ATLANTA — All game long Charles Johnson and the Carolina Panthers were tearing holes in the Atlanta Falcons’ offense line, leaving quarterback Matt Ryan battered.
So on the critical play of the game, the Falcons called for an eight-man protection scheme to try and hold off Carolina, which was poised less than a minute away from a season-changing victory.
From his own 1-yard line in the final minute of regulation, Ryan completed a 59-yard pass to wide receiver Roddy White, who got behind Carolina’s two-deep zone and leaped over the nearest defender to come down with the ball. Four plays later, the Falcons improved to 4-0 with Matt Bryant’s 40-yard field goal with five seconds left in regulation for a 30-28 victory at the Georgia Dome, dropping their NFC South Division rival to 1-3.
The yards were the last of on the day of White’s 169, the third-most productive day of a four-time Pro-Bowl career. They also helped the Falcons to overcome seven sacks, including 3.5 by Johnson, who single-handedly set back the Falcons minus-35.5 yards.
“He just made a great play,” Ryan said of White’s big catch. “When you’re in that situation late in a game, you have to make a play that changes the outcome and I thought he did a great job.”
The Falcons are starting to make a farce out of the divisional race. The Falcons already hold, at minimum, a three-game lead over both New Orleans and Carolina, considered their top competition for the top spot in the NFC South, and also could have a three-game lead over Tampa Bay.
Through their first three games, the Falcons had never trailed and, at most, had one game in which they had to run out the clock at the end to preserve victory. Sunday was different.
“It’s very good to know that you’ll be able to handle the ebbs and flows of an NFL football game,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “We weren’t naïve enough to think we would play every game with a lead but I thought it showed the mettle of the guys in that room.”
Ryan finished the day by going 25-of-40 for 369 yards with three touchdowns — two of them to White — and an interception. Entering the game, his quarterback rating of 114.0 was the highest in the NFL and on Sunday he finished at 107.2, the first time in his career he has gone four straight games over 100.
The 59-yard pass evoked memories of Ryan’s 2008 rookie season — a play that proved itself an omen of things to come. In Week 6 against Chicago, he threw a 26-yard out to Michael Jenkins with one second left on the clock that allowed the Falcons to win 22-20 with a 48-yard field goal as time expired. The season represented a miraculous turnaround from 4-12 to 11-5.
“We both won games, so in my book that’s good,” Ryan said of the comparison. “We’ve been a team since I’ve been here — you have to understand there’s going to be weeks you’re in those tight games and the difference, I think, is being able to make plays at the end of the game and we did that today.”
Sunday’s victory was made in large part by White, who, even though he caught 100 passes in 2011, led the NFL in drops. He has said lack of focus was a problem.
But it was in no way on Sunday. In addition to what he did receiving, he also made a great shoulder-to-shoulder block at full speed to help Michael Turner finish off a 60-yard touchdown reception on a screen play.
As White dressed in the locker room before speaking to the media, fellow wide receiver Harry Douglas told White the game reminded him of a 16-14 Week 4 win over San Francisco that proved critical in 2010 as Atlanta went 13-3.
With less than two minutes left in regulation, 49er Nate Clements intercepted Ryan and returned it 39 yards, but White stripped him of the ball, returning possession to the Falcons at their 7. Ryan then drove the team 68 yards for a 43-yard field goal with six seconds left. White called Sunday’s win “a good lesson learned.”
“Any time,” he said, “you get a situation of being in close games — because a lot of these games are going to be close — and you get an opportunity to come back and win, you move on as a team and you carry a lot of confidence.”
Certainly, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for these Falcons.