- Around the NFL, other NFC contenders struggled—the Seahawks were on upset watch against the 49ers, the Cowboys lost by 25 points to the Broncos and the Panthers didn't score an offensive TD in a close win over the Bills. All of this is to say—it's the Falcons’ conference.
It was early August, training camp was in full swing, and the Falcons had just finished another practice in the muggy Georgia heat. The players started filing off the field and into the team facility—except for two of them. On the far end of the practice field, Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett were still going. They had eight practice dummies set up, and the pair was weaving their way between them, clubbing the dummies as they went, dipping their shoulders and swinging their hips. They went on like this for 15 minutes, two of the best young pass rushers in football, staying after practice, fine-tuning their technique on their own time.
Going through the dummies, surely Beasley was imagining games like the one he played in Sunday, Atlanta’s home opener in primetime against Green Bay, in a re-match of last season’s NFC Championship Game. Early in the third quarter, Beasley came around the right edge cleanly and running free. Staring down Dontari Poe coming at him head on, Aaron Rodgers turned to his right just as Beasley drilled him in the chest. As Rodgers went down, he managed to get rid of the ball, but it went sideways, was scooped up by Desmond Trufant and returned for a Falcons’ touchdown. As the officials reviewed the play (and decided to uphold the call), NBC kept replaying Rodger’s grimacing face as Beasley hit him.
The whole night went this way for the Falcons. It started with them opening their new billion-dollar stadium and ended with a proper christening, a 34–23 win over Rodgers and the Packers. The game was not as close as the final score would indicate—Atlanta led 34–10 at one point—but it sent a message to the rest of the NFL: that the Falcons are the clear-cut team-to-beat in the NFC. This, on a day when the other NFC contenders struggled, when the Seahawks nearly lost to the 49ers, the Cowboys lost by 25 points to the Broncos and the Panthers failed to score an offensive touchdown in a narrow win over the Bills.
It should be noted that Green Bay was not at full strength. They started the game without David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, their starting offensive tackles, and then during the game, they lost Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, two of Rodgers’ top receivers, and Mike Daniels, their best defensive lineman, to injuries, too.
Atlanta, to their credit, took advantage. Beasley and the Falcons’ front seven applied constant pressure on Rodgers and gave him few options in the passing game. On two of their first three possessions, Matt Ryan led the offense on two long scoring drives, of 86 and 87 yards, spreading the ball around to Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The offense, now led by Steve Sarkisian, looked just as balanced and effective as they were last year, when they averaged 34 points a game. Freeman ran for 84 yards and two touchdowns, Coleman caught a touchdown, and Sanu and Jones combined to catch 10 passes for 193 yards.
The bigger revelation Sunday, though, was the play of the young Atlanta defense. After Rodgers marched the Packers 75 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive, the next four Green Bay possessions resulted in three punts, one interception and one first down. The Falcons looked as good as they did toward the end of last year, playing fast and loose. The difference this year is that they added Dontari Poe to the defensive line and speedy rookie Duke Riley to the linebacker corps, and they got Trufant back from injury. On Sunday, Trufant made a diving interception on Rodgers and returned that lateraled pass for a touchdown.
Rodgers’ final stat line looked inflated—343 yards, two touchdowns and that one pick—with much of it coming in garbage time. To his credit, Rodgers pulled the Packers to within 11 points with under six minutes to play. “Now it starts to get a little interesting,” Chris Collinsworth said on the NBC broadcast. Certainly Falcons fans everywhere had flashbacks to last season’s Super Bowl and the blown 25-point lead.
But Atlanta remained composed and drove 35 yards in nine plays, milking nearly five minutes of the clock and forcing Green Bay to use all three of its timeouts. The drive ended with a punt, but the Falcons had done their job. The game ended without any drama.
“It was a good win. I mean, all-around our team played well,” Matt Ryan said afterward during an on-field interview with Michelle Tafoya, which was notable in how understated he sounded, how expected this win was. Maybe this win will give the Falcons’ confidence going forward, that they can finish games. Maybe a win like this helps them forget the sting of the Super Bowl, even if only a little bit.