Overtime Ireland's Colm Kelly on why the time is right for "Matty Ice"
In the first week of September, 32 NFL teams set out with one objective - to win the Superbowl, the biggest prize in the National Football League. Four months later, only two teams remain.
On February 5th, the New England Patriots will meet the Atlanta Falcons at the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
Over the past two decades, the Patriots have been the most successful team in the NFL, having played in seven Superbowls since 2001, winning it four times. Many believe that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the greatest to ever play the position, and it's hard to argue against Patriots coach Bill Belichick being the best coach in the league's history.
On Sunday, New England comfortably beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17. In comparison, the Falcons have never won the Superbowl, having lost to the Denver Broncos on their only previous appearance. They clinched their spot in the final game of the season with a dominant 44-21 win over Green Bay Packers.
While the Patriots are the bookies' favourite - and given their previous history it is easy to see why - this year feels like one where the Atlanta Falcons can finally become Super Bowl Champions.
This Falcons offence was among the best the NFL has ever seen. They lead the league in scoring with 540 points, (the seventh highest team total in NFL history), scoring at least 30 points in 11 games and topping 40 points on five occasions.
Many factors have combined to make Atlanta the best offensive unit in the league, but the most notable has been the continued rise of their quarterback. Drafted third overall by the Falcons in 2008, Matt Ryan has developed into one of the most intelligent and accurate passers in the NFL.
In his first year, he was named the offensive rookie of the year when he guided them to the playoffs. Now in his ninth season as a professional, the story of his career has been one of consistent production without achieving playoff success. In each of the past six seasons, he has thrown for over 4000 passing yards, but as often happens with NFL quarterbacks, they are ultimately judged on what they achieve in the postseason.
Image: Jason Behnken AP/Press Association Images
With that lack of playoff success, Ryan was regularly talked about as a middle-tier quarterback who didn't have the ability to elevate his team to the next level. This time around, it has been a different story, and over the past two weeks in particular, we have seen Ryan win back to back playoff games, beating the Seattle Seahawks and dissecting the Packers with ruthless efficiency.
As the home crowd chanted "M-V-P! M-V-P!" during Sunday's win against Green Bay, he produced one of the best games of his career as Aaron Rodgers watched on. 'Matty Ice,' as his supporters call him, was calm and calculated as he completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns, and ran in for a 14-yard score in the first half. It is performances like this that see Ryan as the front runner to be named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the NFL, and perhaps approach the mythical and storied status of "elite."
Along with their quarterback, the Falcons have a star wide receiver in Julio Jones. He had nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers, and is without a doubt one of the most dangerous weapons in their - or any team's - arsenal.
The Falcons also possess a solid offensive line, two excellent running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and a strong supporting cast of pass catchers. Offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan has had a fantastic season, using a perfect mix of running plays and deep passes, which has allowed Ryan to use his full complement of receivers. He even set an NFL record by throwing touchdown passes to 13 different pass catchers this season.
Impressed by how great this offense has been, the San Francisco 49ers are set to make Shanahan their head coach after the Super Bowl in an effort to stem the tide of their decline.
It's not all about what they can do on the offensive side of the ball, however. Head Coach Dan Quinn has talked about his defense improving as the season progressed, given that the majority of their players are rookies, or in just their second season in the league. While the Denver Broncos won last year's trophy almost entirely thanks to their defence, the Falcons are average at best on that side of the ball. However, that looks to all that's needed, given the way the offense have been playing. If they can keep firing against the Patriots defence - which lacks any real superstars - and put up the type of points totals they have been to date, there's little reason to think that even the great Tom Brady could do enough to stop them.
On Sunday, as the confetti fell to the turf of the Georgia Dome in the final NFL contest to be played there before the team moves to its new stadium next season, Falcons fans allowed themselves to dream of winning the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy and rising to the pinnacle of the NFL mountain.