ATLANTA — The city of Atlanta has an identity complex. It long has. It thinks it’s big time. Its push in cultural and economic growth makes Atlanta a jewel, natives insist.
But cities with broader shoulders like New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco shrug and wink, like a gentle pat on a pet’s head.
Atlanta keeps clawing, living a prideful southern style. Like its pro football team, the often run-of-the-mill Falcons, it wants acceptance. It wants status. Recognition. Salutation.
The Falcons in recent years have won enough games to get a shrug and wink, like a gentle pat on a pet’s head. Their owner, Arthur Blank, has been around long enough that NFL peers will listen but not nearly in the manner or frequency or import they do with the Joneses or the Krafts or the Rooneys. There is an unspoken, unmatched cache for cities, for NFL teams, that rises from winning.
It comes from reaching Super Bowls.
It comes from winning them.
Well, the Falcons just rose up, grabbed the mic, lit the league, torched the Green Bay Packers 44-21 in the NFC Championship on Sunday in their last Georgia Dome game. The Falcons just blew up the Packers and soon will blow up the dome and move next door to a riveting, sparkling, artistic stadium. A franchise that has never won a Super Bowl — it has only been in one and that was nearly 20 years ago — is shining like a jewel. People here worried it could all go bust again like so many Atlanta sports teams have in big moments. But the Falcons showed they were not in it for a shrug, a wink, a gentle pat.
They can worry soon enough about beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51 on Feb. 5 in Houston.
For now, for this moment, this feels good for Atlanta. This feels good for the Falcons. For at least a few days, complex lifted. Status achieved.
Atlanta and its Falcons taste the big time.
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"Atlanta has its own feel, its own vibe, and we claim it," Atlanta cornerback Jalen Collins said. "You could feel the juice from our fans. This was different. You’re playing to get to the Super Bowl. You could feel the juice on our defense. You can’t win these kinds of games without defense."
Nor deny the city’s or the Falcons’ hunger for greatness.
"Atlanta is Atlanta," Collins said. "The Falcons have their place in this city. The league knows now. We just spoke to them with this game. We know how it works; you win, people take a different look at you. You win, you get acceptance, you get respect. I won’t lie. That feels good."
Collins had his hands all in it in one of two signature plays (the other by receiver Julio Jones) that showcased how the Falcons fly and the inspiration they generate.
Atlanta led 10-0 early in the second quarter. Green Bay had driven from its 25 to the Atlanta 23. Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski made a bruising run for 12 yards until he ran into a pile of Flacons, linebacker Deion Jones and Collins among them. Collins violently stripped the ball from Ripkowski. Atlanta recovered it in its end zone.
Atlanta took it, drove 80 yards, and scored; it was 17-0 and the Packers were snapped.
"It hurt the momentum of the game," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the fumble.
Then midway through the third quarter, Julio Jones killed any lasting Packers momentum.
Atlanta led 31-0 before Green Bay finally scored with 9:23 left in the third quarter. It was a nice Packers touchdown drive. Was Rodgers ready to reload in the final quarter and a half?
A few plays later, though, on first down from the Atlanta 35, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a high pass over the middle. Jones leaped high to snare it. He was hit, sandwiched and folded by two Packers. He held on, twisted, crumpled. A 23-yard gain. The Falcons would score to boost it to a 37-7 lead.
It was the heart and hustle, the talent and desire of Jones on that play that told the story of these Falcons.
"Well, Matt (Ryan) told me before the play that the coverage would be tight and I just had to go get that one," Jones said. "I didn’t mind. I just was focused on playing my best."
With an injured toe, Jones caught a toe-dragging touchdown pass in the end zone only three seconds before halftime that made it 24-0. He scored on a 73-yard pass in the third quarter. He finished with nine catches for 180 yards.
"He’s a beast," Ryan said. "I mean, he’s an absolute stud."
The Packers saw Jones blazing. They saw the Falcons rising. The Packers basically watched it all. They said they ran out of gas.
"We put ourselves in a hole early, and it’s hard to overcome those points," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "We’re not afraid to back away from our expectations, and that’s ultimately getting back to the Super Bowl and winning one, and we were so close, but so far."
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Atlanta ambushed them.
Soaring to a 31-0 lead changed everything about Green Bay’s game plan. It drained their hope, their stamina. It was in the spirit of what Green Bay had done to Dallas in the playoffs the week before, leaping to a 21-3 lead. Atlanta flipped it.
Atlanta hoodwinked them.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan orchestrated a varied, punctuating offensive menu. The Falcons performed it with precision.
Ryan made his MVP case.
The crowd chanted for Ryan throughout much of the game to be the league’s MVP. It has been a battle cry here for most of the season. Ryan threw four touchdown passes. He ran for a touchdown. He was on his game and on top of the Packers defense for four full quarters.
The Atlanta defense surprised.
It created two turnovers. It corralled Rodgers. It brought constant pressure up front and the secondary matched it with aggressive play. Limiting a Green Bay offense to zero points through the game’s first 36 minutes was a spellbinding accomplishment.
The Packers were gracious in defeat.
The Falcons were clear in victory.
"Our ultimate goal is still in front of us," Ryan said.
It must come against a franchise playing in its seventh Super Bowl since the Atlanta Falcons last appeared in one.
A franchise with broad shoulders. It is doubtful New England will approach the Falcons with a shrug, wink, and gentle pat.
The Patriots provide all of the cache the Atlanta Falcons could possibly seek in claiming more status, more salutation, more big time. The city, the Falcons crave the trophy and the rings, but that’s an extra slice that brings a certain joy, peace, and pride.