The Atlanta Falcons are back in the Super Bowl and have a legit chance at walking away with the Lombardi Trophy this year.
That may come as a surprise to even the staunchest supporters of the franchise, but there's no need to frown. Even Vegas didn't see this one coming, as odds-makers gave them an 80/1 chance to get here when the season initially kicked off.
According to Westgate Super Book, only the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles had worse chances of making it during preseason. But weren't folks aware that the Falcons presented somewhat of a threat to make a run, considering that they had Matty ice at quarterback and wide receiver nonpareil Julio Jones on the edges? One could at least expect the Falcons to put up points with regularity.
However, the pass rush was a concern, and there were many who wondered if veteran DE Dwight Freeney may not have much left in the tank after arriving in Atlanta during the offseason.
Even after fighting their way to an admirable 11-5 regular season record, the defense still looked less than stellar on paper, and that's putting it mildly. The Falcons allowed opposing offenses to put up an average of 25.4 points per game on them during the regular season. Luckily, their explosive offense was able to compensate by leading the league in scoring with 33.8 points per game.
That was all good for the regular season.
But when you look at Super Bowl-winning defenses of the past and compare them to Atlanta, the upstart Falcons don't stack up to teams like the 1970 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 1985 Bears or 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
But the Falcons don't need to be any of those teams to beat the New England Patriots. They simply have to be themselves and stick to the game plan. The Falcons routed the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, both perennial contenders that present totally different problems. Despite the secondary of Seattle and the heroics of quarterback Russell Wilson, Atlanta stomped them 36-20.
Even Aaron Rodgers couldn't stand the pain, due in large part to leading a team decimated by injury. With Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck on the opposite sideline at NRG Stadium in Houston, head coach Dan Quinn and Defensive Coordinator Richard Smith will have their work cut out for them.
As most football fans can attest, the only relatively reliable game plan against Brady is to hit him early and often, along with employing an aggressive man-to-man scheme in pass coverage. It's a great sight for opposing defenders to see Brady writhing on the ground in pain or cursing out a befuddled offensive tackle.
Pro Bowl edge rusher Vic Beasley will be an integral part of that game plan after having a less than stellar playoffs thus far, as will corner Jalen Collins in coverage. Safety Keanu Neal is a rookie as well as linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, a fact that Tom Brady might be licking his chops at. All five of these players, plus unearthed gem Brian Poole (a rookie free-agent corner) will start in the base nickel in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
Not for nothing, but Brady and the Patriots will be Atlanta's third straight Super Bowl winning opponent this season.
The Falcons were able to get to Wilson three times during their win with Jonathan Babineaux, Brooks Reed and Ben Garland each recording a sack. The defense also picked off Wilson twice. Aaron Rodgers fared better statistically, but still got sacked twice, once by Ra'Shede Hageman and Tyson Jackson respectively. And they forced that Packers fumble in the first quarter that was really the beginning of the end as Atlanta led 10-0 at the time.
The Falcons defense is giving up five fewer points and over 30 fewer yards per game during these playoffs. They say offense sells tickets but defense wins championships, and nothing says "upset" like smacking Tom Brady around.
But Atlanta's zone defense, which starts five rookies, will have to play the game of their lives to make it happen. After all, the Patriots revel in shredding zones.