The Flight: The Atlanta Falcons Journey to Super Bowl LI

On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will try to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history against the New England Patriots. Before the season, many expected the Patriots to end up in the big game, being led by legendary coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, who is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. On the other hand, not many predicted the Falcons to be there. In fact, more bets were placed on the eventual 1-15 Cleveland Browns to make it to the Super Bowl than the Falcons before the season in Las Vegas.

The 2015 season saw the Atlanta Falcons, led by then first year head coach Dan Quinn, finish missing the playoffs with a subpar 8-8 record, even after a miraculous 5-0 start to the season. Most were pointing fingers at Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who was also in his first year with the Falcons. This also caused a lot of people to question if Matt Ryan was still a franchise quarterback, who had his worst statistical season in 2015. Going into that offseason, the Falcons were surrounded by doubters.

That offseason saw a lot of action by the Falcons front office, led by General Manager Thomas Dimitroff. They went out and signed wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, to take the strain off of workhorse Julio Jones, center Alex Mack, to solidify their offensive line, and the great (but old) defensive end Dwight Freeney. They also drafted hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal (Florida), linebacker Deion Jones (LSU), tight end Austin Hooper (Stanford), and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (Minnesota). The offseason also saw extensive work done by arguably the best receiver in the NFL, Julio Jones, quarterback Matt Ryan (who used the offseason to familiarize himself with Shanahan’s offensive scheme), running back Devonta Freeman, and linebacker Vic Beasley, who many considered a bust after a lackluster 4 sacks in his rookie season of 2015.

Most experts picked the reigning NFC champs, the Carolina Panthers, to continue their dominance and win the division. Many even predicted the Falcons finishing third in the division. Boy were they proven wrong. The Falcons blew those predictions out of the water eventually going 11-5 (three of the five losses were by less than 3 points). Shanahan and Ryan proved that last season was a fluke and led one of the most prolific offenses this season. The offense averaged 33.8 points per game, which puts them in the top 10 in that category in NFL history. They were also 2nd in yards-per-game and 5th in rushing yards per game, led by the strong output of the Freeman-Coleman tandem. Ryan is also the frontrunner of for the NFL MVP (will be announced day before Super Bowl), putting up a total QBR (quarterback rating) of 132.6 (5th best QBR in NFL history), 38 touchdowns, 9.26 yards per attempt (the best YP/A in NFL history), 4,944 passing yards (Falcon’s single season record), a 69.9% completion percentage, as well as throwing a touchdown pass to 13 different players this season, making Ryan the first player to do that. Ryan was helped out by a receiving core that has established itself as one of the best in the league, led by, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, Julio Jones. Jones was second in total receiving yards, with 1,409 (included a 300 yard game in week 4), even after missing two games. With amazing stats all across the board on offense, Kyle Shanahan has been recognized as a top candidate for a head coaching job next year (in line to accept a job as 49ers head coach after season). Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Vic Beasley were all named to the All-Pro first team, as well as center Alex Mack being named to the All-Pro second team.

The defense has established itself as one of the most improving defenses in the league. While near the bottom of the league rankings in defensive statistics, the Falcons defense has improved drastically throughout the season, and since last year. The biggest standout was Vic Beasley, who led the led with 15.5 sacks and 6 forced fumbles, as well as establishing the Falcons’ rushing defense as one on the come up. Beasley was also named a The Falcons are also one of the youngest defenses in the league with 7 of the 11 starters having less than 3 years of NFL experience (not including starters on IR). Other standouts included rookies Keanu Neal, De’Vondre Campbell, and Deion Jones, who are destined to replicate a Seattle Seahawks style defense (Quinn was Defensive Coordinator there for two years).

The Falcons ended up winning the NFC South and clinching the 2nd seed in the NFC playoffs. After a first week bye, the Falcons faced off against the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round. Dan Quinn’s Falcons ended up destroying his former team 36-20. The game was highlighted by an exceptional performance from Julio Jones and two interceptions on the defense, who played their best football all season.

That brought them to the NFC Championship game against the red hot Green Bay Packers, led by one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL (arguably one of the best in history) Aaron Rodgers. This was the Falcons’ first NFC Championship game appearance since their heartbreaking loss to the San Francisco 49ers during the 2012 season. The Packers came into Atlanta with an 8-game winning streak. The two teams already faced each other in week 8 in Atlanta. In that game, the Falcons pulled out the win with a game winning touchdown catch by Mohamed Sanu to win 33-32. The Falcons came out swinging on both sides of the ball, scoring 24 points and holding the Packers to zero points in the first half. The final score was 21-44 with a victory for the Falcons and their second Super Bowl berth in franchise history (first came in 1998).

They will be facing off with one of the greatest sports dynasties ever in the New England Patriots. Led by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have been to 6 Super Bowls since 2000 (not including Super Bowl LI) and have won four of them, the most recent victory and appearance coming in Super Bowl XLIX. Belichick has a reputation for shutting down historically great offenses in the Super Bowl, such as the 1990 Buffalo Bills (aka “the K-Gun”) in Super Bowl XXV and the 2001 St. Louis Rams (aka “The Greatest Show on Turf”). The Patriots feature an extremely reliable defense, as well as great offense, making it one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL. The Falcons will have a strong challenge to try to win their first Super Bowl in NFL history.

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