Edd Hodsdon recounts how the Atlanta Falcons reached their second Super Bowl berth
Two years ago, Atlanta fired head coach Mike Smith and replaced him with former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. The hope was that Quinn could turn one of the league's worst defenses around and create a dynamic young team. Quinn brought in Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator. The man who had turned a Cleveland unit into a respectable team would now work with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Two years later, Quinn and Shanahan have delivered, leading the Falcons to their second Super Bowl berth in franchise history.
In 2015, the Falcons started 5-0 before imploding, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs for the third straight year. A promising start, but Quinn knew they could do better. So earlier this year Quinn spent his top two draft picks on defense, while Shanahan and Matt Ryan continued to work on their system. Big free agent signings like center Alex Mack and receiver Mohammad Sanu brought experience and talent.
This season, the Falcons opened with a 31-24 loss against Tampa Bay, but won their next four games. They beat preseason darlings Oakland, reigning NFC champions Carolina and defending Super Bowl champions Denver before dropping their next two games against Seattle and San Diego by a combined total of five points. But the Falcons rebounded to win nine of their final 11 games. Atlanta finished with an 11-5 record, winning their fourth NFC South title and capturing the NFC's second seed with home-field advantage and a first round bye for the playoffs.
Atlanta's offense was the highest scoring unit in the league, averaging 33.8 points per game and being led by MVP favourite Matt Ryan, who enjoyed the best year of his career while star receiver Julio Jones narrowly missed out on a second consecutive receiving title. Quinn's defense played fast and hard, with second year stud Vic Beasley leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. With a high-powered offense with a multitude of weapons leading the way, Atlanta soared into the playoffs.
In the NFC Divisional round, Atlanta faced the Seattle Seahawks, Quinn's former team. With the league's best offense taking on the legendary Legion of Boom, the Georgia Dome was set for an epic clash. But the Falcons dominated, exploiting the absence of Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and a weak Seattle offensive line. Ryan's passer rating against the Legion of Boom? 125.7. Atlanta's defense intercepted Russell Wilson twice and sacked him three times in a 36-20 win, sending the Falcons to their first NFC title game since 2012.
Atlanta's opponent for a place in the Super Bowl would be the red-hot Green Bay Packers, who rode an eight game winning streak into the Georgia Dome. But Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ran out of miracles as Atlanta dominated the game. Julio Jones had an unbelievable 180 yards and two touchdowns from nine catches. Quinn's defense smothered the Packers, who didn't score until the third quarter when Atlanta had a 31-0 lead. After a 44-21 win, the Falcons were headed to the Super Bowl, sending the Georgia Dome off in style.
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