By Jason Keidel
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With three iconic clubs in the NFL’s final four, there’s a lost, gridiron stepchild playing Sunday.
Despite Pittsburgh’s big three (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown), Green Bay’s terminator quarterback (Aaron Rodgers), and New England inching toward their fifth Super Bowl title this young century, none of them have the weekend’s most potent offense.
That belongs to the Atlanta Falcons, who have flown well above the radar, if we paid any attention. The Falcons practically lapped the league in scoring, averaging 33.8 points per game this season. For all the talk about Rodgers, Brady and Big Ben, it was Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan who put up the most pyrotechnic numbers, well worthy of NFL MVP consideration.
Ryan led the league in total QBR (83.3), passer rating (117.1) and yards per attempt (9.26). He was second in passing touchdowns (38), yards per game (309) and total yards (4,944). There’s more, but this should be proof that Ryan spread the ball like butter across the stat sheet. As the world becomes increasingly tethered to numbers — and if we can somehow ignore Rodgers’ bionic playoff performance — Ryan is your league MVP.
And if you wonder why a defense as seasoned as Seattle’s couldn’t even form a speed bump on Atlanta’s march to the NFC title game, just consider how good the Falcons are.
Whom do you stop? Julio Jones is unanimously included among the best three wideouts in the sport, along with Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. If you don’t know why, watch his 300-yard game against defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers. If you focus on Jones, say hello to Mohamed Sanu. Stop Sanu, and meet Taylor Gabriel, who scored seven touchdowns on just 54 touches this season.
Play a nickel defense? Swing open the door to Devonta Freeman. Though lethal on the ground, yet Freeman also led the Falcons with 80 yards receiving against the Seahawks, part of his overall 125-yard performance. (Freeman also scored a rushing TD.) And when Freeman takes a breather, enter Tevin Coleman, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry against Seattle and scored on a TD reception.
Depending on the sports book, Atlanta is favored by four to five points over the Packers. The heralded odds apparatus, FiveThirtyEight, gives Atlanta a 61 percent chance to beat Rodgers and the Packers. (And yes, No. 12 is so good he deserves lead billing.)
And if you think you can just thwart Atlanta’s passing game and walk out with a win, consider the Falcons call pass plays only 57.7 percent of the time, which means 21 other NFL teams throw the ball more often. And forget about spending all game with two men on Jones. Indeed, the game before his Week 4, 300-yard outburst, he had just one catch. Ryan is not afraid to pepper the field with passes to Sanu or Gabriel or his two all-world halfbacks.
And their defense isn’t the same laughable unit that head coach Dan Quinn inherited a few years ago. When Quinn, a defense-first guy, took over the team, the Falcons posted 22 sacks, third worst in the NFL. This year they have 34, which won’t short-circuit the scoreboard, but they now boast the league’s sack leader in Vic Beasley, who posted 15½.
It’s no small matter that Atlanta is at home, a thousand miles south and perhaps 70 degrees warmer than the Frozen Tundra will be this weekend. There’s also an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, as this will be the final NFL game played inside the Georgia Dome. It was never host to a world championship franchise, but the track, crowd and climate make it decidedly in favor of the Falcons.
Unlike the Cowboys, who had essentially taken three weeks off to rest after clinching the division in December, Atlanta has been active and sizzling. Dallas was rusty after the bye week, and their standout rookie tandem of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott clearly needed to slap the cobwebs and nerves off in the first half. No such worries for Ryan & Co.
And if you can remove Rodgers from the narrative — impossible, I know, but what if? — you’d see that Atlanta does have the healthier and more complete roster. Is that enough to tame the most talented passer on the planet?
The fact that it’s a question means it’s a game. Maybe even a coin flip.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel