Falcons’ young defense evolving into championship-caliber unit

ATLANTA — It was supposed to be Atlanta’s fatal flaw, the reason why the Falcons weren’t trustworthy enough to reach their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly two decades. Yes, they could generate points like no other team in the NFL, but their defense would definitely be their undoing. Now there’s a different narrative building deep inside the Dirty South. It’s one that revolves around the notion that this defense might suddenly be the reason to believe this team might just win it all.

There’s no doubting that Atlanta’s offense put a memorable hurt on the Green Bay Packers in a 44-21 NFC Championship Game win. What was more impressive was the way the Falcons‘ defense stifled a Green Bay offense that had been equally potent in the postseason. The Packers came into Sunday’s contest having averaged 27 points in the regular season and 36 in the playoffs. They ultimately didn’t score until roughly nine minutes remained in the third quarter, after spotting the Falcons 31 points.

The consensus before this game was that we could expect a wild shootout worthy of instant classic status. It quickly morphed into a critical defining moment for a Falcons team that has been building toward this kind of balance for a few weeks now.

“The difference, really, is us coming together,” said cornerback Jalen Collins when asked about the maturation of the Atlanta defense. “I’m talking about communicating together during the week, after practice, while watching film, everything. We know if we stay on each other — and everybody does their job — how can we lose?”

The Falcons find themselves hurtling toward a Super Bowl LI matchup against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5 with a different type of aura about them. They easily handled the Packers (a team that had been riding an eight-game winning streak) and they didn’t have much trouble defeating Seattle in the Divisional Round (another team that usually saves its best football for this time of year). Throw in the fact that the Dallas Cowboys had been the league’s sexiest story all season, and you can see where this is going. Hardly anybody was talking about what the Falcons might do when this postseason ensued.

Some of that had to do with the 2-4 playoff record that Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan had built over his career. More of it had to do with a defense that finished this season ranked 27th in scoring (25.4 points allowed per game) and 25th in total yards (371.2 yards per game). It was impossible to take the Falcons seriously with a defense producing numbers so abysmal. The reality is that Atlanta had been improving on…