In practical terms, the stakes of every NFC Championship Game are the same: win and go to the Super Bowl.
But when Green Bay takes on Atlanta this weekend there is the palpable weight of something much larger at stake: legacy.
The Packers will meet the Falcons at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22 for the NFC Title Game. The game will take place in the Georgia Dome and is available for viewing on Fox. The Falcons opened as a 4.5-point favorite in Las Vegas, but several offshore books have moved the spread to 5.0 . The total is the set a 60.5 and is the highest playoff betting total in history.
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This game is a rematch of a 33-32 shootout from Oct. 30. It features one of the highest-scoring offenses in NFL regular season history (Atlanta; 33.8 points per game) against an offense that's exploded to average 34.3 PPG over the last month.
Defense is decidedly optional in this game. Not just because of these two overwhelming attacks, but because these defenses stink from both personnel and execution standpoints. Atlanta is No. 28 in the league against the pass and No. 27 in points allowed. Green Bay is No. 31 in pass defense and No. 21 in points allowed.
But the underlying story is much more than the hammer vs. nail relationship between these offenses and defenses. The real story, the defining theme of this game, is the disparate relationship between the two quarterbacks and franchises.
Aaron Rodgers is in the midst of one of the greatest runs of quarterbacking the NFL has ever seen. Rodgers has almost singlehandedly carried a talentless, banged-up group of Packers to the precipice of the franchise's sixth Super Bowl. He's guided Green Bay to eight straight wins - including back-to-back playoff victories. And during that stretch he has been simply breathtaking, racking up 2,384 yards, 21 touchdowns and just one interception.
Rodgers is looking for revenge for that Week 8 defeat. And he has beaten the Falcons in four of the past five meetings, including a famous flamethrower effort in Atlanta in the 2011 playoffs (48-21).
This is Rodgers' opus. And if by will and skill he can vault this team to the championship game it would be one of the sport's monumental feats.
But Rodgers already has his championship ring. And the Packers, with four Super Bowl titles and 13 total league titles, are one of the most accomplished franchises in NFL history. This wouldn't be a validation for them. It wouldbe just another glorious chapter.
However, for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons this game means absolutely everything.
Atlanta sports fans are not the fatalists that fans in places like Cleveland, Detroit or Buffalo are. Atlanta fans are self-defeating. And they've had nearly 40 years of reinforcement. Outside of one Braves title (1995) and a couple unheralded college football national championships (1980, 1990 shared) Atlanta sports teams have always played the role of supporting actors in other teams' epic tales. The Hawks, the Braves, the Falcons, the Bulldogs; they were always just a speed bump for some greater opponent on its way to glory.
Sure, they've had their own big moments. (The 1999 NFC Championship Game upset over the Vikings here in Atlanta was one of the NFL's greatest games.) But the story of Atlanta sports has been a familiar one: good - but not good enough.
And so it has gone with Ryan. For years I have argued that Matt Ryan is one of the best six or seven quarterbacks in football and that he was woefully underrated and underappreciated in this generation of signal caller. I'm not just talking about his impressive statistical accomplishments. Watching Ryan play, and seeing what he has done for one of the most mundane franchises in the league, has been a masterwork.
Even Atlanta fans lacked a true appreciation for Ryan. I swear to god this is true: as recently as this August, as Ryan struggled to adapt to new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's playbook this preseason, Falcons fans were questioning A) whether or not the team should be looking to trade Ryan or draft another QB next year and B) whether or not Matt Schaub (who was familiar with this offense) would be a better option to start the season. That is perfectly emblematic of the fan bases conflicted feelings over the greatest quarterback in franchise history.
Ryan has been seemingly easy to dismiss, however, due to his lack of postseason success and that he had yet to play in a Super Bowl. What has been ignored is the fact that Atlanta's postseason losses in 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2012 were not upsets. Green Bay (2010) and New York (2011) went on to win the Super Bowl those years while Arizona (2008) and San Francisco (2012) were literally fingertips away from winning titles as well. The Falcons were going toe-to-toe with the best teams in the NFL and coming up just short.
(There has also been a racial element at work with Ryan among the local fan base that has played into his up-and-down support among the locals. But that issue is for a longer article and I may not be the most qualified to tackle it. But the gist is that the African-American community is still somewhat bitter about Michael Vick's fall from grace and has been slow to embrace the ruthless efficiency of Ryan versus the electrifying creativity of Vick. The Mike Vick Experience was a roller coaster while the Matt Ryan Experience has been a merry-go-round. Some people prefer coasters.)
Matt Ryan will likely win the league's MVP award this season. He is the triggerman in one of the best regular season offenses in NFL history. Ryan has produced better passing numbers, more wins, and more division titles than any signal caller in Falcons history. He has been the No. 1 reason for the turnaround of a franchise that, prior to his arrival, had never had back-to-back wining seasons.
And now Ryan has guided his team to a second home NFC Championship Game in five years. And when he takes the field Sunday he is looking to exorcise the demons of that heart-breaking 2012 loss to San Francisco. (The Falcons led 17-0 and came up 20 yards short on their final drive.)
This game is about more than a trip to the Super Bowl. It is about Rodgers' attempt to reach demi-god status and it is about Ryan trying to expel a city's collective sports angst. It is about two players and two franchises trying to solidify their legacies within the spectrum of eternity.
Finally, this will be the last NFL game ever played in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons are leaving the 25-year-old stadium for new, taxpayer-hustled digs this coming fall. This is it. The Falcons are closing the book on one chapter of history.
And Ryan and Rodgers will both be jousting for the right to write compose the verse.
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