Falcons belong in elite company

Published 12:21 pm Saturday, January 21, 2017

If you’re wondering what the Falcons are doing in the NFL’s version of the Final Four with the Patriots, Steelers and Packers, you aren’t alone.

While recent history has belonged pretty much to New England and Pittsburgh in the AFC, and Green Bay is a usual suspect in the NFC chase to the Super Bowl, Atlanta seems like an interloper.

That’s not only unfair, it’s dismissive.

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Yes, experience on conference championship weekend can be a plus. It’s unlikely Tom Brady and the Patriots will have any case of nerves, especially being at home. Nor will Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, who figure to be aggressive from the get-go — the only way to beat New England.

The Packers are in their eighth straight postseason, and made it this far under Mike McCarthy in 2007, 2010 and 2014. Tested? You bet.

Then there are the Falcons, who got to the NFC title game in 2012, losing at home to San Francisco. Otherwise, not much to suggest they belong in this crowd.

Except they do.

In this light-up-the-scoreboard era, no one is doing it better than Matt Ryan and Co. They rank second in total offense — all four semifinalists are in the top eight — and have more balance than anyone. The blocking unit was maligned at times this season, but of the remaining four, only the Patriots might be better on the O-line.

With the ball, the Falcons are as good or better than anybody.

Defensively, there are issues, but the same is true of Green Bay. Atlanta already showed last week against an outstanding (if banged-up) D that it still could control matters. Coach Dan Quinn is a Pete Carroll disciple, and his unit looked just as physical as the Seahawks, who usually beat up every opponent.

The Falcons are as fundamentally sound as anyone, yielding the fewest giveaways (11) in the NFC. Their special teams are solid. So is the coaching, something other teams — most notably, San Francisco in the case of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — have recognized.

The one thing Atlanta doesn’t have on its side that the other three survivors do is history. It’s sometimes a factor, and while these Falcons could be impervious to any such pressure, the Patriots, Steelers and Packers will use it as a boost.

Consider that all three of those coaching staffs have seen pretty much everything that can be thrown in their way on the road to the Super Bowl. Both Pittsburgh and Green Bay have won championships as a sixth seed, although the Steelers did it under Bill Cowher. Regardless, that instills belief that no challenge is too big.

New England’s run of success since Brady became its starting quarterback in 2001 is almost unparalleled in the NFL. The Patriots are superbly prepared whether it’s a September or January kickoff. When things go askew, Brady usually finds a way to overcome any missteps.

And don’t forget how opponents tend to mess up in big spots against New England. In three of their Super Bowl victories, the Patriots were helped by John Kasey’s kickoff out of bounds, Donovan McNabb’s fourth-quarter meltdown and Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s decision to pass from the New England 1 with Marshawn Lynch in his backfield.

Pittsburgh won’t be intimidated because, well, the Steelers’ resume never has included backing off, particularly under Tomlin. The Steelers also enter the game with the knowledge that they haven’t lost since Nov. 13 and are relatively healthy.

The Packers? That magician behind center is on the kind of run that athletes in other sports call “the zone.” Aaron Rodgers seems capable of carrying his team to the summit regardless of the circumstance — and the other Packers fully believe that.

Sometimes, it seems, so do opponents.

Also worth considering are some intangibles that, as we’ve learned so many times with the Patriots, Steelers and Packers, do play a role in chasing a championship.

Such as:

— New England is in reach of a slew of Super Bowl-era records.

— Stunningly, the incomparable Rodgers has been to only one Super Bowl, a win. Another would boost his career achievement above the measuring stick in Titletown, Brett Favre.

— Ben Roethlisberger could equal Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and surpass the likes of John Elway, Bart Starr and Bob Griese if he can win a third championship.

So yes, this weekend and then on Feb. 5 in Houston, history could provide some impetus for the Patriots or Packers or Steelers. Or maybe the Falcons will simply make some history of their own over the next few weeks.