ATLANTA — Matt Ryan, still a mistrusted playoff quarterback as Sunday dawned, stood at his locker in his skivvies, eye black still smeared across his face and an NFC championship hat perched on his head. An Atlanta Falcons assistant coach walked past.
“See you tomorrow morning,” Ryan said.
“You, too,” the coach replied, embracing him in a hug. “Congrats. I’m happy for you, man.”
“Thanks,” Ryan replied. “I’m happy for me, too.”
Ryan pointed at the coach and smiled, the look of a contented man who had experienced a weight lifted. In the Falcons’ 44-21 demolition of the Green Bay Packers, Ryan did not simply remove the remaining doubt regarding his postseason credibility. He smashed it to pieces and steamrolled those pieces into powder. Ryan, with a major assist from Julio Jones, shredded the Packers’ secondary into green-and-gold ribbons. He orchestrated one of the finest offenses the NFL has ever seen. He scorched the earth.
Who wants to question Ryan now? It was the Falcons people wondered about before the NFC championship game kicked off, and they made that notion feel quaint over a three-hour clinic. They rendered Aaron Rodgers, the most electric player in the NFL for two months, an afterthought and advanced to the second Super Bowl in the franchise’s 51-year history.
“You know, you can’t lose belief or confidence,” Ryan said. “One thing about this league is, week-to-week, you get humbled very quickly. And learning what works best for you personally and what works best for our team has taken time, for sure. But I always felt we’d get to this point, and I’m happy that we’re there.”
In the final game played at the Georgia Dome, fans screamed and twirled white towels as the Falcons unleashed one of the most dominant performances of this NFL season. They outgained Green Bay 493 yards to 367 and scored 31 points before the Packers responded with their first points early in the third quarter.
Ryan entered these playoffs 1-4 in his career in the postseason, leading to a reputation as a big-stats quarterback who faltered against the best competition. After two weeks in which he scored 80 points, that is obsolete. Ryan completed 27 of his 38 passes Sunday for 392 yards and four touchdown passes and ran 14 yards for a fifth. Jones, who possesses an alien brand of athleticism, caught nine passes for 180 yards and scored two touchdowns, including the slant he turned into a 73-yard score that pushed the Falcons ahead 31-0 early in the third quarter.
Already the presumptive MVP, Ryan entered the playoffs, in the eyes of many, a tier below the elite quarterbacks. He has since forced his way into the conversation for Best Quarterback Alive. Two weeks in a row, Ryan and the Falcons have dispatched Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, in Russell Wilson and Rodgers.
If they win the Super Bowl over Tom Brady’s New England Patriots, they will become the second team in NFL history to beat three consecutive Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in the postseason. (In January 2010, Drew Brees’s New Orleans Saints beat Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.)
“We all follow him,” wide receiver Mohamed Sanu said. “We know he’s going to take us where we need to be.”
The Falcons entered Sunday as a team defined by its past playoff letdowns, and they received a reminder in the first half, after Ryan’s touchdown run put Atlanta up 17-0. Four years ago, the Falcons had taken a 17-0 second-quarter lead at home against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game, only to go scoreless in the second half and lose.
“Four years ago is four years ago,” Jones said. “I can’t even remember that — the timing or the score or whatever it was. Today, we were up, and I just knew we were going to keep scoring. That’s the mind-set and the mentality we have: Can’t nobody stop us except us.”
Before halftime, with the Falcons on the Green Bay 5-yard line, Jones split wide. The safety remained inside, leaving a single defensive back on Jones. “I saw the coverage,” Jones said. “It was one-on-one. No question in my mind Matt is coming to me.” Jones saw the defender playing off, so he “slow-rolled” off the line, he said, maintaining room for Ryan to thread a back-shoulder pass. Jones twisted, kept both feet inbounds and snagged the pass. The play ensured this year would be different.
The Falcons’ offense operates as if it has somehow reworked and then mastered the geometry of the field. With ideal personnel for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, Atlanta made the Packers look as if they were playing 10 against 11.
“You have so many elements and so many people that can make plays, man. Who do you guard?” wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “It’s not just us being open. It’s Matt finding the right guy and who’s open. That’s why I think he’s the MVP of this league. It’s not just the one, two or three [options]. It might be the checkdown. He’s ‘Matty Ice,’ man.”
The same reputation for postseason letdowns that dogged Ryan for years may now fall on Rodgers. Since winning the Super Bowl following the 2010 season, Rodgers has gone 5-6 in the playoffs, including two losses at home and Sunday’s thrashing. He had led the Packers to eight consecutive victories after he vowed, at 4-6, to “run the table.” But Green Bay had not confronted a force quite like the Falcons.
“We ran into a buzz saw, and those guys performed great, and we didn’t have enough to keep up with them,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. “That clearly wasn’t the way we anticipated or prepared for our season to end, but I think that’s a credit to the Falcons, and frankly, we ran out of gas.”
At the end, Ryan stood on a podium, pumped his fist and answered questions from Terry Bradshaw. He climbed down from the stage, hugged family and friends and walked toward the tunnel. He threw one black wrist band, then another, into the crowd. As fans yelled “M-V-P,” Ryan raised his arms over his head, a happy quarterback on the way to the Super Bowl.