After nine N.F.L. seasons and 149 regular-season and postseason games, Matt Ryan knew well what was being said of him. Yes, Ryan, 31, already ranked statistically among the elite quarterbacks in N.F.L. history. But there were other numbers, such as his losing record as a starter in the playoffs and a winless mark in conference championship games.
Likewise, his Atlanta Falcons teammates recognized how they were being typecast: frequent title contenders but never the champions, with only one Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Ryan and his Falcons quietly accepted their reputation. Until Sunday, that is, in the thunderous Georgia Dome, where Ryan and the Falcons shouted their arrival as one of the league’s best teams this season with a loud, dominating 44-21 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers in the N.F.C. championship game. The Falcons, who led by 24-0 at halftime, will charge into Super Bowl LI next month to face the New England Patriots, hoping to avenge their one previous Super Bowl appearance, a defeat after the 1998 season.
“We have been in this position before, and it’s so very hard to get to this point — it just came out better this time,” a smiling Ryan said Sunday evening. “It’s tough to string together enough wins to get to the Super Bowl, and there are a lot of things that have to go right.”
Ryan routinely deflects praise, and he did so again Sunday. But even he conceded that many things had gone right for the Falcons against the Packers, starting with a new confidence that Ryan seemed to bring to the field. The game featured a showdown between Ryan and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who is considered one of his generation’s greatest quarterbacks.
But Ryan was easily the best player on the field Sunday as Rodgers was harassed by a swarming Atlanta defense throughout the game.
“Experience counts; experience helps,” said Ryan, who threw for four touchdowns, ran for an additional score and passed for 392 yards.
But Ryan would only go so far in admitting that something significant had been accomplished.
“It feels great, but there’s unfinished business,” he said.
Those words were a common theme all around Ryan in the Falcons’ locker room, a dismissal of any notion that Sunday’s victory was any kind of ending.
“I’m not ready to talk about Matt’s legacy and that stuff yet,” Atlanta Coach Dan Quinn said. “I hope Matt is in the middle of things. I want a lot more of these days and battles.”
For the Packers, the defeat was a sudden end to a charmed run: an eight-game winning streak that included two playoff victories.
“We ran into a hot team that really jumped on us,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. “They did a lot of things right and kept doing them.”
Rodgers, whose late-game heroics had made him seem nearly invincible recently, was sacked twice and intercepted once and completed only 27 of 45 passes for 287 yards. He did throw three touchdowns, but two came after the Falcons were ahead, 31-0.
“They controlled the rhythm of the game early, and we started slowly,” Rodgers said. “It’s not a good combination.”
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SOURCE: NY Times, Bill Pennington