Jan. 23, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word –
Philip Wheeler felt right at home Sunday evening, smiling as broadly as possible in a locker room full of impossibly happy men. After helping the Atlanta Falcons whip the Green Bay Packers, he took a moment to reflect on his pending trip to the Super Bowl — the second such journey of his nine-year NFL career.
The former Georgia Tech linebacker is breathing rare air and he knows it. Many NFL players come and go without even making it to the playoffs. Many more never play in a Super Bowl.
“It’s amazing,” he said after the Falcons’ 44-21 win over Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, the final contest ever in the Georgia Dome. “This is wonderful. Just a fantastic feeling.”
Wheeler made it to the Super Bowl in his second season, after the 2009 campaign and one year after the Colts selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft. He’s not saying this trip is better than that one, but if the Falcons (13-5) manage to beat the Patriots (16-2) in Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5 in Houston, it surely will top the list.
Former Yellow Jacket Shaq Mason will have other plans. He’s a starting guard for New England, making Georgia Tech one of only 12 programs with former players on both teams competing in this year’s Super Bowl.
The Colts lost to the Saints in his first trip to the NFL’s mecca, so Wheeler is pausing before making a bottom-line comparison. This hasn’t been the same, though, in some notable ways.
Chiefly, it’s been amazing the way Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has created a culture allowing “this to be a player-led team,” as wide receiver Julio Jones said.
So much has been made of this team’s “Brothership” — a term coined accidentally by fullback Patrick DiMarco in merging the concepts of brotherhood and friendship — and it’s real.
Wheeler’s having a blast and loving the ride as a reserve linebacker. As for the how it compares to his first Super Bowl journey with the Colts, it’s hard to quantify, at this point, at least, “because the team was different, the environment was different, the chemistry was different,” he said. “I feel like it wasn’t better, either one, just different.”
The Falcons’ offense pulls most of the headlines for this team, leading the NFL in scoring with Jones making one amazing play after another. Quarterback Matt Ryan is expected to be named MVP of the league the day before the Super Bowl.
On Sunday, the defense did more than its fair share of work, tightening down on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers to make him look mortal. The key, Wheeler said, was, “The way we pressured him. We didn’t get to him all the time, but we corralled him.”
Wheeler, who played at Tech from 2003-07, led the Jackets with nine sacks as a junior and, as a senior, paced the squad with 89 total tackles. He closed his career with 11 tackles against Georgia and another 11 against Fresno State in the 2007 Humanitarian Bowl.
He joined the Falcons as a free agent in the middle of the ’15 season and, last March, signed a one-year, $965,000 contract for ’16. After playing in all 16 regular season games and registering 28 tackles and two for lost yardage, he’s played in playoff wins over the Seahawks and Packers, too.
The win over Seattle was good for a $49,000 player bonus and he’ll earn another $103,000 if the Falcons win the Super Bowl, $53,000 if they don’t.
He’s not thinking about such things these days. Wheeler’s marveling over his shared fate with the Falcons, who before the regular season were widely considered a candidate to compete for the NFC South division title but little more.
They’ve flown past those expectations.
“We felt like we had the talent always but we had to put everything together,” Wheeler said. “We did that mid-season; you could see when we went on our runs, we started jelling together. I feel like it was obvious — you could see it.”
A photo posted by Philip Wheeler (@philgood50) on Jan 22, 2017 at 8:11pm PST