ATLANTA (AP) After a week of big projections about the high-scoring offenses in the NFC championship game, the big surprise came from Atlanta's defense.
The Falcons shut out Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the first half of their 44-21 win Sunday. Atlanta earned its second trip to the Super Bowl by muffling one of the league's most respected offenses.
The Falcons (13-5) led 31-0 before giving up their first points in the third quarter.
For 36-year-old defensive end Dwight Freeney, the win provided evidence that Atlanta's young defense has matured. The Falcons started four rookies and four second-year players on defense.
''It's funny because some people say the defense is too young,'' Freeney said. ''They're going to make a lot of mistakes. I can look at it from the other side. Those guys are young and have energy and can run. You get them going on the right page and understanding the things they need to understand fast, we can be dangerous.''
One of the rookies, linebacker Deion Jones, put pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers on a third-down incompletion to set up a missed 41-yard field goal by Mason Crosby on Green Bay's first possession.
Second-year cornerback Jalen Collins stripped the ball from fullback Aaron Ripkowski at the Atlanta 11 on the Packers' second drive. Collins recovered to set up a Falcons touchdown drive for a 17-0 lead.
The stop which forced the missed field goal, followed by the forced fumble, ended all expectations that this would be a steady exchange of scoring drives.
''We've come a long way, a long way,'' said Collins, who started after Desmond Trufant's season-ending shoulder injury in November. ''People went down and people stepped up.''
The Falcons' young defense struggled early in the season even as second-year linebacker Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15 + sacks. With so much focus on the offense, few noticed when the unit held four of the last six regular-season opponents under 20 points.
''We went through issues and problems early in the year,'' Freeney said. ''It was expected when you have three or four guys that have never played in the NFL before. We had to catch these boys up and the offense was rolling while these guys were catching up and understanding what they need to do.''
Added Freeney: ''Now those boys are playing.''
Rodgers took notice.
''That's a good defense,'' Rodgers said. ''They play a simple scheme and they run it really well. They rely on their pass rush and they drop lanes. They did a good job.''
Rodgers said the missed field goal and turnover on the Packers' first two drives ''hurt the momentum of the game.''
''Playing a team like that, you've got to start faster,'' Rodgers said. ''We had no points in the first half. You're not going to win many games like that.''
Rookie nickel back Brian Poole led Atlanta with seven tackles and two quarterback hurries. Jones and rookie safety Keanu Neal each had six tackles. Ra'Shede Hageman and Tyson Jackson had sacks.
Poole, Jones, Neal and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell were the rookie starters on defense. Beasley, Allen, Collins and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett are second-year players.
''I knew we had the players,'' Beasley said. ''We had the talent on the team. We just had to get it together and get it clicking. The offense has played tremendous all season and now the defense has come along as well.''
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