ATLANTA — That’s how.
For a week, the Falcons were asked the biggest question of these playoffs. One that no team for the past two months had been able to answer. One that, with a proper response, unlocked the door to Super Bowl LI.
How do you stop Aaron Rodgers? Over and over again it was asked.
The Falcons’ defense showed the world on Sunday. That’s how.
“As a competitor, you always look forward to a challenge,” defensive tackle Justin Babineaux said. “[Rodgers is] a Super Bowl champion, an MVP. We had our hands full.”
They’ll face another one in the Patriots’ Tom Brady in two weeks.
“From the start of the playoffs, we knew we were going to have great quarterbacks that we had to face every week,” Babineaux said before knowing the outcome of the AFC game. “We’re looking forward to that challenge.”
Most people figured Atlanta’s offense would show up big, and Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were the stars of the NFC Championship Game with their dizzying statistics and acrobatic plays. But the defense, which dominated in a 44-21 win, shutting out the Packers for the first 35 minutes, 41 seconds, was the piece no one was counting on.
No one except the defense itself, of course.
“I felt like we were playing with more of an edge [than the Packers],” Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. said afterward. “We wanted this one, and that’s what we got.”
Did he expect that kind of performance?
“I did,” he said.
“We said: Let’s be like our offense,” cornerback Ricardo Allen said. “They set the tone and we did the same thing.”
The Packers scored at least 30 points in each of their previous six games, all wins. Rodgers had been as hot as any quarterback in recent memory. At halftime, though, the Packers were scoreless and had only 127 total yards.
“We knew that was going to be a factor,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of stopping Rodgers. “When you face a quarterback as talented and as good as Aaron, you better find ways to get him off the spot.”
The biggest defensive play came early in the second quarter. The Falcons were ahead 10-0 and the Packers were driving to begin the back-and-forth pace most expected. Fullback Aaron Ripkowski took a handoff up the middle to about the 10, but cornerback Jalen Collins stripped the ball from his hands and recovered the fumble in the end zone. The Falcons scored 3:35 later on a 14-yard run by Ryan.
“That took points off the board,” said Allen, who made the initial hit on Ripkowski and held him up to allow Collins to strip the ball. “They were already in field-goal range. That’s a 14-point swing.”
Rodgers started the game with all of his offensive weapons. Jordy Nelson played for the first time in two weeks with a bulky protective vest to protect his cracked ribs. Davante Adams played despite missing the week of practices with an ankle injury. By the end, though, the Packers’ offense was completely battered and it seemed as if Rodgers was competing by himself. He wound up leading the Packers in passing yards (287) and rushing yards (46).
The game ended with the Packers saying “uncle” and pulling Rodgers for backup Brett Hundley in the final 2:36.
“I sensed a little frustration,” Beasley said of Rodgers. “I saw Aaron complaining a little bit.”
Rodgers also drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty when he pulled the helmet off cornerback Robert Alford at the end of a fourth-quarter run in which he attempted to straight-arm the defender. Alford’s response?
“I just smiled and looked at the scoreboard,” he said.
It said 44-15 at the time, a sight few would have predicted.
“We feel like we have the potential to be a great defense,” Beasley said. “During the season, we weren’t playing as well, but we came a long way. And now we’re playing in the Super Bowl.”