ATLANTA—The Falcons' largest superfan stood on the field at the Georgia Dome. Confetti stuck to his size-18 sneakers as Flo Rida’s “It’s Going Down For Real” blared from the stadium speakers. Dozens wanted pictures, and so Hawks center Dwight Howard threw up peace signs, showed off his best Blue Steel imitation and alternated between smiling and relaxing like a really tall mall Santa Claus the week before Christmas.
This was indeed a momentous occasion: It was the last NFL game in the Georgia Dome, with a trip to Super Bowl LI at stake, and not only did the Falcons thoroughly throttle the Packers, 44–21, but they also threw perhaps the best moving party in football history. Quarterback Matt Ryan finished with 392 passing yards and four touchdowns, wideout Julio Jones caught two scores and turned in one of the season’s best plays, and Atlanta’s defense shut out Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the first half.
The party continued all around Howard on the field. In between selfies, the 6'11" hoops star, who was wearing a black No. 11 jersey, tabbed Jones as the best receiver in the NFL. Fellow hoopster Dikembe Mutombo wagged his finger, and actor Samuel L. Jackson waved a towel. Jones’s mother—the one with “JULIO’S MOM” stitched across her No. 11 jersey—inched through the celebration toward her son. As she wrapped both arms around him, Howard told SI.com, “I told everybody the Falcons were going to the Super Bowl.” If that seems awfully convenient, Howard then doubled down, adding that he picked the Patriots as their opponent.
“They said I was crazy,” Howard insisted. “But look now.”
Look at the Falcons. Look at their MVP-caliber quarterback, their otherworldly top wideout, their renewed run game, their offensive options. It’s dizzying. It’s also not an accident that Atlanta scored 540 points this season—71 more than any other NFL team, 176 above the league average and tied for the seventh-most in one year in NFL history. Tied with the 2000 Rams, a team more commonly referred to as The Greatest Show on Turf.
Inside Atlanta’s cramped locker room, amid sauna-like temperatures, running back Devonte Freeman explained how the offensive dynamic worked on Sunday. He made it sound so simple. Green Bay, he said, wanted to stop the run. So the Falcons passed. And passed. And passed some more.
In the aftermath, some will note the flu that spread this week through the Green Bay locker room, infecting the Packers' quarterback and top receiver, or the fog that altered the Packers' travel plans on Saturday, delaying their arrival. Those are alternative facts. A million reasons will be given for the Falcons total, absolute, stunning demolition of the Packers, but only one is necessary. The Falcons are a damn good football team capable of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in two weeks.
Take Jones, a man who stands 6'4" and weighs 220 pounds and boasts muscles normally seen only in cartoons. The fact that he runs a 4.39 40-yard dash at that size is basically the football Gods flipping the middle finger at the basics principles of physics. For portions of Sunday’s contest, Jones single-handedly outgained the Packers’ prolific offense. His toe-tap touchdown with three seconds left in the first half extended the Falcons lead to 24–0—and that constituted something closer to a warm-up for the afternoon’s real highlight.
That happened in the third quarter, on the Falcons very next drive. Ryan again found Jones, who again turned up field and galloped up the right sideline like American Pharoah in the backstretch. Two Green Bay defenders tried to patty-cake Jones to the sideline, and he tossed them aside like small children. He didn’t stop until he reached the end zone, 73 yards down field, having effectively ended the Packers' season. At that point, Jones had amassed 144 receiving yards, or 17 more than Green Bay’s entire offense. No, that was not fake news.
All week, speculation centered on Jones’s left foot, his turf-toe injury and how effectively he would play. Jones said by Friday he was running full speed in practice and by pre-game Sunday the foot “didn’t bother me too much.” As Jones answered questions after the game, at least 25 reporters surrounded him at his locker, many wiping sweat from their brows or fanning themselves with notepads. Jones wore a black hoodie and a blue towel, dozens of camera lights trained on his face, but his forehead revealed not even a single drop of sweat.
It was tempting to describe this bludgeoning as simply an off day for the Packers. They missed a field goal (Mason Crosby, first quarter), fumbled near the goal-line (Aaron Ripkowski, second quarter) and failed to recover a fumble they fell on (Jake Ryan, also second quarter). But the result said more about Atlanta than it did about Green Bay, highlighting the Falcons' most versatile offense in years, their MVP quarterback and a young defense that has improved throughout the season.
Speaking of that defense, pass-rush specialist Dwight Freeney tried to explain to his teammates the significance of a night like this at his locker Sunday evening. Now in his 15th season, Freeney won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, after the 2006 season, and he had spent almost a decade since then trying to snag another ring. He thought he’d go back every subsequent season and did reach—and lose—another Super Bowl after the Colts’ ’09 campaign. But he has yet to win another one. Yet. “You get older, and you start to realize these opportunities don’t come around too often,” Freeney says. “I’m telling these guys: take a second; take it all in.”
They tried. Freeman pondered what it would be like to win state or national titles at the Pop Warner, high school, college and NFL levels. Having triumphed at every stage before this one, he’s now one victory from completing a rare football grand slam. “Not many people have done that,” he said.
Across the room, Mohamed Sanu cradled the NFC championship trophy like a newborn. “I might take it home,” he said to no one in particular, adding, “if they let me.” But he set the trophy on the chair next to him, and the Falcons' equipment guys picked it up and started snapping pictures.
The scene continued—almost 20 years after the Falcons last Super Bowl appearance, a lopsided defeat in XXXIII to the Broncos in January 1999. Fans spilled out of the Georgia Dome, for the last time in Falcons jerseys, and headed for the bars downtown. Players’ families pushed through a corridor in the bowels of the stadium, carrying roses, wiping away tears.
“The Falcons are for real,” Howard said, even though no one around him needed to be convinced. Atlanta stifled Rodgers and cemented Ryan’s MVP worthiness. Julio Jones looked like Julio Jones, which is to say he looked like no other receiver on earth. Team owner Arthur Blank held a news conference, flanked by two body guards, as he tried to explain the significance of what took place on Sunday. He came off remarkably subdued. A woman in the back of the room clad in—what else?—a Julio Jones jersey voiced the magnitude for him. “This is happening!” she said. “THIS! IS! HAPPENING!”
With that, the Falcons filed out into the night. Next stop: Houston for Super Bowl LI.
Dwight Howard called it. If you believe him, anyway.