ATLANTA – In 1864, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman burned Atlanta.
A little more than 152 years later, the Atlanta Falcons’ general, Matt Ryan, burned the Green Bay Packers with similar ruthless destruction.
The Packers’ secondary was torched again and again throughout the season and was torched again and again by Ryan and his deep and diverse group of pass catchers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. That was predictable; we'll get into that later.
The only thing that limited Ryan’s production was the scoreboard. Ryan finished with 392 passing yards but it might as well have been 500. When he threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones on the second play of the second half, Ryan’s yardage total swelled to 344 yards. At that point, with a 31-0 lead, the Falcons backed off the gas, with Ryan throwing only five more passes the rest of the game.
“We didn’t stop them at all defensively,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
On the surface, the numbers are incredible.
-- Ryan had a passer rating of 139.4. it was the second-highest passer rating allowed by the Packers in their lengthy playoff history.
-- Ryan was just the fourth quarterback in NFL playoff history with at least four touchdown passes and one touchdown run.
-- Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Jones is the most dangerous receiver in the NFL and has put up big numbers against most cornerbacks throughout his career. Green Bay’s best option was LaDarius Gunter, a mismatch on paper and in reality.
Beyond the surface-layer stats, the dominance was apparent. Every time Ryan and Co. needed to make a play, they made a play. Too often, it was too easy.
-- On the opening drive, the Falcons faced three third downs. On third-and-6, Ryan hit Jones for 6. On third-and-1, Ryan found Mohamed Sanu for 13. On third-and-goal from the 2, Ryan flipped the ball to Sanu for a touchdown.
-- On their second drive, Ryan converted a third-and-7 with a 15-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper, who broke tackle attempts by linebacker Joe Thomas and cornerback Damarious Randall that could have prevented a first down. Atlanta turned that into a field goal for a 10-0 lead.
-- On their third drive, Atlanta faced a third-and-10 from Green Bay’s 33. Jones lined up among three receivers to the left. The other two cleared out deep, Jones found himself wide open on a simple crossing route and sprinted up the middle for a gain of 19. Atlanta turned that into a touchdown and a 17-0 lead.
-- On their fifth drive, Atlanta again faced a third-and-10, this time from its 49. Ryan hit receiver Taylor Gabriel for a gain of 18. That set up a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jones on third-and-1 just before halftime to make it 24-0.
Put all of that together, and Atlanta went 7-of-9 on third down in the first half. Among those were a third-and-6, a third-and-7 and a pair of third-and-10s. On each of the four scoring drives, the Packers had the Falcons at second-and-10 or longer but couldn’t get off the field.
The coup de grace was the long catch-and-run touchdown by Jones, who broke Gunter’s tackle attempt at the Packers’ 40 and ran through Randall’s feeble effort around the 20. Green Bay's corners couldn't cover and they couldn't tackle. Otherwise, everything was great.
The performance and result were no surprise. Green Bay finished the regular season ranked 26th in opponent passer rating, with its 95.9 being the eighth-worst for any playoff team in NFL history. Inside that number, the Packers’ defense ranked 23rd in completion percentage, 29th in yards per completion and 31st in yards per attempt and yards per game.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers had no answers because he had nobody who could cover. Top cornerback Sam Shields suffered a concussion in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. Second-year corners Randall and Quinten Rollins took huge steps backward after promising rookie years. By default, Gunter ascended into the No. 1 role.
With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Green Bay allowed 10 completions of more than 15 yards. Not for the game. In the first two-and-a-half quarters.
General manager Ted Thompson erred by not re-signing Casey Hayward. For three years and a modest $15.3 million, Hayward led the NFL in interceptions for San Diego. That’s 20/20 hindsight. What’s not is how Thompson put the defense behind the eight-ball by doing nothing to improve the situation. At running back, Thompson missed on a trade for Knile Davis. But at least he tried. Thompson's only addition at cornerback was promoting converted receiver Herb Waters from the practice squad. That's criminal by football standards when you're running a championship-caliber team.
Teams that can’t defend the pass have no chance of winning the Super Bowl. That fact was driven home when Green Bay’s defense went up in smoke at the hands of Gen. Ryan.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.