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Falcons' young defense evolving into championship-caliber unit

ATLANTA -- It was supposed to be Atlanta's fatal flaw, the reason why the Falcons weren't trustworthy enough to reach their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly two decades. Yes, they could generate points like no other team in the NFL, but their defense would definitely be their undoing. Now there's a different narrative building deep inside the Dirty South. It's one that revolves around the notion that this defense might suddenly be the reason to believe this team might just win it all.

There's no doubting that Atlanta's offense put a memorable hurt on the Green Bay Packers in a 44-21 NFC Championship Game win. What was more impressive was the way the Falcons' defense stifled a Green Bay offense that had been equally potent in the postseason. The Packers came into Sunday's contest having averaged 27 points in the regular season and 36 in the playoffs. They ultimately didn't score until roughly nine minutes remained in the third quarter, after spotting the Falcons 31 points.

The consensus before this game was that we could expect a wild shootout worthy of instant classic status. It quickly morphed into a critical defining moment for a Falcons team that has been building toward this kind of balance for a few weeks now.

"The difference, really, is us coming together," said cornerback Jalen Collins when asked about the maturation of the Atlanta defense. "I'm talking about communicating together during the week, after practice, while watching film, everything. We know if we stay on each other -- and everybody does their job -- how can we lose?"

The Falcons find themselves hurtling toward a Super Bowl LI matchup against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5 with a different type of aura about them. They easily handled the Packers (a team that had been riding an eight-game winning streak) and they didn't have much trouble defeating Seattle in the Divisional Round (another team that usually saves its best football for this time of year). Throw in the fact that the Dallas Cowboys had been the league's sexiest story all season, and you can see where this is going. Hardly anybody was talking about what the Falcons might do when this postseason ensued.

Some of that had to do with the 2-4 playoff record that Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan had built over his career. More of it had to do with a defense that finished this season ranked 27th in scoring (25.4 points allowed per game) and 25th in total yards (371.2 yards per game). It was impossible to take the Falcons seriously with a defense producing numbers so abysmal. The reality is that Atlanta had been improving on that side for most of the second half of the season, without many people really buying into their overall progress.

This defense has a better chance of avoiding the big plays and long drives that caused them problems in the past. The Falcons won five of their last six regular-season games following their bye week on Nov. 20, all while allowing only 18.8 points per game in those victories. They also watched second-year defensive end Vic Beasley emerge into a dominant pass rusher who led the league with 15.5 sacks. While the Falcons' potent offense was making headlines, that defense -- which consists of seven starters with two years or less of professional experience -- was growing up.

That unit generated two turnovers, two sacks and plenty of frustration for Green Bay on Sunday.

"Some people said this defense is too young and we're going to make a lot of mistakes," said 15-year veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney. "But I could look at the other side of it. These guys are young, they have energy and they can run. If we could get them on the right page and understanding what they need to do fast, we could be dangerous."

The Packers realized that once they were trailing 31-0 early in the third quarter. The Falcons stopped Green Bay on its first scoring drive of the game, one that ended with an errant 41-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby. Collins also forced and recovered a fumble by Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski after Ripkowski had rumbled to the Atlanta 12-yard line with 10:59 left in the second quarter. Those two series alone set an important tone: Green Bay wasn't going to keep pace with Atlanta's offensive onslaught with such critical errors.

The same Packers team that made scoring look so easy in the first two rounds of the postseason labored for everything it ultimately produced against Atlanta. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers also endured more punishment than he'd faced in weeks. The Packers may have finished with 367 total yards, but Rodgers faced heavy pressure after Green Bay fell behind by such a substantial deficit. The Packers' defense also had no answer for Atlanta's offense, which finished with 493 total yards.

This ultimately was the first tangible evidence of how far the Falcons had come under the leadership of head coach Dan Quinn. He knew Atlanta had plenty of firepower on offense when he took the job last year. What he wanted was more unity in the locker room and more tenacity on defense. After making his name as a defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, Quinn envisioned a Falcons team that could wreak similar havoc on that side of the football.

The Falcons didn't have enough maturity and mental toughness to make that happen in 2015, when they started 5-0 and finished 8-8. This time around, Atlanta was able to sustain the momentum of a fast start (it opened this year 5-1) and turn it into an NFC South title (with an 11-5 record).

Said Quinn of his defense: "The more that you play together, and you gain experience together, the faster you can play. We're playing faster now than we did earlier in the season. Our speed hasn't changed in terms of lowering our 40 times, but because of our communication, because of our style and attitude that we're able to play with, we're able to play faster."

Atlanta now finds itself in a situation that was hard to predict when this season began. In the Patriots, the Falcons face a challenge similar to the one they faced Sunday. Once again, they'll be dealing with an elite quarterback capable of making amazing plays. They'll also be hurting on the experience side, as only a handful of players on the Falcons' roster (including backups like Freeney, defensive tackle Courtney Upshaw and safety Dashon Goldson) have ever appeared in a Super Bowl.

The Falcons understand that might create more doubts about their chances. They also accept that such issues really don't matter once that special night arrives in Houston on Feb. 5. This was a team that once needed its offense to determine how far it could climb. As they prepare for their second Super Bowl ever, they now have enough defense to help get them where they ultimately hope to go.

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