Matt Ryan and Julio Jones teamed up for a dominant playoff performance, and the Atlanta Falcons ignored all those ghosts from the last half-century.
Next up: Super Bowl 51.
Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns in another MVP-worthy showing, while Jones shook off a toe injury to haul in nine catches for 180 yards and two scores, leading the Falcons to a 44-21 blowout of the storied Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship Sunday.
Atlanta (13-5) will face either New England or Pittsburgh in the Feb. 5 title game in Houston. It will be only the second Super Bowl appearance in the Falcons’ 51-year history, the first coming 18 years ago with a team known as the “Dirty Birds.”
They have never won an NFL championship.
If Ryan and the league’s highest-scoring offense keep playing like this, the AFC winner will sure have its hands full in the Lone Star State. The Falcons led 24-0 at halftime against the Packers (12-6), perhaps the league’s hottest team, and essentially put the game away on their second offensive snap of the second half, a play that showed every one of Jones’ remarkable skills .
He blazed down the middle of the field, shook off LaDarius Gunter’s attempt to grab him on a cut toward the sideline, hauled in the pass from Ryan, broke Gunter’s diving attempt at tackle, and defiantly knocked away Damarious Randall’s with a brutal stiff-arm on the way to a 73-yard touchdown.
Not bad, considering he took it easy much of the week because of his sore left foot.
“I didn’t practice that much throughout the week,” Jones said, “but today I came out and gave it all I had.”
In the final game at the Georgia Dome, Ryan sparked more delirious chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” as he carved up an injury-plagued Packers secondary that had no way of stopping a team that averaged nearly 34 points a game during the regular season and romped to a 36-20 victory against Seattle’s Legion of Boom last week.
For good measure, Ryan also ran for a touchdown.
“We played great,” he said. “We did exactly what we’ve been doing all year and it feels really good.”
The Packers, riding an eight-game winning streak and coming off a thrilling upset of the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys , got a taste of what they’d be in for on Atlanta’s very first possession.
Driving 80 yards in 13 plays, the Falcons converted three third downs, the last when Ryan scrambled away from pressure and flipped a shovel pass to Mohamed Sanu for a 2-yard score.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers came right back, moving quickly down the field in what was expected to be a back-and-forth shootout. Top receiver Jordy Nelson hauled in a 27-yard pass after missing the victory at Dallas with a rib injury.
But, on third-and-4 at the Atlanta 23, the Falcons hurried Rodgers into an incompletion. Mason Crosby, who hit two field goals longer that 50 yards in the closing minutes against the Cowboys, pushed a 41-yard attempt right of the upright to snap a playoff-record streak of 23 straight field goals.
The Falcons drove the other way, settling for Matt Bryant’s 28-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead. Then, with Green Bay poised to make a game of it, Atlanta’s much-maligned defense — one of the lowest ranked in the NFL — came through a momentum-swinging play. Fullback Aaron Ripkowski was breaking tackles and rumbling toward the end zone when Jalen Collins stripped the ball from behind and fell on it just across the goal line for a touchback.
On the ensuing possession, Ryan hooked up with Jones three times for 56 yards. Ryan finished it off with some surprisingly nimble running skills, faking out one defender with a pump fake before diving into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown. It was Matty Ice’s first rushing touchdown since Week 1 of the 2012 season and sparked an uncharacteristic outburst from the normally even-tempered quarterback.
Ryan gave the ball a thunderous spike and let out a scream that made it clear he wanted this game more than anything in his career. The guy who had a 1-4 record in the playoffs over his first eight seasons has finally earned his spot on the biggest stage of them all.
“We’ll be ready to go for sure,” Ryan said. “I’m just proud of the way that we competed and just really excited for two weeks from now.”
DON’T FORGET THE DEFENSE
Atlanta’s defense, an afterthought compared to the other side of the line, kept the Packers out of the end zone until the game was essentially locked up.
Rodgers finished 27 of 45 for 287 yards and three TDs, but he also threw an interception, was sacked twice and faced a relentless Falcons rush.
The Falcons finished with a 493-367 edge in total yards.
What a send-off for the Georgia Dome, the Falcons’ home since 1992, which will be torn down and replaced next season by $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
With the home team comfortably ahead, the raucous crowd of more than 71,000 basically partied through the whole second half, bouncing along to rap music that turned the stadium with the big top-like roof into the world’s largest dance club.
The intensity of the celebration was understandable, given the Falcons’ largely forgettable history and the heartache doled out by all of Atlanta’s pro sports teams. The Braves, way back in 1995, are still the city’s only team to capture a big league championship.
Now, the Falcons are one win away from adding another title to that barren trophy case.