A 24-point lead isn’t a 25-point lead, but the Falcons exorcised some demons against the Packers on Sunday night anyway.
After building a three-possession lead in the fourth quarter against Green Bay, the Packers began to chip away at the lead until Atlanta’s Super Bowl collapse went from the back of every Falcon fan’s mind to weighing on top of their soul. When Green Bay scored to bring the game to 34-23, it felt like football may be a flat circle. But unlike in the Super Bowl, the Falcons wouldn’t give the ball back until well after they’d secured a win, as they held on for the victory.
On the Falcons’ final possession, they put together a nine-play, 35-yard drive that bled nearly five minutes off the clock and smothered the Packers’ would-be comeback, only giving them the ball back once there was little more than a minute left on the clock. After an entire offseason of “run the ball up 28-3” memes, Atlanta ran the ball six times to ice the game.
Sunday night was a 180-degree turnaround from Atlanta’s jittery Week 1 performance where only a goal-line stand prevented a loss to the cellar-dweller Bears. That wasn’t the team that showed up against the Packers on Sunday night. In front of their home fans in the first regular season game at the palatial Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Falcons re-established themselves as the NFC’s top contender.
Matt Ryan finished 19 of 28 for 252 yards and a touchdown, while Julio Jones had five receptions on nine targets for 108 yards and once again looked like his usual dominant self. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were unstoppable on the ground, combining for 25 carries for 126 yards (almost exactly 5 yards per carry) and three total touchdowns. For at least one night, coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s offense answered the question about how the Falcons would fare with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan: Just fine.
Atlanta established the lead early in the first half and kept adding to it, but it was their defense that elevated the team against the Packers. For much of the first half, Atlanta overwhelmed Green Bay with a monstrous pass rush and a blindingly fast defense. The Falcons sacked Rodgers three times and had seven quarterback hits. That pressure forced Rodgers into a few bad decisions, including a throw that should have been a pick-six late in the first half but was dropped by cornerback Brian Poole. Mistakes are rare for Aaron Rodgers and co., but Atlanta’s suffocating defense forced a few. On the next Green Bay possession, Atlanta defensive back Desmond Trufant intercepted Rodgers, and the Falcons punched in a touchdown to make it 24-7 at the half. To open the second half, Trufant snagged a fumble off a Rodgers lateral and zoomed into the end zone to make it 31-7. There was no dramatic comeback for Green Bay this go around, as Atlanta beat the Packers for the third time since October in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates.
The victory wasn’t all roses for Atlanta though. Vic Beasley injured his hamstring early in the third quarter, and he did not return. An extended absence for Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks last season, could pose a huge blow to Atlanta’s defense. Still, their improved unit looked great on Sunday, helping Atlanta pick up the day's best win outside Denver. The Falcons still have a long road ahead of them to see if they can avenge last season’s Super Bowl loss, but after Sunday’s performance they can take solace that they’re still the true King in the NFC.