With Falcons' win in Detroit, NFC road set to head through Atlanta again
And now we wait ...
The Atlanta Falcons downed the mistake-prone Lions on Saturday night, 31-18, clinching the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed in the process. So, for the second time in three years, the conference playoffs will set up to roll through Atlanta.
Two years ago, that road detoured dramatically, as the Falcons were blown out of their own building by a Packers team that went on to win the Super Bowl. The Falcons are banking on this experience being a lot different.
"It's huge," Falcons QB Matt Ryan told ESPN of securing the NFC's top spot. "We wanted to make the playoffs and then try to play our games at home. To accomplish that is perfect."
Atlanta's important victory somewhat overshadowed an historic night from Detroit's Calvin Johnson. The magnificent sixth-year receiver made 11 catches for 225 yards -- which raised his season total to 1,892 receiving yards, 48 more than Jerry Rice put up in 1995.
"With the loss, it's tough," Johnson said. "At the same time, it's an accomplishment that took a lot of work, so you can't take anything away."
The Lions still fell to 4-11 despite Johnson's efforts, clearly overmatched for much of the night by a now 13-2 Atlanta squad.
While Johnson thrilled the frustrated home fans, this was a night for Ryan to show off a bit himself in front of a national-TV audience. Ryan completed his first 12 passes (and 22 in a row, dating back to Week 15) en route to four touchdowns, a 78.1 completion percentage and dazzling 142.6 QB rating.
Perhaps his best play of the night came after Detroit had run off 13 unanswered points to whittle a 21-3 Atlanta lead down to five. With the crowd roaring and the Falcons facing a 3rd-and-4, Ryan stood in the pocket against heavy pressure and delivered a perfect throw past three defenders to Roddy White for 15 yards.
White had 153 yards of his own in the game -- 72 less than Johnson, but the win was way more important for Atlanta than any individual numbers.
Ryan and White made clear almost from the get-go that Detroit had no answers for Atlanta's passing game. That pair hooked up for a 44-yard touchdown pass on the Falcons' second drive, as Ryan went right after Chris Houston, Detroit's No. 1 corner, in man-coverage.
White found the end zone again early in the second quarter, thanks to some helmet-rattling blocking by the Falcons on a screen pass.
Julio Jones added a touchdown reception of his own before halftime to help the Falcons carry a 21-6 lead into the break. Detroit claimed the first 10 points of the second half, but Atlanta responded with a put-away drive.
Ryan capped that march off by faking a handoff inside, looking right, then throwing back left to little-used tight end Michael Palmer for a score. Asante Samuel intercepted Matthew Stafford's next pass to seal the result.
"They came out and pressured us in the third quarter," Ryan said, "but we stepped up in the fourth quarter."
Since a Week 14 setback in Carolina, Ryan has been brilliant. He torched the Giants for 270 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-0 rout last week, then came back Saturday and picked apart a depleted Detroit secondary.
And despite all the talent around him on both sides of the ball, the Falcons' playoff story will be one centered around Ryan, fairly or unfairly. His numbers over the past three regular seasons put him among the league's best and most consistent quarterbacks.
His, and the team's, steady playoff failures will hover over the Georgia Dome like a storm cloud, though -- at least until Ryan, currently 0-3 in playoff games, proves he can get the job done on the NFL's biggest stage.
There are reasons to believe this playoff season will be different for the Falcons, from Ryan's maturation to his loaded stable of weapons to the defense's improvement under Mike Nolan.
All of those facets were on display Saturday, as Atlanta became the first NFC team to lock itself into a playoff seed.
"We kind of started slow and didn't play the type of football that we'd like to in the third quarter," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I think it really says a lot about what our football team is about -- we were able to battle back in all three phases and get the result that we wanted."
Atlanta will not actually take the field for its first postseason game this season until at least Jan. 12, a full 20 days from now. The extended break (counting a relatively meaningless Week 17 game against Tampa Bay) presents a massive obstacle.
It's too early still to think about possible opponents -- any team still in the NFC playoff race is on the table, save for current No. 2 San Francisco.
Maybe a rematch looms with the Giants, who bounced the Falcons by 22 in last year's playoffs. There's also a very slim chance that the Packers could head back to Atlanta.