Falcons Get Measure of Redemption in Pro Bowl Win

HONOLULU (AP) — A nice day in Hawaii won’t erase the memory of an ugly playoff exit for the Atlanta Falcons, but it has to help ease the pain.

From coach Mike Smith to quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Michael Turner and wide receiver Roddy White, the Falcons were everywhere in the NFC’s 55-41 Pro Bowl victory on Sunday, a game that never was as close as that final score would indicate.

“The Falcons were well represented today,” Gonzalez said in an understatement.

Atlanta had the best regular-season record in the NFC at 13-3 but was embarrassed at home 48-21 by the in the divisional playoffs. Still, the Falcons’ previous success led to nine players being selected to the Pro Bowl, more than any other team, with Smith running the show.

When Atlanta fullback Ovie Mugheli rumbled in for the first of the NFC’s seven touchdowns, the stage was set. Falcons players figured in four TDs.

Philadelphia’s was the starting quarterback but didn’t play after the first quarter. Most of the time behind center went to Ryan, whose first pass was intercepted. But he was 6 for 6 for 91 yards and two touchdowns the rest of the half as the NFC opened a 42-0 lead and was up 42-7 at the break.

Ryan’s prettiest play of the game was a 25-yard TD pass to Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, a timing play that brought to mind the receiver’s masterpieces with the now-retired .

Ryan finished 9 of 13 for 118 yards. Gonzalez, in his 11th Pro Bowl, had three catches to boost his Pro Bowl-record total to 42. His 4-yard TD pass from Ryan gave him four for his career, more than any other receiver.

Turner had a workmanlike 53 yards rushing on eight carries. Quarterbacks threw to White five times and he caught all of them, for 69 yards.

Not to be lost in the praise was Smith and his staff. Carolina’s Jon Beason, whose 59-yard interception return in the fourth quarter gave the NFC its 55 points, matching the Pro Bowl record for most by one team, praised the coach’s game plan. That’s right, a game plan in the Pro Bowl.

“We had a great scheme going against those guys,” Beason said. “The Atlanta coaches did a good job of putting us in a position to make plays and we did.”

MVP DeAngelo Hall had one of his team’s five interceptions and returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown to help. He won a new Cadillac for his efforts.

“I was just about to buy another SUV,” the cornerback said, “so to come out here and grab one for free, I like that.”

AFC quarterbacks Philip Rivers, and Matt Cassel each threw first-half interceptions in a performance ugly even by the historically low standards of this game.

Fittingly for this strange contest, center Alex Mack of Cleveland scored the final touchdown on a 67-yard pass play that featured two laterals with 16 seconds left.

Pro Bowls are, by their nature, laid-back affairs, seemingly played at half speed by players whose biggest concern is to get on the plane home without injury.

The AFC, though, took that attitude to an uncomfortable extreme early on before coming back to outscore the NFC 41-13.

The NFC led 42-0 after Steven Jackson waltzed through the AFC defense for a 21-yard touchdown — and there still was 4½ minutes left in the second quarter.

But just when it appeared it would be the most one-sided game in Pro Bowl history, eclipsing the Joe Theismann-led 45-3 NFC rout in 1984, the AFC scored three touchdowns in a row. The last came on the game’s seventh turnover, when Devin Hester tried to hand the kickoff return to Hall, but the ball fell to the turf. Montell Owens of Jacksonville scooped it up and ran it in 10 yards for the score to make it 42-21 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter.

With his seven extra points, tying a Pro Bowl record, along with two field goals, David Akers moved ahead of Morten Andersen (45) for most career Pro Bowl points with 52. The Philadelphia kicker would have had more but his 36-yard field goal try in the fourth quarter bounced off the right upright.

“Morten Andersen was a mentor of mine and I competed with Morten for a job in Atlanta and he taught me a lot,” Akers said, “so it means a lot to be able to pass a legend like that.”

The game returned to its traditional home in Hawaii after a one-year detour to Miami, much to the approval of the players involved.

Notes: A 70-yard punt by Mat McBriar of Dallas in the first quarter tied for second-longest in Pro Bowl history. … The state of Hawaii is paying the NFL about $4 million this season and next to keep the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. The location of the contest is up in the air after 2012. … Winning players got $45,000 apiece, losers $22,500. … The attendance of 49,338 was just shy of a sellout.

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Packers Beat Eagles, Next Meet Falcons In Playoffs

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – The withstood a ferocious late finish from the to win their NFL playoff 21-16 on Sunday and advance to the next round against Atlanta.

The Packers, one of the pre-season favorites to win this year’s , were never headed during the game but almost came unstuck in the final quarter as the Eagles threatened to steal victory.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes in the win, but the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense also benefited from some missed opportunities by the Eagles.

The NFC East division champions missed two field goals and a last-gasp pass from quarterback that might have led to a winning touchdown but was intercepted in the end zone.

While the Eagles were left ruing their missed opportunities and early exit from the post-season, the Packers moved ahead to next weekend’s divisional playoffs against NFC top seed the Atlanta Falcons.

“We’re just getting started,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy told reporters. “We just won a big football game here against a championship-caliber program and we have an opportunity to go to Atlanta to play the number one seed down there.”

The Packers led 14-3 at the half and 21-10 late in the fourth quarter before Vick drove in from the one yard line to cut the lead 21-16 with four minutes to play.

