As the Atlanta Falcons prepare for the NFC championship game against San Francisco on Sunday, the focus for many observers will be on the 49ers’ ability to score. That makes sense; quarterback Colin Kaepernick shredded Green Bay’s defense last Sunday and outgunned Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the league’s premier producers of big plays.
But the Falcons, despite having far less of a postseason pedigree than the other teams still alive in the NFL playoffs, might have the most explosive offense of all. Yes, the New England Patriots clearly score at a pace far greater than anyone else — their 34.8 points-per-game average this season was the most by nearly five points — yet when it comes to long passes, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons succeed at a better rate than any of the teams still playing.
Ryan, according to data compiled by the website Pro Football Focus, has completed 43.3 percent of his passes aimed more than 20 yards down the field this season. (For the purposes of evaluating quarterbacks, the website includes dropped passes in that completion percentage.) That places him sixth overall among NFL quarterbacks, and first among those who will play in the conference title games on Sunday. In that group, New England’s Tom Brady has the second-best percentage, 40.5.
As the Falcons built their 20-0 and 27-7 leads over the Seattle Seahawks and then had to rally after squandering them, Atlanta relied on the big play. Ryan continually took shots down the field — averaging a career-high 12.1 yards per target, according to ESPN Stats and Information — and was ultimately rewarded with a 30-28 win, his first postseason victory. He threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns, including a 47-yarder to Roddy White.
Having receivers such as White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez gives Ryan the opportunity to throw downfield with confidence. Gonzalez, who caught a 19-yard pass that set up Matt Bryant’s winning field goal on Sunday, said the White-Jones combination even approaches the celebrated 49ers tandem of Jerry Rice and John Taylor in terms of talent.
“These two guys have a chance to do something incredible,” Gonzalez said last week.
The Falcons’ success on downfield plays is a practiced component of coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense. Koetter, who replaced Mike Mularkey before this season, has always preached the value of impact plays.
To make those plays, a team needs a quarterback with a strong arm — which Ryan certainly has — and dynamic receivers.
Against the Seahawks, Jones finished with 59 yards receiving and White had 76. White spent most of the day fighting for space with Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, and the two yapped at each other throughout the game. When White burned Sherman for his long touchdown catch, he showed his satisfaction by preening in front of the defensive back.
“He didn’t have too much to say after that play,” White said.
The Falcons can expect a challenge to their passing game against the 49ers, who finished the regular season allowing the fourth-fewest passing yards per game. San Francisco has been stingy against the big play, giving up just 38 plays of 20 yards or more — tied for the third fewest in the league.
Then again, the Seahawks allowed just 40 during the regular season. Yet the Falcons managed to pull off three such passing plays.
On Monday, after watching video of the victory, coach Mike Smith pointed to Ryan’s throw to White, which went some 50 yards in the air, as the latest proof that the deep ball is an integral part of what the Falcons do.
“We’ve been saying since the season started that Matt, we felt like, was stronger,” Smith said. “I thought that was one of the best long balls he has thrown all season.”