By Simon Evans
ATLANTA (Reuters) - After a 13-3 season, earning them top seed in the NFC, the Atlanta Falcons crashed out of the playoffs with a 48-21 defeat to the Green Bay Packers that left their players and coach stunned.
The Falcons' dream of reaching what would have been just their second Super Bowl in franchise history was decimated by a superb display from the Green Bay Packers and their four touchdown quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Saturday night began full of hope and festivity, with the Georgia Dome packed with loud fans waving red flags, but ended with a near empty stadium in the fourth quarter as the home fans left the partying to the visitors from the North East
Losing was not a huge shock against a Green Bay team that is clearly hitting peak form at just the right time but few expected the heaviest playoff loss in the team's history.
"We obviously had a real tough time stopping them. Their offense did a very good job. Then when you turned the offense over four times and have five sacks, it's not going to be pretty," he said.
It certainly was not a pretty night for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan who managed only 186 passing yards and threw two interceptions - one of which was returned for a touchdown.
"I think everyone was disappointed with the outcome and with the way we played," he told reporters.
"Any time you're in the playoffs and you have an opportunity to go win it all and that doesn't happen - that is pretty frustrating," he added.
The night began so positively for Atlanta with running back Michael Turner surging through the middle for a 12 yard touchdown with what seemed a reminder to Green Bay that they were playing a team that had won 13 games.
"You get those wins to get into this position (in the playoffs). To not be able to take advantage of having home field is shocking right now," said Turner.
While it will be back to the drawing board for a team that has looked solid in all areas throughout the regular season but whose secondary was systematically exposed by Green Bay, the defeat will be hard to stomach for fans who have been starved of success but who had really begun to feel this could be their year.
"It was a great, great season. Unbelievable, It was a lot of fun, a lot of success for this team and the city," said tight-end Tony Gonzalez, who, nearing the end of his career, has yet to enjoy a playoff win.
"You look for some kind of acceptance, I guess. You try and relish in the positive. It was a great run and a lot of people in Atlanta had a great time this year. The team had a great time. It's just how it goes.
"It's tough, real tough. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Atlanta; Editing by Dave Thompson)