ATLANTA — By the time the confetti fell on the Georgia Dome Sunday, and newly vindicated quarterback Matt Ryan held the NFC Championship trophy, it was already obvious their reward would be to play the legendary Patriots combination of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in Super Bowl LI Feb. 5.
History will be made. After dispatching the Steelers 36-17, New England is playing in a record ninth Super Bowl. The Falcons, in their second by virtue of a 44-21 win over Green Bay Sunday, have never won a league championship.
Brady will play is in his seventh NFL title game, Ryan his first.
Brady and Belichick could become the first quarterback-coach duo to win their fifth Super Bowl together. They are the thread that runs through those teams. Coming off Deflategate and Brady's four-game suspension to start this season, it presents a potentially awkward Lombardi Trophy presentation in Houston. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell avoided Gillette Stadium this year and has moved up his annual news conference during Super Bowl week from Friday to Wednesday so as not to detract from the game.
It's a fascinating matchup. A young, fast Falcons defense against Brady. An explosive offense and precision passing attack with Ryan, with 37-year-old offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan against Belichick.
Here are a few storylines that make Super Bowl LI good theater:
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
The most productive relationship in sports?
No relationship in sports is as fragile or symbiotic as an NFL coach and his quarterback.
Brady, 39, wants to be coached hard and Belichick doesn't show any favoritism to guy who has slipped four Super Bowl rings on his fingers.
But Brady missed the first four games of the season serving a suspension for Deflate-gate. Is the Patriots legacy tainted by scandals and cheating? What makes this relationship work? And who is more responsible for their success, Brady or Belichick? Would an unprecedented fifth SB ring make Brady the greatest QB of all time?
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Is Matt Ryan elite?
He is expected to be named the NFL's MVP on the eve of the Super Bowl at the NFL Honors award ceremony.
Ryan came into the NFL under some unusual and trying circumstances when general manager Thomas Dimitroff made him the third overall pick out of Boston College in 2008. At the time, the Falcons were a mess.
Quarterback Michael Vick was in a prison in Kansas serving 19 months for animal cruelty. Coach Bobby Petrino had done the unthinkable and left the Falcons with two games remaining to coach at Arkansas, leaving players fuming.
The Falcons fan base was loyal to Vick. It was believed they wouldn't accept Ryan. Flash forward to Sunday and fans screaming, "MVP! MVP! MVP! Ryan won them over. How did he do it and can he take the final step to being considered elite?
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Can Quinn's defense subdue the Patriots this time?
The Falcons held the Packers and Aaron Rodgers scoreless for about 35 minutes. That's not easy to do.
They have three rookies who start for them, including LB Deion Jones and S Keanu Neal. In fact, seven of the 12 starters (if you include the third cornerback) are first or second year players. It's a fast defense with a good pass rusher in Vic Beasley. It will be interesting to see how Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels attacks this team.
Quinn knows something about Patriots. He lost to them in the Super Bowl two years ago. A year before that, his defense annihilated the Denver Broncos. Before returning to Seattle, Quinn was the Florida Gators defensive coordinator.
Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Battle of the offensive coordinators
McDaniels turned down the 49ers to stay at New England. He said he didn't want to move his young family across the country. But the belief is he knows he may get one more bite of the apple after failing as head coach of the Broncos and decided not to take a ground up situation like the Niners, who will have their fourth HC in as many years.
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who began his coaching career as a quality control assistant under Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay in 2004-05, will accept the 49ers head coaching job after the Super Bowl. His father, Mike, won two Super Bowls as coach of the Denver Broncos. He's done a really good job with Ryan, succeeding Bucs coach Dirk Koetter, who did a really good job with Ryan.
Falcons receivers and assistant head coach Raheem Morris is reinventing himself in Atlanta. He agreed to switch sides of the football and coach receivers. And he's done a good job. It helps having Julio Jones, but Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel have excelled too.
Morris is an inspirational coach and a real help to Quinn. At 32, he was the youngest head coach in the NFL in 2009 when the Bucs hired him to replace Gruden. In his second year, he went 10-6 and narrowly missed the playoffs. At one point the Bucs had won 18 out of 24 games until the wheels fell off in 2011 and they lost 10 straight.
Many believe Morris deserves another shot at becoming a head coach. A Super Bowl ring wouldn't hurt.
The Julio Jones takeover
The Falcons receiver has a turf toe that kept him from practicing last week. It won't heal for months, but it didn't stop him from taking over the NFC Championship game with 180 yards receiving and two touchdowns. His rare combination of size, power and speed were on display during a 73-yard catch and run for a TD in which he shoved two Packers to the ground.
Brady and Hogan's heroes
Face it, Brady gets it done with lesser talent at receiver. Rob Gronkowski is out for the year. Brady's main targets are Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell and recently acquired Michael Floyd. Whew.
Do these guys get enough credit? Edelman had a terrific Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago. Hogan, picked up from Buffalo, had the exact same numbers Sunday against Pittsburgh (nine catches for 180 yards, two TDs) as Jones against did versus the Packers.
Jones will make nearly $16-million this year. Hogan? $1-million.