No need to implode the Georgia Dome. The Atlanta Falcons pretty much blew the lid off the soon-to-be-mothballed venue Sunday, demolishing the Green Bay Packers, 44-21, in an NFC championship game that turned out to be a three-hour, towel-swirling party.
The signature play came in the third quarter, when Matt Ryan hit Julio Jones slanting left to right over the middle, and the star receiver shook off two would-be Green Bay tacklers and dashed down the sideline for a 73-yard touchdown, flipping the ball forward with a nonchalant finger roll as he crossed the goal line.
It was if the Falcons knew they’d be here all along, back in the Super Bowl, where they hadn’t been since their lone trip at the end of the 1998 season. They lost that game to Denver, 34-19, in what proved to be the final game for legendary Broncos quarterback John Elway.
This time, the Falcons will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston. New England beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17, in the AFC title game.
“We’ll enjoy it,” Ryan said of the Falcons’ victory Sunday. “But our ultimate goal is still in front of us.”
With the victory, Ryan improved to 3-4 in postseason games, but this was his first playoff win against a team other than Seattle. It also represented a two-game season sweep of the Packers, who lost here in Week 8, 33-32.
On Sunday, Ryan completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns, finishing with a lofty passer rating of 139.4. It was his sixth consecutive game without an interception.
“We played a hot team, you’ve got to give them credit,” Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Matt is playing incredible right now, and that’s a very good offense.”
When Ryan wasn’t using his right arm, he relied on his legs, running three times for 23 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown.
“It’s deflating for [the Green Bay defense] because they played great coverage, then all of a sudden Matt’s running out there, scrambling for yards,” Atlanta defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “It’s not fair. I don’t think they prepared for someone like him to do that.”
Meanwhile, the Packers saw an abrupt end to their storybook surge, in which they followed a 4-6 start by winning eight games in a row behind the spectacular play of Rodgers.
A week earlier, Rodgers had directed his team to a stirring victory at Dallas, needing just 35 seconds to drive from the Green Bay 25 to deep enough in Cowboys country for teammate Mason Crosby to clinch the 34-31 win with a 51-yard field goal as time expired.
That was dramatic. Sunday’s game had the feel of a lopsided scrimmage, with the red-clad crowd variously chanting “A-T-L” and “M-V-P” (for Ryan), and occasionally “JU-LI-O.”
Despite the sure-handed Jordy Nelson’s return from the rib injury that had sidelined him, Rodgers and the Packers never got on track. Even Crosby pushed a 41-yard attempt wide right, after making 23 consecutive field goals in the postseason, an NFL record.
Nothing was going right for Green Bay. While the Falcons made catches as if they had Velcro-lined gloves, the Packers saw pass after pass ricochet off the hands of receivers. Midway through the first quarter, the game was slipping away from them, and the decibel count was rising.
Atlanta could not have scripted this better, with an unforgettable finale in the Falcons’ home of 25 years. The team will move into the transparent palace next door in the fall, the $1.5-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium that’s due to be completed for a soccer game in July. The place has the world’s largest video board, a halo that rings the upper inside of the building and roof whose petal-shaped pieces open like a camera aperture.
For the Falcons, Sunday’s farewell was filled with moments suitable for framing:
- On the opening drive, Ryan improvised and dished a shovel pass to Mohamed Sanu for a two-yard touchdown. The pass wasn’t on target — one of the few misfires by Ryan — so Sanu had to reach back with one hand and make an acrobatic grab.
“I saw an opening and Matt saw it, too, and he was able to flick it to me,” Sanu said. “I did everything I could to make sure I reached it.”
- Early in the second quarter, Ryan dropped back from the Green Bay 14, gave the field a quick scan, froze the defense with a pump fake, then tucked the ball and ran, diving headfirst for the touchdown.
“It was the longest run I’ve had in a while,” Ryan said with a chuckle, adding that most of the contact he got on that play was the back-slaps from teammates. “I was getting hits all over the place.”
- Ryan found Jones in the front corner of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown on which the receiver fully extended his body for the ball, deftly tapping his feet in bounds at the sideline.
That the Falcons were able to pick apart Green Bay’s defense was not a shock. The Packers came into the game banged up, and they finished the regular season with the NFL’s second-worst pass defense. Still, the title game figured to be a shootout with the winner being the team that had the ball last.
One of those two teams showed up. The other is left to ponder what might have been.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer