By Jack Weatherby
The Atlanta Falcons exceeded all expectations this season, ending the year 11-5 with the most difficult schedule in the NFL. Much of their success can be attributed to a high-powered offense that has been slicing up defenses with ease, new defensive standouts such as Vic Beasley and Keanu Neal and the team chemistry created by second year coach Dan Quinn.
It surprised many that the Falcons had the best offense in the NFL this year. They led the league in scoring, averaging 33.8 points per game. They were second in total yards per game, averaging 415.8 yards and third in passing yards per game, averaging 295.3 yards.
The whole NFL, as well as local fans, have been caught off guard by the flaming-hot Falcons after last season when the team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. An important difference between this year’s Falcons and last year’s Falcons was their divisional record. They went 5-1 in divisional play this season after being 1-5 in their division last year.
This high-octane offense was led by quarterback Matt Ryan, frontrunner for the league MVP award. He has had the best year of his career, throwing to an NFL record of 13 different receivers for touchdowns, and having the highest passer rating in the league, 117.1. They also crushed their previous regular season record of 442 points by nearly 100 points, ending the season at 540 points.
On the other side of the ball, second year outside linebacker Vic Beasley has had a breakout season. He led the league this year in sacks with 15.5. He also had six forced fumbles and 11 tackles for loss, earning him his first pro-bowl appearance . Rookie safety Keanu Neal has been a great asset to the defense as well. He was drafted to fill a physical safety type of role in Dan Quinn’s defense. He has done just that, adding 72 solo tackles and five forced fumbles this past season.
After having a bye-week for the first round of the playoffs, the Falcons faced the Seattle Seahawks at home for their first playoff game in two years. Many speculated on whether or not Atlanta would be able to handle the pressure of a playoff game, but their doubts were soon silenced. Atlanta went on to dominate the Seahawks 36-20, With Ryan carving the best remaining defense in the playoffs to pieces. He was nearly flawless, throwing for over 300 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs while finding eight different receivers during the game. He regularly navigated muddy pockets to buy time for big plays and was a key reason the Falcons dominated this game. They were able to put up 36 points on a defense that did not give up a single touchdown in their wildcard game against the Lions.
The Falcons then faced the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship at the Georgia Dome, where they had the chance to make it to their second Super Bowl ever. The Falcons seized this opportunity, beating the Packers 44-21.
MVP favorite Matt Ryan had another amazing game, throwing for 392 yards and three touchdowns, as well as one rushing touchdown. Star receiver Julio Jones had a great game as well, torching the Packers defense for 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Much credit is also due to the Falcons’ offensive line, as they allowed no sacks throughout the game.
The Falcons’ defense stepped up as well, forcing a fumble on Green Bay running back Aaron Ripkowski as well as intercepting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. They were also able to disrupt Green Bay’s offense by sacking Rodgers twice, and having 5.5 tackles for loss.
This is a fitting way for the Falcons’ tenure in the Georgia Dome to end. They will now go on to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at Houston. They have the opportunity to bring home the second major sports championship in Atlanta history, the last one being the World Series the Braves won in 1995. It has been a long time since the city of Atlanta was so excited about a sports team, and now that the Falcons are in the super bowl again, this city is buzzing with anticipation.