ATLANTA – While the raucous beats of “Welcome To Atlanta” blared through the Georgia Dome, the Falcons partied like it was 1999.
That was the last time they made it to the Super Bowl.
Matt Ryan and Julio Jones teamed up for another dynamic performance, leading the Falcons to the big game for only the second time in franchise history with a 44-21 rout of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game Sunday.
The Falcons led 24-0 at halftime and tacked on another touchdown early in the second half, essentially turning the dome into the world’s largest dance club for the rest of its final game, the deafening crowd relishing a shot at only the second major sports championship in Atlanta’s history.
“I’m sure the city won’t sleep tonight, including myself,” said Jonathan Babineaux, the team’s longest-tenured player.
The Falcons (13-5) advanced to the Feb. 5 title game in Houston, where they will face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. They blew out Pittsburgh 36-17 for the AFC championship, earning their record ninth trip to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots opened as a three-point favorite over the neophyte Falcons, whose only other Super Bowl appearance came 18 years ago. They lost to Denver in John Elway’s final game.
Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns, not to mention his first rushing score since 2012 on a 14-yard run in which he pump-faked a defender and tumbled into the end zone.
“We’ve worked hard to get to this point,” Ryan said. “But the challenge is still in front of us.”
In an interesting twist, the Falcons’ last victory over the Patriots was a resounding 41-10 triumph in 1998, a game that signaled the emergence of the Super Bowl-bound “Dirty Birds.”
Since then, New England has won four straight over the Falcons, most recently in 2013.
The Patriots will have their hands full with Jones, who hauled in nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns despite sitting out most of the week of practice with a lingering toe injury.
He had a five-yard catch for a touchdown with just three seconds left in the first half, giving the Falcons a commanding 24-0 lead.
But Jones showed all his talents on Atlanta’s second offensive snap of the second half. He shook off LaDarius Gunter’s attempt to grab him on a cut toward the sideline, hauled in the pass from Ryan, broke Gunter’s diving attempt at tackle, and defiantly knocked away Damarious Randall’s with a brutal stiff-arm for a 73-yard touchdown that finished off the Packers (12-7).
Some other things we learned from the Falcons’ victory:
Despite expectations of a high-scoring shootout, the Falcons shut out the Packers until the third quarter. It was an especially impressive performance considering the youth of the Atlanta defense, which started four rookies and four second-year players on defense.
“It’s funny because some people say the defense is too young,” said Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is 36. “I can look at it from the other side. Those guys are young and have energy and can run. You get them going on the right page and understanding the things they need to understand fast, we can be dangerous.”
Rookie nickel back Brian Poole led Atlanta with seven tackles and two quarterback hurries. Two more rookies, linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal, each had six tackles. Second-year cornerback Jalen Collins had a key forced fumble and fumble recovery in the first quarter, and second-year safety Ricardo Allen had an interception.
PLENTY LEFT IN THE TANK
At the end of his 12th season and ninth as Green Bay’s starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers sees no reason to start pondering his future.
“I still feel pretty young,” he said. “I think I have a number of years left in me to play at a high level. And we just have to make sure we’re going all-in every year to win. I think we can take a big step in the offseason.”
TOO MANY TO COUNT
The Packers arrived at the Georgia Dome with five players ailing but ready to go.
Receivers Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison were in severe pain. The same was said of safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Quinten Rollins.
It only got worse the longer the day dragged on.
Left guard Lane Taylor, right guard T.J. Lang, running back Ty Montgomery, linebacker Jake Ryan and safeties Kentrell Brice and Micah Hyde all left the game with injuries. Bodies were so scarce that starting nose tackle Letroy Guion had to take some snaps at offensive guard.
“We’ve had to deal with it and we’ve been able to overcome it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Today we could not.”
BIG SENDOFF FOR GEORGIA DOME
Falcons owner Arthur Blank called the win a fitting send-off for the Georgia Dome, the team’s home for 25 years. It will be torn down as the Falcons move to $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a retractable-roof facility being built next door.
The dome has been home to two Super Bowls, the Southeastern Conference championship game, the 1996 Olympics, three Final Fours, plus concerts and other events.