One year after a torrid 5-0 season start that unraveled in a string of defeats and an 8-8 finish, the Atlanta Falcons turned into an offensive juggernaut averaging a league-best 33.8 points per game in the regular season.
On offense they’re dynamic and balanced, the line is much better than last year and they appear ready for this moment. Will the very young and inexperienced defense get enough stops against the explosive Packers offense to make it to Houston? The NFC Championship game should be a beauty.
Let’s take a look at the crucial plays that have taken Atlanta this far. (Hit the links here to check out the Green Bay, New England and Pittsburgh editions.)
Week 4: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones declare an end to the shootout
Looking to improve to 3-1 against the defending NFC champs early in the season, the Falcons let a 34-10 lead slip away in the fourth quarter after Derek Anderson led the Panthers on a nine-play, 94-yard touchdown drive to bring Carolina within one score (34-26).
On Atlanta’s first play on the ensuing possession, Matt Ryan dropped back and threw a strike to Julio Jones over the middle, then Jones fought off a Panthers defensive back and outran them all up the far sideline for a 75-yard score that effectively iced the game. The catch also took Jones to 300 receiving yards on the day and Ryan to 500 yards passing, both team records and also the first time in NFL history a receiver and his quarterback have hit those marks in the same game.
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Week 5: Vic Beasley Jr.’s coming-out party
The Falcons’ 2015 first-rounder played through a shoulder injury last season and didn’t have the type of impact the pass-rush-needy team had hoped for and anticipated. At Denver in Week 5, a healthy Beasley announced himself as a forceful edge rusher when he abused the Broncos’ right tackles and recorded 3.5 sacks of Paxton Lynch. He also added eight tackles as Denver’s offense couldn’t get going and the Falcons secured a 23-16 road victory. Beasley went on to lead the entire league this season in sacks (15.5) and forced fumbles (6, tied with Bruce Irvin).
Week 12: Taylor Gabriel shakes, bakes and races
On September 3, 2016, the Cleveland Browns released the speedy 5-foot-8, 167 pound slot receiver Taylor Gabriel. The Falcons picked him up the very next day and he has become yet another offensive weapon, tallying 35 catches for 579 yards (16.5 average) and six touchdowns in the regular season. Gabriel’s most crucial play came in Atlanta’s first game out of the bye (which it entered with a disappointing road loss at Philly).
Tied 10-10 with a desperate Cardinals team with just over two minutes left in the first half, at Arizona’s 35-yard line, Ryan tossed a short screen to Gabriel who blazed and cut through five would-be Cardinals tacklers for a touchdown, giving Atlanta a huge boost before halftime. Gabriel later added a 25-yard TD reception as Atlanta pulled away 31-13.
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Week 13: The Chiefs stun the Falcons with a game-winning INT return on a two-point conversion attempt
In one of the most bizarre sequences of the season, the Falcons scored a go-ahead touchdown against the Chiefs to take a late 28-27 lead and then logically lined up for a two-point conversion to try to go up by 3. Well, Atlanta did worse than fail to convert when Chiefs safety Eric Berry leaped in front of Ryan’s target and raced 100 yards for a Kansas City two-point score that provided the winning margin, 29-28.
It certainly didn’t feel like a good learning experience for Atlanta at the time, more like a severe gut punch, but the battle against another playoff squad hardened the Falcons and taught them that every single snap matters. They haven’t lost a game since.
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Divisional Round: Ryan to Tevin Coleman for the final 14 yards
The Seattle Seahawks received the opening kickoff and maintained possession for a 14-play, nearly 9-minute drive capped by a Jimmy Graham 7-yard touchdown grab. Pretty impressive start for Seattle, and the game remained close (12-10) when Seattle pinned Atlanta at their 1-yard line with under four minutes left in the first half.
99 yards, no problem for this Falcons offense. Ryan led a 9-play drive, all passes, finished by running back Tevin Coleman for a 14-yard touchdown catch with 53 seconds left in the half. Coleman found some open space in the middle of the end zone but needed to make a fairly acrobatic catch to stay in bounds for the score. Coleman and backfield mate Devonta Freeman combined for 204 all-purpose yards as Atlanta pulled away in the second half. Green Bay’s banged up secondary is going to have its hands full.
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