FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The Atlanta Falcons are glad to be here, but not so glad that they are putting their feet up. They have OK smiles, but not 1,000-watt smiles. They have a championship, but not the championship. Their locker room after Sunday’s 44-21 win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game was not subdued by any means, but the celebration was measured.
Coach Dan Quinn made the point Monday that the Falcons, with an emerging defense and brilliant offense led by Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan, are not a satisfied team, or an accidental participant in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
“The moment in the locker room was good, it was the appropriate amount of excitement,” Quinn said of the postgame celebration. “Going to the Super Bowl is not the reward, it’s playing really well and winning.”
Asked if he was going to have to counsel his young players not to be spooked by the Patriots’ brand and Super Bowl history, Quinn said, “I don’t think so.”
Atlanta has five players who previously have been on Super Bowl teams, but Quinn knows all about how to deal with the hyperactivity and distractions around the game. This is his third Super Bowl trip in four years. He was the defensive coordinator for Seattle in 2014 when the Seahawks thrashed Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, 43-8. He was the defensive coordinator for Seattle in 2015 when New England beat the Seahawks, 28-24.
“It’s a big topic,” Quinn said of the filters that need to be applied as a team prepares to play in a Super Bowl. “I’ve gone when it has gone well and I have been a part of it when it hasn’t. I want to outline the keys to playing well in the game and managing some of the things on the outside.”
Improved pass rush
There are some compelling early story lines for the game in Houston.
Vic Beasley Jr., the second-year defensive end from Clemson, led the NFL in sacks in the regular season with 15.5. But it was the pressures out of the nickel defense of rookie defensive back Brian Poole that crossed up the Packers’ protections in the NFC title game. Can Atlanta hector Tom Brady and the Patriots the same way?
Poole lined up as a “slot blitzer” and had some marauding free runs at quarterback Aaron Rodgers when Green Bay’s splits in formation were tighter. Poole clobbered Rodgers from behind on one play, but it was just after the ball was gone. The rookie from Florida had two quarterback hurries for a defense that has improved dramatically this season. Atlanta was 27th in the NFL in points allowed per game in the regular season, but it shut out Rodgers and Green Bay, 24-0, in the first half.
Another story line is going to be Atlanta’s continued focus on turnovers. Quinn said last spring that taking the football from the other team was going to be a centerpiece of the 2016 Falcons. Atlanta was plus-2 against the Packers.
“If we can get this part of our game right, we’re going to have a chance to play well,” Quinn said he told his team last spring during OTAs. “It really carried through from the very beginning from our OTAs to our training camp, and we haven’t backed off of that.
“The offense has made it incredibly tough to try and take it away from them in practice, and the defense continues to try and go after it. Their awareness for it has changed significantly. It is the ultimate example of iron sharpening iron. This is the No. 1 part of our program.”
Quinn praised the Patriots offense.
“They are difficult to defend,” he said. “They use a variety of formations, personnel groups, they’ve got a huge playbook from the pass game into the run game, gap schemes, trap schemes in the run game, quick game. It’s an offense that is well-versed. They have different ways to attack you.”