The Eagles’ two point conversion try that would have put them within a field goal failed.

Philadelphia held the Packers and got the ball back on their own 34 yard line with 1:45 left for one last push although they were out of timeouts.

Vick took the Eagles down to the Green Bay 27 but cornerback Tramon Williams intercepted a pass intended for receiver Riley Cooper to seal the win.

“The last play, I just took a shot at the end zone,” Vick said after limping into the interview room, favoring an ankle he strained on a sack late in the fourth quarter.

“I could have checked it down to the back and I got greedy and took a shot at the end zone. I didn’t throw the right ball I wanted to throw and it got picked off.

“It was a bad way to go out, but I went out swinging.”

Two botched field goal tries in windy conditions by the usually reliable David Akers, a 41 -yard attempt in the first quarter and a 34 yard shot in the fourth quarter, also punctured the hosts’ chances.

Eagles coach Andy Reid was brief in his remarks, still stinging from the defeat and miffed about the missed field goals.

“We can all count,” said Reid. “Those points would have helped.”

Rodgers completed 18-of-27 passes for 180 yards and no interceptions, while Vick was 20-of-36 for 292 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Vick made a couple of dashes for first downs but was largely held in check by the Packers, who limited him to 33 yards on eight rushes.

Rodgers hit tight end Tom Crabtree for a seven yard touchdown in the first quarter, fired a low, nine yard touchdown bullet to James Jones in the second quarter and floated a perfect screen pass to back Brandon Jackson who scored from 16 yards in the third quarter.

A sterling performance from unheralded rookie running back James Starks provided balance to the Green Bay attack. Starks, the 193rd player chosen as a sixth round pick in the draft out of Buffalo, gained 123 yards on 23 carries.

With Starks gaining tough yards with his inside running, Green Bay was able to control the ball and keep drives alive with third down conversions.

“To win week in, week out, you have to have a combination of run and pass,” McCarthy said.

The Packers entered the game ranked a lowly 24th in rushing while Philadelphia ranked fifth but outgained them on the ground 138 yards to 82.

“He was a hot hand,” McCarthy said about Starks. “James was a difference maker.”

(Editing by Julian Linden)

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Falcons Short of Postseason Experience

The Falcons have no players who have appeared in a . Starting with the veterans Tony Gonzalez and Mike Peterson, the roster is filled with players starved for playoff success.

Only three — center Todd McClure and receivers Brian Finneran and Michael Jenkins — were with the team for Atlanta’s last playoff win, in 2004.

The Falcons, who have a bye for the wild-card round, are counting on their strong home record and the added experience of quarterback Matt Ryan and other key players who remain from the 2008 team that lost its playoff opener at Arizona.

“I think the playoff experience that we had two years ago will be beneficial for our football team,” said Coach Mike Smith, who was a rookie coach in 2008. He added, “I think it was a learning experience for us all, not only the players but the coaching staff.”

The Falcons (13-3) earned the bye by winning the N.F.C. South with the conference’s best record. They will play on Jan. 15 against the , the or the . The winner advances to the N.F.C. championship game.

Atlanta’s only other division titles came in 1980, 1998 and 2004. The team is the No. 1 seed for the first time since 1980.

The Falcons can advance to the Super Bowl with two wins at the Georgia Dome, where they are 20-2 in games started by Ryan over the last three years.

All that recent home success came in the regular season. The Falcons have not had a home playoff game since beating the in the divisional playoffs after the 2004 season. Atlanta lost at Philadelphia in the N.F.C. title game.

In addition to the three holdovers from the 2004 Falcons roster, the list of Atlanta players who have won in the playoffs is short: running back Michael Turner (while with San Diego), cornerback (Minnesota, Jacksonville), and defensive end and safety Erik Coleman (both with ).

The Falcons’ list of players still seeking their first playoff victory includes two of the team’s most experienced veterans, Gonzalez and Peterson.

This could be the last chance for Gonzalez, who has more catches than any other tight end in history, and Peterson, still a productive linebacker.

Gonzalez, 34, lost in each of his three playoff games with Kansas City. Peterson, 34, was 0 for 4 in the playoffs with Indianapolis and Jacksonville. He missed the Jaguars’ 2007 playoffs with an injury.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Peterson said. He added, “I’m just trying to take advantage of it and soak it all in.”

Gonzalez said he would make sure his younger teammates realize that playoff chances were rare, especially as a No. 1 seed.

“Just because you’re 13-3 doesn’t mean much,” he said. “We still have to take care of business.”

Ryan was only 13 when the Falcons lost to Denver in their only Super Bowl appearance, after the 1998 season. He was a rookie when the host Cardinals beat the Falcons, 30-24.

Ryan is bolstered by the experience gained in his three seasons as he prepares for his second try for a playoff win.

“Completely different,” Ryan said when asked to compare the two postseason opportunities. “At this point, I have a better idea of what to expect heading into it because it is different. There are things going on that are different than in the regular season.”

“The atmosphere is really different,” he added.

Ryan had three turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown, and was sacked for a safety in his 2008 playoff debut.

Ryan said he understood it was important to take advantage of the home playoff games.

“The opportunity doesn’t come around that often,” he said. “Trying to make the most of it, I think all of us will have that in the back of our minds.”

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