Falcons squander much of a huge lead, but hold on to beat Packers

ATLANTA — So a football team from Atlanta gets out to a huge lead in a marquee game…

No, the Atlanta Falcons will never outrun blew-a-big-lead jokes — that’s what happens when a team falls off the front of the biggest stage in American sports. But at the very least, the Falcons are still able to build those big leads … and, every so often, hang onto them, as Atlanta did Sunday night, defeating Green Bay 34-23.

Look, we promise we won’t bring this up every time Atlanta takes a lead in a game, but the similarities to a certain recent Big Game were obvious. For two-and-a-half quarters, the Falcons beat down the Packers on Sunday night, winning every phase of the game from every angle. The Falcons’ offense ran and passed at will; the Atlanta D flustered and frustrated Aaron Rodgers in series after series.

The Atlanta Falcons celebrated a big win Sunday night. (AP)

Then — this seems familiar — the Packers got their feet under them, scoring 13 unanswered points and creeping close enough to start getting the fans still in attendance a bit twitchy.

“We were a little nervous,” Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “Not much, but a little. It’s Aaron Rodgers!”

[Watch on Yahoo: Ravens vs. Jaguars live from London Sept. 24]

But this time, Atlanta held on to its lead, running the clock down on a game that ended up being a lot harder than it needed to be. And although we’re just two games into the season, given the fact that Green Bay was a trendy Super Bowl pick, this is a win worth noting.

This one, too:


Conventional wisdom held that the Falcons were supposed to go fetal in the wake of their historic collapse; no Super Bowl loser has reached the championship in back-to-back years since Buffalo in the early ‘90s, and no loser has come back to win the Lombardi Trophy since Miami all the way back in 1972.

Plus, forget history. As the NBA and college football have shown, it’s possible to have rematches that flip the result. The Falcons’ bigger concern coming into 2017 wasn’t historical, it was managerial: Atlanta lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to San Francisco, and with him went the offensive genius that turned Matt Ryan from a serviceable quarterback into an MVP.

[Watch on Yahoo: Ravens vs. Jaguars live from London Sept. 24]

Or so the thinking went. Again — two games in, small sample size, et cetera, but so far Shanahan’s 49ers haven’t scored a touchdown, whereas the Falcons, running schemes created by longtime college fixture Steve Sarkisian, presented the Packers with a dizzying array of offensive looks.

“We took what they gave us,” Gabriel said. “It wasn’t a whole lot of crazy looks. On one-high [leaving only one safety deep] we were going for the deep ball. But we kept our foot on the gas and kept making the plays we needed.”

Of course, it helps to have the weapons that Sarkisian has at his disposal. He turned Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu loose like he was unleashing jaguars, and hurled Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman at the Packers’ line like he was throwing cinder blocks. Toss sweeps, screens, curls, crossing routes, deep outs … the Falcons rolled out everything this side of a Statue of Liberty, and when they built up a 24-point lead, they began —imagine this — running the ball.

The final stats were sleek, effective, businesslike. Coleman and Freeman combined for 126 yards rushing and three touchdowns, two by Freeman. Ryan threw a modest (for him) 19-for-28 game for 252 yards, his longest pass of the night a 34-yard strike to Jones on the game’s opening drive that helped stake Atlanta to a lead it would never come close to relinquishing.

But you’re not going to keep a guy like Rodgers down forever, or even for more than a couple quarters. Rodgers gave up what turned out to be a crucial interception in the waning moments of the first half, but engineered that fourth-quarter attempt at a comeback that included the finest play of the night by either team, a 33-yard eye-of-the-needle dart to Davante Adams. Over the course of the game Rodgers slung the ball 50 times with 33 completions for 343 yards and two touchdowns, including his 300th career one.

Green Bay eventually drew within 11, but this time Atlanta settled down and controlled the football right on through the two-minute warning, icing the game and preserving a very much-needed win against a key NFC opponent.

The Falcons acknowledge that the Super Bowl still casts a shadow, but insist that they’re beyond its reach. “I don’t think about it too much,” Matt Ryan said. “Everyone else does. We’ve tried to answer it [by winning] but no one ever really believes you. Was it disappointing? Absolutely. But we’re trying to be the best 2017 team we could be.”

“Last year is last year,” Atlanta’s Julio Jones said. “What you see [now] is what you get. Talk to us about [blowing leads] when we do it this year. We’re finishing games.”

Yes, we’re months away from the Super Bowl. The Falcons don’t need to be worrying even about October, much less February. And even if you start penciling in the Falcons as Super Bowl favorites, this is a team you won’t ever trust with anything short of a three-digit lead. But still, Atlanta’s looking a lot more stable than most NFL teams at the moment.

If nothing else, the Falcons appear to have learned at least one lesson from Super Bowl LI: the best way to forget about blowing a big lead is to hold onto another one.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.