Ryan erases years of failure, clutch drive sends Atlanta to NFC title game.
By Alex MarvezFoxSports
Tony Gonzalez’s mouth was saying one thing.
His heart felt another.
Gonzalez was telling “anyone who would listen” on the Atlanta Falcons sideline that all was not lost after the Seattle Seahawks had taken a one-point lead with 31 seconds remaining in Sunday’s second-round playoff game.
Gonzalez, though, was thinking that his 16-year NFL career would end without a postseason victory.
“Yeah, I thought it was over,” the future Hall of Fame tight end admitted during an emotional postgame interview. “Why wouldn’t I?
“Not over, but I thought it was going to be very tough for us to pull a victory out. And it is tough. Statistically, what is the likelihood you’re going to be able to make a play in that situation?”
The odds aren’t good. Then again, not every team has Matt Ryan at quarterback.
For the first time in his five-year NFL career, Ryan’s penchant for late regular-season heroics carried over into the playoffs. Two completions spanning 41 yards put Matt Bryant in position for the 49-yard field goal that lifted Atlanta to a 30-28 victory.
“Your past experiences kind of harden you,” Ryan said after notching his 22nd career fourth-quarter/overtime comeback victory and sixth of this season. “They make you a little tougher in those types of situations.
“If you have an opportunity with time still on the clock, you feel like you could get it done.”
It’s a good thing for Ryan, head coach Mike Smith and the entire organization that he did just that. Otherwise, the current regime may have suffered a setback the caliber of which there is no recovering from.
Atlanta’s squandering of a 20-0 halftime lead Sunday would have proven the most painful of the three previous playoff defeats since Smith and Ryan joined the franchise in 2008. Ryan would have become regarded as being unable to win the big one like Tony Romo. Smith would be placed in the same light as Marty Schottenheimer, whose regular-season success failed to translate into the playoffs.
Because of these prior flops, the outside pressure enshrouding the Falcons during the past week was suffocating. Locals feared a repeat of 2010 when another red-hot club (Green Bay) came into the Georgia Dome and snuffed the Falcons.
Normalcy was stressed throughout pregame preparation at Falcons headquarters to try and alleviate any tension. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter even told players not to watch or listen to sports programming.
“Obviously, it’s something that’s been a monkey on our back,” Falcons left tackle Sam Baker said. “There are so many talking heads out there that had this thing about the past. We knew this was our year and we can get this done.”
The Falcons were well en route to doing exactly that. Atlanta opened a 20-0 halftime advantage against a Seahawks squad that seemed jetlagged from back-to-back airplane trips across the country.
But just like in last Sunday’s 24-14 first-round playoff win in Washington, Seattle came storming back after falling behind early. Atlanta’s defense – which end Kroy Biermann said came out “flat” post-halftime with such a lofty lead – had no answer for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
As the rookie channeled the spirit of Fran Tarkenton with his scrambling and throwing, Ryan reverted to looking more like Joe Webb. In Atlanta’s first three drives of the fourth quarter, Ryan was 1 for 4 passing for three yards with an interception that led to a Seattle touchdown.
By the time Marshawn Lynch scored on a two-yard run to put Seattle ahead, 28-27, a hush fell over the crowd of 70,366 fans. Some began heading to the exits.
They should have known better.
This is the same building where Ryan first showed his mettle as a rookie in 2008 with even less time remaining (11 seconds) in a come-from-behind victory over Chicago. Earlier this year against Carolina, the Falcons were pinned at their 1-yard line with 59 seconds left. Ryan connected with Roddy White on a 59-yard completion to help set up another Bryant game-winning field goal.
So when Atlanta’s offense took the field after Jacquizz Rodgers returned the ensuing kickoff to the Falcons 28-yard line, there was no panic in the huddle as Ryan addressed the group.
“It’s kind of the same message each time I go out there in those situations,” Ryan said. “It’s not going to be a fire-and-brimstone speech. It’s more of, ‘Alright, let’s just do our job. We’ve got the time. We’ve got the timeouts. We need to execute.’ I thought everyone did that.”
Wide receiver Harry Douglas did his part, making a tough 22-yard reception near the Falcons sideline. After a timeout, Gonzalez – who has announced a “95-percent” likelihood of retirement after this season – ran down the seam for a 19-yard catch.
Not wanting to take any chances, Smith used his final timeout and sent Bryant out for a 49-yard field goal. An attempt to freeze Bryant by Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll with his own timeout didn’t work. Bryant nailed what proved his sixth game-winning kick since joining the Falcons in 2009.
“It’s good to be able to reflect on that feeling,” said Bryant, who had connected from 61 yards during pregame warmups. “You know how good it feels. It’s just trying to duplicate the same actions because you don’t want to feel the opposite.”
Atlanta’s secondary received a reminder of what being a goat was like Saturday when watching the end of Baltimore’s double-overtime victory over Denver. Determined not to get beat on a deep pass like the Broncos did at the end of regulation, the Falcons dropped a slew of players into the end zone on the game’s final play. One of them was wide receiver Julio Jones, who jumped to intercept Wilson’s pass as time expired.
“We didn’t want a nightmare like with Baltimore,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We definitely took that to heart. As DBs we looked each other in the eye and said, ‘Nothing over the top.’”
As spirited as the post-game celebration was, the Falcons know another second half like the one against Seattle will lead to elimination in next Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against visiting San Francisco. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is just as capable a thrower and even better runner than Wilson, who opened the second half completing all 10 of his pass attempts for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Atlanta’s offense also can’t afford another lengthy malaise.
“We’ve got to learn from this,” Gonzalez said.
The Falcons, though, did learn they could hold their own against an opponent renowned for its physicality. Led by Michael Turner, the Falcons rushed for a season-high 167 yards. The offensive line didn’t allow a sack against a Seahawks defense that sorely missed end Chris Clemons, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Washington.
DeCoud also believes the experience of trying to defend Wilson will come in handy against Kaepernick, who set the NFL’s single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards in Saturday night’s 45-31 win over Green Bay.
“We’ve got a little cheat sheet with six-point font ready,” DeCoud said with a laugh.
There is one more thing that should benefit the Falcons in the quest for their first Super Bowl appearance in 14 seasons: No more reminders about what was an ugly postseason history.
“It will be nice, that’s for sure,” Ryan said with a smile. “But at the same time, our goal isn’t to win one playoff game. It’s not to stop answering that question.
“Our goal is still in front of us. We have two more games to go.”
Even though it looked like they wouldn’t have any.