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Ashway: Atlanta Falcons back in the Super Bowl is almost unbelievable

POSTED: January 24, 2017 4:28 p.m.
 

Unbelievable?

Perhaps. But feel free to use your own description for the Falcons’ 44-21 destruction of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game Sunday.

I chose “unbelievable” because the phrase I heard most often during the game was, “Can you believe this?”

They say that seeing is believing, but, honestly, at times I couldn’t believe my own eyes. On this score, however, those of us who have observed the Falcons since their inception deserve a pass. This was, after all, the most compelling game this team has played in its 51 seasons.

The Falcons took on a team led by the hottest quarterback playing anywhere outside Atlanta and reduced it to rubble. By the end, the Packers might just as well have been the Browns.

Which brings us to a delicious irony. According to David Purdum of ESPN.com, before the season kicked off, the sportsbook operator CG Technology took more bets on the Browns to win the Super Bowl than the Falcons. Mill that around for a moment.

In fact, the Falcons generated so little action that the Las Vegas books upped their odds of winning the Super Bowl from 40-1 to 100-1.

Four months ago, no one would bet on the Falcons. Now, I wouldn’t bet against them.

On Sunday, they raced out of the gate in their usual fashion, taking the opening kickoff and driving for a touchdown. They’ve done that eight games running.

Then here came Aaron Rodgers and the Packers flying down the field. They had reached the Falcons’ 23-yard-line when Deion Jones raced in on a third-down blitz, disrupting Rodgers and stopping the drive.

Mason Crosby, toting an NFL-record 23-straight post-season field goal conversions, promptly missed a 41-yarder.

“Can you believe this?”

Down 10-0, Rodgers had the Packers driving on their second possession. Then Jalen Collins stripped the ball from Aaron Ripkowski, and recovered in the end zone.

Instead of a 10-10 game, the Falcons were soon scoring again to make it 17-0. That drive ended with Matt Ryan racing into the end zone from 14 yards out, and then demonstrating his magnificent spiking ability. And why not? He hadn’t scored a rushing touchdown in four years.

“Can you believe this?”

Now, seasoned Falcon observers knew this game wasn’t over. But after a rare exchange of punts, it suddenly was.

The Packers got the ball back on their own 10-yard line with 3:09 left in the half. A touchdown here, and another with the second half kickoff—it’s Aaron Rodgers, remember— and the game is on.

But on second down, while lying prone on the turf, Ra’Shede Hageman stuck out his huge right hand and hit Rodgers’ left heel, causing a sack. Yes, the ever-elusive Rodgers simply tripped. On third-and 21 at the two minute warning, Rodgers launched a long pass, and Ricardo Allen intercepted.

With three seconds left in the half, Julio Jones made a beautiful catch barely in the end zone, upping the lead to 24-zip.

“Can you believe this?”

Still, it was Aaron Rodgers.

But he began the second half with three incompletions (two were drops.)

On second down, Ryan found Jones again. After grappling with cornerback LaDarius Gunter, Jones broke free, caught Ryan’s pass, outran Gunter, stiff-armed Damarious Randall, and cruised into the end zone, completing a 73-yard play. 31-zip.

“Can you believe this?”

Not even Aaron Rodgers could mount a comeback from this deficit. Nor could the Falcons unravel this lead.

“We have been in this position before, and it’s so very hard to get to this point,” Ryan told Bill Pennington of The New York Times. “It’s tough to string together enough wins to get to the Super Bowl, and there are a lot of things that have to go right.

“It feels great. But there’s unfinished business.”

Added Packers coach Mike McCarthy: “We ran into a team that really jumped on us. They did a lot of things right, and kept doing them.”

The offense performed at a near-perfect level. Consider their possessions: touchdown, field goal, touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt.

But who’d have guessed that the Falcons would shut out the Packers for a half? In fact, this was the first time the Packers trailed by 24 points at the half since Rodgers became their quarterback in 2008.

For De’Vondre Campbell, the defense started to come of age during the bye week, after an address by coach Dan Quinn. 

“He showed he believed in us,” Campbell told Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com. “I remember him saying this defense was good enough to reach the Super Bowl.”

Believe it.

 

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