Of course it’s Green Bay. It had to be Green Bay. It had to be the team that crushed the Falcons’ dreams in the Georgia Dome six years ago and the quarterback who has spent a good part of his career dismantling defenses, particularly the local one.
It had to be a matchup made in video football and pyrotechnic heaven: Matt Ryan vs. Aaron Rodgers.
Dallas was the NFC’s No. 1 seed going into these playoffs, but it figured the road to the Super Bowl would go through Green Bay, figuratively, even if not literally.
The Falcons wanted another home game. Maybe they didn’t necessarily want Rodgers and the Packers but it was a package deal. Green Bay’s dramatic 34-31 win in Dallas Sunday night means the Packers will come to Atlanta for the NFC championship game next week.
Before you slap your forehead and lapse into 2010 playoff flashbacks, consider something: The Falcons have a good chance to win this game. There may be no hotter team in the NFL right now than Green Bay, which has won eight in a row since four straight losses dropped the team to 4-6 in November. And there may be no hotter quarterback than Rodgers, who despite throwing an interception — aaaaaagggghhh!!! — has 21 touchdown passes and only one pick during the winning streak. (And, OK, the Packers lead the Falcons in NFL championships 13-0.)
But even with all of that, the Falcons have opened as a 5 1/2-point favorite in some sports books.
Why? Because as good as the Rodgers and the Packers’ offense is, the Falcons’ offense is better. As shaky as you might believe the Falcons’ defense is, the Green Bay defense is worse. And the game is in Atlanta, far more comfortable surroundings than “Jerry World” in Dallas.
Could there be a better finale for the Georgia Dome?
Following Saturday’s 36-20 playoff win over Seattle, Falcons coach Dan Quinn was asked whether he preferred the Packers or Cowboys as his team’s next opponent. He gave the safest and most logical response, picking a venue, not an opponent.
“I think for our fans … to have that opportunity to come back here one last time, I think that would be something that we would all look forward to,” he said. “Past that, the coaching side of me and the match-ups, I’ll have to go in and find that out.”
Much has changed since 2010, but the divisional playoff game will be a topic of discussion this week. The Falcons finished 13-3 and entered the playoffs as a No. 1 seed while the Packers went 10-6 and entered as a wild card. But Ryan threw two interceptions, including a pick-6 to Tramon Williams just before halftime, and Rodger threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns. Green Bay rolled 48-21 and went on to win the Super Bowl.
The teams met this season, with Ryan throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu in the final minute to rally the Falcons to a 33-32 win in the Dome. Ryan and Rodgers took turns being great: Ryan threw for 288 yards with three touchdowns and a 129.5 rating. Rodgers threw for 246 yards and four touchdowns with a 125.5 rating.
In five regular season meetings against the Falcons, the Rodgers has 13 touchdown passes and one interception with a 118 rating. But Atlanta won three of those games.
See? It can be done.
But not easily.
Falcons coaches started watching film Sunday. It was easy to wonder when Green Bay’s offense drove 245 yards and scored touchdowns on its first three possessions to take a 21-3 lead whether Quinn told his assistants, “Turn off the Dallas tape.”
A play would break down but Rodgers would complete a pass. Dallas would mount a pass rush but Rodgers would complete a pass. Everybody receiver was covered and Rodgers would be running for his life … yet, somehow, Rodgers would complete a pass. And the first three times Green Bay had the ball, the drive ended in the same place: the end zone.
Then, mortality happened.
The Packers were forced to punt. Twice. On three-and-outs. Dallas got the ball but Prescott threw an interception. Then Rodgers threw an interception for the first time after 318 attempts.
This must’ve been what it looked like when Pompeii went down.
Prescott, not looking like a rookie, brought the Cowboys back with touchdown passes to Jason Witten and Dez Bryant and a run out of the shotgun for a two-point conversion to tie it 28-28 with 2:35 left.
Then came the field goal drama: Mason Crosby hit from 56 yards to give the Packers a 31-28 lead with 1:33 left. Prescott drove the Cowboys into position, setting up Dan Bailey for a 52-yarder to tie with 35 seconds remaining. But Rodgers brought the Packers back again, completing a seemingly impossible 36-yard pass to Jared Cook, who kept his feet in bounds at the Dallas 32.
As time ticked to 0:00, Crosby hit from 51 yards to win it — twice. The first was nullified by a Dallas timeout. So effectively, Crosby was good from 158 yards on three fourth-quarter kicks.
The road to the Super Bowl isn’t an easy one for the Falcons. But this road only seems right.