The Falcons Could Do Anything, and The Packers Couldn't Do Anything Right
Seemingly everything that could go wrong for the Packers did, and the Falcons made them pay for it.
A minute into the second half of Sunday's NFC Championship game, with the Atlanta Falcons already leading the Green Bay Packers 24-0, Julio Jones scored a touchdown on a play that may as well have been called "Nutshell." Jones toasted his defender on a crossing route, caught a well-placed ball from Matt Ryan, and headed for the right sideline. Once there, he turned upfield, muscled through one arm tackle, and stiff-armed another defender away. Metaphors want for the appropriate scale; Jones was a Ferrari among tricycles, a tidal wave in a kiddie pool. The 73-yard score added to his impressive line on the day—9 catches, 180 yards, two TDs—but it also more or less summed up the afternoon.
The final score of 44-21 doesn't entirely capture the breadth of Atlanta's dominance or the flavor of Green Bay's disappointment. It was, weirdly, not quite that much of a blowout early. The Packers' first drive ended in a missed field goal from Mason Crosby, who last week had nailed two fifty-plus yard field goals as actual ice crystals formed in his veins. Their second drive came to a sorry halt when fullback Aaron Ripkowski fumbled at the tail end of a run that would have ended at the Atlanta 11. Even once the Falcons started to pull away, Green Bay had chances to turn things around. A fumble late in the second quarter somehow eluded linebacker Jake Ryan, who seemed in position to pounce right on it; a would-be interception fell to the turf a couple minutes later when safety Marwin Evans mistimed his jump.
Any one of those mistakes might have been enough to give Atlanta an edge in what was predicted to be a shootout; all of them together mean the Falcons' blazing offense could relax and put on a show. It's understandable that Ryan, the presumptive NFL MVP, hasn't been receiving quite the attention Rodgers has in recent weeks—Ryan gets to throw to Jones and Mohamed Sanu and hand off to Devonta Freeman while Rodgers makes cardboard cutouts look like All-Pros—but Sunday's game let a national audience know just how bonkers the Atlanta attack can be. While Rodgers dodged rushers and threw off his back foot, Ryan sat in the pocket and made liberal use of his teammates, hitting eight different receivers for almost 400 yards and four touchdowns and running for another himself. Every sector of the field was available, and utilized. It was not quite as if the Falcons were playing against air; air can't lose hope.
The task in two weeks will be tougher. The New England Patriots gave up the fewest points in the NFL during the regular season and spent the AFC title game handcuffing a normally potent Pittsburgh offense; the fissures available against Green Bay's below-average defense won't be there in Houston. Still, Atlanta's excellence on Sunday looked almost definitional. The sun rises, the earth spins, and Julio Jones puts scorch marks on football fields. The favored Patriots might enter the Super Bowl with an era's defining quarterback-coach combination, but the Falcons will bring the show.