Poised Matt Ryan seizes moment, lifts Falcons to Super Bowl LI

ATLANTA -- If you were a Green Bay Packers fan, and you'd just watched a nightmarish first 28 minutes of Sunday's NFC Championship Game play out at the crunk and soon-to-be-defunct Georgia Dome, you were still clinging to a reasonable shred of hope. With the Packers set to get the ball first in the second half and a magical quarterback standing on the sideline undoubtedly plotting an epic comeback, a 17-0 deficit with 1:50 left before intermission hardly seemed insurmountable.

Unfortunately for Aaron Rodgers and Cheeseheads everywhere, Matt Ryan knew the score.

Four years ago in the same stadium, Ryan's Atlanta Falcons held a 17-0 second-quarter lead over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, only to suffer a heartbreaking 28-24 defeat. In the three seasons that followed, the Falcons failed to reach the postseason, and Ryan was habitually marginalized as a not-quite-elite quarterback who lacked the ability to elevate his team.

This time, after a stellar season that put him right there alongside Rodgers as a bona-fide MVP candidate, and a peak performance in last Saturday's Divisional Round playoff rout of the Seattle Seahawks, Ryan wasn't about to settle.

It was time to Rise Up, and the proud Packers remained grounded and grasping for answers.

"The touchdown we got before the half was huge," Ryan told me after enjoying a confetti-strewn celebration following the Falcons' 44-21 victory, which propelled them into a Super Bowl LI showdown with the New England Patriots on Feb. 5 in Houston. "We could have [played it safe] at the end there, but that's not Dan Quinn, and that's not us. We were going for it all the way."

With Quinn, the Falcons' second-year coach, hell-bent on putting the Packers in a bigger hole -- and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the presumptive head coach of the 49ers once the Super Bowl is complete, dialing up brash and brilliant play calls -- Ryan liked his chances.

Then Matty Ice went out and essentially iced the game, driving the Falcons 68 yards on nine plays, culminating in an exquisite 5-yard touchdown pass to star receiver Julio Jones in the right corner of the end zone with three seconds remaining.

When, on the Falcons' first possession of the second half, Ryan and Jones hooked up on a 73-yard catch-and-run to the end zone that pushed the Atlanta lead to 31-0, it was all over but the crying (or, in this case, the surreal victory-podium dancing by Atlanta owner Arthur Blank). And 71,127 fans will remember the final game at the Georgia Dome as the sweetest of all.

If you didn't see a blowout of this magnitude coming -- well, you weren't alone. Given the way the regular-season meeting between the second-seeded Falcons and fourth-seeded Packers played out (a dramatic 33-32 Falcons victory at the Dome on Oct. 30) -- and in the wake of Green Bay's heart-stopping upset of the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys last Sunday -- this seemed like a potential classic.

To the Falcons, however, there was nothing stunning about the lack of suspense.

"I think it felt real normal," said Ryan, who completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns -- and, improbably, ran for a 14-yard score that gave Atlanta its 17-0 lead. "We played the way we're capable of playing, and it's always nice to do that in this game.

Jones, who fought through a painful toe injury to catch nine passes for 180 yards and two TDs, said he wasn't surprised by the onslaught of points: "Today we were up, and I just knew we were gonna keep scoring. That's the mentality we have. When we get after it, no one can stop us but us."

The Packers, who had run off eight consecutive victories to turn a seemingly lost season into a potentially Super one, looked like a tired team. After a week plagued by injury concerns (all three of the Packers' banged-up wideouts, including star receiver Jordy Nelson, managed to play against the Falcons) and a flu bug that affected Rodgers and some of his teammates, Green Bay came into Sunday's game lacking spunk.

"We ran into a buzz saw," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said -- and there's little question that Quinn was the driving force behind the assault.

Was Quinn surprised by the outcome?

"Hell no!" he said. "I knew that we're tough as f---, I'll tell you that."

And he knew his quarterback was ready for the moment, something Quinn, as he mingled with friends and family members in the players' parking lot long after the game, traced back to the offseason.

"He's a guy, honestly, who reached out and seized it," Quinn said. "If you could have seen the intent -- I mean, he went into the offseason on a mission. For most people, it's like a New Year's resolution ... you train for awhile and then you revert back. But he did it every day, and then he carried that into the season, and he hasn't backed off since."

And on Sunday, when he could have settled for a 17-0 or 20-0 lead at halftime, Ryan instead backed Rodgers and the Packers into a corner from which they could not extricate themselves

"He's a machine, and he's had experiences where he's been heartbroken in the past -- and because of those experiences, he won't let himself drop that edge," Falcons third-string quarterback Matt Simms said. "Some of your heartbreaks turn out to make you stronger in the end. Aaron Rodgers is a great player, but Matt's had to show more resiliency, and he's carried this franchise for a long time.

"In 2010, Aaron was unstoppable. Well, Matt's unstoppable right now. Every year there's one quarterback who's hot, and you know he's gonna to the Super Bowl. This year, it's our guy.

And if Rodgers and the Packers, who on Saturday had to take a bus to Milwaukee to catch their flight to Atlanta because of heavy fog in Green Bay, "ran out of gas," as one assistant coach put it -- well, they were contending with a hot and fully rested foe in Matty Ice.

"I slept like a baby (Saturday night)," Ryan said. "Best sleep night of the week -- I got about 10 hours. That's the number one thing for a strong performance. Gotta get your rest.

On Sunday, Ryan went out and put Rodgers and the Packers' season to rest and earned himself a Super Sunday showdown with one of the greatest quarterbacks in history.

The Falcons, whose only history in the ultimate game consists of a Super Bowl XXXIII thrashing at the hands of the Denver Broncos, will have to overcome the best team of the 21st century to earn their first championship.

It won't be easy -- but rest assured, their quarterback knows the score.

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