Report card: Falcons dismantle the ‘Legion of Boom’

The Falcons advanced to their 4th NFC Championship in their history as they beat Seattle 36-20 thanks to a great game by Matt Ryan. The AJC’s D. Orlando Ledbetter reports from the Georgia Dome.

January 14, 2017, Atlanta: Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones scores a touchdown past Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman to tie the game 7-7 during the first quarter in a NFL football NFC divisional playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

January 14, 2017, Atlanta: Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones scores a touchdown past Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman to tie the game 7-7 during the first quarter in a NFL football NFC divisional playoff game on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Boom!

The Falcons performed with precision on offense in their 36-20 dismantling of the Seahawks legendary “Legion of Boom” defense in the NFC divisional playoff game on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

If it was the last game in the 25-year-old football palace, it went out in style. The Falcons are set to play in the $1.5 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium next season.

MVP candidate Matt Ryan directed scoring drives on six of their first eight possessions to help the franchise advance to the NFC championship game for the fourth time in its 51-year history.

Game Balls: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and owner Arthur Blank, who still moves like Mick Jagger.

Wait for it..!!!!!🔊🔊

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Quarterbacks, A-plus. The week off didn’t hurt Ryan’s pinpoint precision as he completed 26 of 37 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with a passer rating of 125.7. “For Matt, we had certain plays that we liked,” Quinn said. “I thought the offensive line gave him time. We knew that was going to be a factor.” With the solid protection, the leading MVP candidate was able to cut up the middle of Seattle’s defenses. I think we went where we should with the ball,” Ryan said. “When they played zone coverage and dropped their guys deep, we checked down and our running backs did a good job of getting as many yards as they could in those situations. When they went man-to-man coverage, I give our running backs, tight ends and wide receivers a lot of credit because they beat some really good corners and tough guys to go against in man-to-man coverage.” The Falcons amassed 34 plays of 30 yards or more during the regular season, which led the league. They added two more against Seattle, a 53-yard catch-and-run by Devonta Freeman and a 37-yard laser shot to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel.

Running backs, A-plus. The Falcons had to run the ball better against the Seahawks, who held them to 52 yards rushing in their regular-season matchup. In the key drive to start the third quarter, the Falcons ran with some authority against Seattle’s stout defensive front. Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to rush eight times for 44 yards. Freeman scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. The two combined for 102 yards rushing on 25 carries (4.1 yards per carry) and one touchdown. Freeman also caught four passes for a team-high 80 yards. He put a wicked open-field move on Seattle free safety Steven Terrell.

Wide receivers/tight ends, A-plus. Ryan completed passes to eight different receivers. All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones aggravated his foot/toe injury and left the game early. He had six catches for 67 yards and was winning his battle with Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. Gabriel, Sanu and Justin Hardy all had catches with Sanu and Jones scoring touchdowns. Tight end Austin Hooper returned from a knee injury and had a catch. Levine Toilolo had a powerful-catch and run where he used a stiff-arm and then tried to run over Seattle safety Kam Chancellor.

Offensive line, A-plus. The Falcons’ offensive line stepped up to the challenge against Seattle. Because the Seahawks held the Falcons to 52 yards rushing on 18 carries in their regular-season meeting Oct. 16, the Falcons needed to run the ball to get their offense moving. The line paved the way for Freeman and Coleman to combine for 102 yards rushing on 25 carries and one touchdown. Freeman rushed 14 times for 45 yards Saturday, and Coleman had 11 carries for 57 yards. “In that first game we were still trying to figure out who we were and our identity as an offense,” right guard Chris Chester said. “Up until that point, we’d done some good things. I think over the past four weeks we’ve increased our efficiency as an offense.” While Ryan did get sacked three times and hit eight times, the line was more than respectable in pass protection. “We have to give credit to our offensive line, they really got us going,” Ryan said.

Defensive line, A-plus. The defensive linemen relentlessly chased Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson around for four quarters and that paid off with two fourth-quarter interceptions. Brooks Reed, Jonathan Babineaux and Ben Garland each had a sack. Babineaux even had to spy on Wilson a few plays. Dwight Freeney had two quarterback hits.  Ra’Shede Hageman had a hit and was moving well on his stunts. Seattle running back Thomas Rawls, who rushed for a franchise record 161 yards against Detroit, was held to 34 yards on 11 carries.

Linebackers, A: Jones was second on the team with five sacks and had the victory sealing interception in the fourth quarter. Weakside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell had four tackles. Vic Beasley Jr. was tired form chasing and spying on Russell Wilson. His hands went to his knees a couple times late in the fourth quarter. It was a relentless effort that Falcons coach Dan Quinn talks about that carried him through the end of the game.

Defensive backs, A. Strong Safety Keanu Neal, who was in the box to help against the run, led the team in tackles with nine. Cornerback Robert Alford played a strong game and Jalen Collins held up. The Seahawks did get a couple of deep passes, including a 52-yard touchdown pass to Paul Richardson. Brian Poole played well and had a big hit on Wilson to end one of his scrambles.

Special teams, C-minus.  The coverage units were torched by Devin Hester. Hester set up two Seattle scores with long kickoff returns. His 78-yard return to the Falcons’ 31 led to Doug Baldwin’s touchdown on the next play and Hester’s 50-yard kickoff return set up a go-ahead field goal in the second quarter. Hester also had a long punt return called back in the second quarter because of a Seahawks penalty. Hester fielded Matt Bosher’s punt at the Seahawks’ 13-yard line, cut across the field to his left and ran down the left sideline until getting pushed out of bounds at the Falcons’ 8-yard line. But a holding penalty against Kevin Pierre-Louis on LaRoy Reynolds brought the ball back to Seattle’s 7-yard line. Returner Eric Weems needed to make a fair catch on a punt around the 18 but let the ball bounce and it rolled down to the 1. Four of six of Matt Bosher’s kickoff went into the endzone. Pro Bowler Matt Bryant made his two field goal attempts from 35 and 31 yards out. Bosher average 37.8 net on three punts and place on inside the 20-yard line.

Coaching, A-minus.  The offense was dazzling, especially on the 99-yard drive and on the 75-yard drive to open the second half. After passing in the first half, the Falcons successfully powered the ball at the Seahawks on that drive. Coach Keith Armstrong has to get the special teams together. The coverage must be better in the NFC championship game. The defense adjusted after their usual slow start.

NEXT UP: The Falcons (11-5, 1-0 in the plays) play the winner of today’s Green Bay at Dallas game on Sunday, Jan. 22 at 3:05 p.m. If the No. 4 seeded Packers win, they will come to the Georgia Dome. If Dallas wins, the Falcon will travel to Texas.

NFC DIVISIONAL ROUND: FALCONS 36, SEAHAWKS 20

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Falcons have been transformed into team Atlanta has waited for — Column by Jeff Schultz

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WAITUNTILNEXTYEAR
WAITUNTILNEXTYEAR

What happened to Jimmy Graham's shushing the crowd?  In fact, what happened to Jimmy Graham?  Great win Falcons.  Oh, by the way, deferring the opening kick-off was not a great move.  Turned out ok but you never want to sit this offense for a quick start.