By Ernie Palladino
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Depending on who did the talking, Sunday’s NFC championship game was supposed to end up either as a sky-high shootout or, less likely, a moderate scoring affair marked by more defense than offense.
What actually transpired in the final game ever at the Georgia Dome amounted to neither. The Falcons’ 44-21 win over the Packers was an outright execution.
No gunfight at the OK Corral. No Texas death match with bound wrists and Bowie knives.
Just your normal, everyday hit, so clean and thorough that the streaking Packers never knew what struck them.
And because of how the Falcons got this one, they must be considered at least the emotional favorites for Super Bowl LI.
They beat the heck out of Aaron Rodgers, sacking him only twice but hitting him, usually hard, 13 times.
Matt Ryan, winner at least of the popular vote for league MVP after a stellar regular season, did not let the defense’s effort go to waste by leading the Falcons to touchdowns on all but three of their nine possessions, and one of those misses resulted in a field goal.
The numbers were enormous: 493 total yards, 392 passing yards for Ryan to go along with his four touchdown throws. Thirty first downs, not to mention a 10-of-13 third-down efficiency.
All of that came against the hottest quarterback in the league in Rodgers, the miracle man who told his worried town to relax at 4-6 and then put together eight straight wins. But the Falcons made sure there would be no miracles Sunday. By the time the Green Bay offense finally found a semblance of footing, the winners were up 31-0 in the third quarter.
It wasn’t until 9:19 of that period that Rodgers put his team’s first points on the board, a third-and-goal throw to Davante Adams. But even his two subsequent scoring tosses to Jared Cook and Jordy Nelson couldn’t improve any description of the second half as being more than garbage time.
Those 21 points meant nothing.
The game was reminiscent of an NFC title game played in East Rutherford, New Jersey, around this time in 2000. The Giants were facing a Minnesota scoring machine that had set a record for most points in a season. General manager Ernie Accorsi was so distraught at the thought of Cris Carter, Randy Moss, and Robert Smith running up and down the field against coordinator John Fox’s defense that Accorsi wouldn’t even look at Fox during the week.
Fox’s assurance that they’d be all right brought little comfort to Accorsi.
Only when time expired in that 41-0 dismantling of the Vikings did Accorsi breathe freely once again.
Kerry Collins had the best game of his career that day, throwing for five touchdowns.
The Falcons’ quarterback they call “Matty Ice” had the best first half of his career Sunday, throwing for 271 yards and two touchdowns. He got everyone involved in partying against a helpless Green Bay defense. Nine players had passes thrown at them; eight caught at least one.
The defense forced two turnovers, the first when Jalen Collins ripped the ball out of fullback Aaron Ripkowski’s hands and recovered it in the end zone when the game was still close. The other came as the second quarter wound down, a Ricardo Allen interception when it wasn’t so close, but had yet to reach blowout proportions.
Ryan turned both into touchdowns, running the first in himself and hitting Julio Jones for his first of two touchdowns in a nine-catch, 180-yard outing.
Rodgers left the game near the end of the fourth quarter a sore, beaten quarterback. If Falcons GM Tom Dimitroff held any feelings similar to Accorsi about the second seed’s ability to deal with Rodgers’ heat that produced 21 touchdowns against one interception during the winning streak, defense-minded head coach Dan Quinn probably uttered something similar to Fox.
He had a plan. The man who formerly guided Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” blitzed Rodgers from both corners. When the Falcons didn’t blitz, they rushed four and still hit him.
It was the ideal game plan, run to perfection.
It should be noted that the Giants followed their masterpiece with a 34-7 flop in the Super Bowl. Anything can happen in the big one, as the Giants and others have proven in the years since.
But the Falcons’ dismantling of the Packers — an execution in a game that could have fallen anywhere between a shootout and a defensive battle — qualifies them as the favorite.
Especially if they play like they did Sunday.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino