The game was changing and he needed to adapt. So after watching Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers shred his defense for 366 yards and three touchdowns in the divisional round of last year's playoffs, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff knew it was time to upgrade his passing game and capitalize on the rules changes that had allowed air-centric offenses to flourish.
The blockbuster draft-day trade for Alabama wideout Julio Jones did just that. After ranking 31st in the league with only 32 completions of 20 yards or longer last season, Atlanta finished 13th this year, with 56—11 of which went for scores. While Roddy White led the Falcons in catches (100), yards (1,296) and touchdowns (eight), Jones averaged a team-high 17.8 yards on 54 receptions. He had 16 catches of at least 20 yards, two fewer than White; however, Jones turned six of them into scores, fourth most in the league.
But can Falcons QB Matt Ryan continue to throw deep—and finally go deep—in the playoffs? He failed to reach 200 yards against Green Bay last January or in a 2008 wild-card defeat to the Cardinals, completing just four passes of 20 yards or longer in 69 total attempts. In his two postseason games Ryan, 26, has more interceptions (four) than touchdown passes (three).
Atlanta's attack floundered early this season while trying to balance a desire for more "explosive" passing plays with the bruising running of Michael Turner that was so effective the previous three years. Recently, however, the Falcons have gone up-tempo and allowed Ryan to control the game at the line of scrimmage. His success has been reflected in his yards per pass attempt: After exceeding 7.5 only once in the first nine games, he did it in four of the next five.
But Atlanta doesn't just need Ryan to warm up; it needs to cool off opposing QBs. Kurt Warner threw for 271 yards and two scores in Arizona's 30--24 first-round win three years ago, and Rodgers led Green Bay to 48 points last season. Then there's Saints QB Drew Brees, who threw for 307 yards and four touchdowns in a 45--16 victory two weeks ago.
On the road to the Super Bowl, the Falcons will likely meet Brees or Rodgers again. Ryan has to be sharp—and produce chunks of yardage—if only because history shows his counterpart will do the same.
Consecutive seasons with more than 80 receptions and 1,100 receiving yards for Atlanta wideout Roddy White, who on Sunday surpassed Terance Mathis as the franchise's leader in career yards. White now has 7,374.
Combined passer rating for Drew Brees (13 games) and Aaron Rodgers (four) against the Falcons in the regular season and playoffs. The two quarterbacks have averaged 311 passing yards against Atlanta.
ON THE SPOT
If the Falcons want to go downfield in the passing game, Matt Ryan is going to need ample blind-side protection from Will Svitek, a 6'6", 308-pound sixth-year pro from Stanford who has allowed only 1½ sacks since replacing injured (and ineffective) starter Sam Baker in Week 7. But having to play on the road as a wild-card entry will only make Svitek's job more difficult. Because of the crowd noise, Ryan will frequently go to a silent count, which gives pass rushers a split-second head start at the snap of the ball. Svitek must maintain his poise under heavy pressure for Atlanta to advance.
JOHN BIEVER (RYAN)
DEEP THOUGHTS After coming up short in two playoff performances, Ryan now has the weapons to stretch the field.
SCOTT BOEHM/GETTY IMAGES (SVITEK)