Mason Crosby pushed it wide right.) Slot cornerback Brian Poole — an undrafted rookie and the type of hidden gem teams need to find in order to get this far — got to Rodgers on a pair of blitzes from his inside alignment. And Vic Beasley was a menace all afternoon, even if the stat sheet doesn’t reflect that.

With the Packers preparing for a second-and-10 just before the two-minute warning in the first half, Beasley lined up so far outside that it looked as if he was covering Jared Cook in the slot. In the moments before the snap, though, Beasley floated back inside, prompting Green Bay center Corey Linsley to single him out to the rest of the line. With the prowling Beasley on his mind, Linsley was flattened by defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who then picked up a shoestring sack. As if the Packers needed anything else to go wrong, they lost guards Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang to injury at various points throughout the game, only worsening their chances of slowing a Falcons front playing with its hair on fire.

8. Vic Beasley is one scary-athletic dude.

Here’s Beasley lined up as a three technique (over the outside shoulder of the guard) on the defense’s left side, a spot you don’t see him in very often. At the snap, he takes a quick step forward before jutting back to cover tight end Cook for a brief moment as he bolts toward the right flat. As Beasley turns to see Rodgers rolling out, he reverses course and explodes toward the quarterback, quick enough to disrupt the throw and allow free safety Ricardo Allen to come away with an interception. Human beings shouldn’t be able to move that way, and using an interplanetary talent like this is one reason that Atlanta’s defense has improved so much down the stretch.

9. Jalen Collins’s second-quarter strip of Green Bay fullback Aaron Ripkowski is the type of play that’s kept Atlanta’s young defense afloat while it found its footing. The Falcons may have ended the regular season ranked 27th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, but they’ve subsisted on turnovers during the second half of this campaign. In Atlanta’s past eight games (including the two playoff wins), it’s forced 15 turnovers; it created only 11 during its first 10 outings.

10. This is the sort of play design that makes Atlanta’s offense so damn good.

Everything about this is fucking beautiful. The quick play-action fake forces the Packers linebackers to step up, leaving a sea of green between them and the safeties. Fullback DiMarco’s route into the left flat holds Clinton-Dix in place, further nullifying the defenders who began the play in the box. To deal with Morgan Burnett, the Green Bay safety on the other side, Sanu simply bolts downfield from his spot in the right slot. That leaves Jones working against LaDarius Gunter without any safety help, and for the Packers, that’s usually going to end poorly.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Julio, we are not worthy.

My favorite moment from attending Sunday’s game in the Georgia Dome came in the aftermath of this catch. After staying down for a brief moment, Jones got up and made his way to the sideline. With the Falcons gathered around midfield, the crowd started chanting “JU-LI-O!” so loud that the entire Atlanta huddle — and everyone on the sideline — had to wave their arms to get the fans to quiet down. Given the way that Jones roasted the Packers, they could have chanted all day.