Coming off eight straight wins and a dominant performance in the Divisional Round, Aaron Rodgers entered the NFC Championship riding one of the best stretches of his NFL career. That streak came to an end at the Georgia Dome, however, as Atlanta's young, up-and-coming defense did its part to take the Falcons to Super Bowl LI.
Rodgers on Sunday completed 27 of 45 passes for 287 yards, three touchdowns and one interception — good for a 91.6 QB rating. It was a solid performance, but the stats don't tell the entire story. The young Falcons defense kept Green Bay out of the endzone for the first 35 minutes of the game, and by that time Atlanta had amassed a 31-0 lead.
And they did it by making Rodgers uncomfortable throughout the game.
"We put it all out there," Paul Worrilow said on the field as confetti rained down. "Like we always talk about, it starts during the week, from the scout team pretending to be Aaron, scrambling around. The defense played hard today. The defense was gassed at times; you could see it. He was running around at times, but we played well. We got a couple good sacks on him, some big hits. That was a big thing. He's so good at creating plays. Whoever was responsible on this play or that play, he did a good job of spying."
The Falcons' ability to slow Rodgers down in the opening half was key. Green Bay's star quarterback went 12-for-17 for 119 yards, zero TDs and an interception in the first 30 minutes of action. Ryan, on the other hand, went 22-for-32 for 271 yards, two TDs and zero INTs in that span.
Containing Rodgers was a group effort, according to Dwight Freeney, and the numbers agree. The Hall of Fame-bound veteran led Atlanta with six pressures; Tyson Jackson and Ra'Shede Hageman recorded a sack apiece; and Ricardo Allen picked off Rodgers near the end of the second quarter, giving him an interception in two consecutive weeks.
Like Worrilow, head coach Dan Quinn believes this defensive success can be traced back to the work put in at practice.
"We knew (getting after Rodgers) was going to be a factor when you face a quarterback as talented and as good as Aaron. You better find ways to get him off the spot," Quinn said. "He's been as dangerous in the pocket as he's been out. So, for sure the defensive coaches, they worked hard.
"The clearest part was the players having a clear understanding of our game plan. And part of that work you put in on Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday, when you get to game time, you know you put the work in, and it's time to go execute it. That's kind of the process we follow each week."
The Packers' 21 points was the third-lowest amount they tallied all season. By holding Green Bay to that modest total, Atlanta's defense continued a positive trend, one that began following its bye week.
Since their Nov. 27 matchup with Arizona, the Falcons have allowed 21 or fewer points in six of eight games.
"We didn't doubt ourselves," Vic Beasley Jr. said. "Myself and young guys have been playing at an exceptionally high level. It's great to see the way we evolved, the way we matured. It just shows what we have in the future with this defense."