Grades: Bryant earns A in Falcons' win
Here are some Falcons-centric grades from the club's thrilling 30-28 win over the Seahawks in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff:
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson may have set a single-game franchise playoff record for passing yards (385) — while running for 60 yards and a score — but history will fondly remember Matt Ryan (250 yards passing, three TDs) for the way he secured his inaugural playoff victory . . . and the first home NFC title game in the Falcons' 46-year history (next week against the 49ers):
With Atlanta trailing 28-27 with 31 seconds left, Ryan completed two medium-range passes to Harry Douglas (22 yards) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (19 yards), putting the Falcons in reasonable position for a game-winning kick from Matt Bryant (more on that later).
It probably helped that Ryan had garnered invaluable experience with last-ditch drives during the regular season, needing sizable gains in the final moments to beat the Panthers, Raiders and Cardinals at home. His team also benefited from having two timeouts on the final drive, allowing for Gonzalez's over-the-middle reception with 13 seconds left.
For the day, Ryan connected on 24 of 35 passes and threw two interceptions — the latter helping the Seahawks forge their second touchdown drive of the fourth quarter (making the score 27-21). But all in all, Ryan earned solid marks for engineering six scoring drives, tossing three touchdowns (including a shovel-pass score to Jason Snelling) and capping one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history.
Turner (98 rushing yards) was stellar against the Seahawks, rolling for nearly 100 yards on just 14 attempts. He played a starring role with a ground attack that produced 167 total yards. By extension, he helped create roomier route-running lanes for the Atlanta pass-catchers, who tallied three TDs against Seattle.
It's ironic that Rodgers (72 total yards) fostered the seminal moment of his burgeoning career — a bruising 45-yard run at the end of the first quarter — with Seahawks tailback Marshawn Lynch standing on the opposite sideline. Rodgers' Beast Mode carry (rummaging through Seattle safety Earl Thomas) keyed an 11-play, 69-yard scoring drive for the Falcons, who subsequently grabbed a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter.
How good were Turner and Rodgers as an inside-outside combo? The pair rushed for 127 yards in the first half alone.
For good measure, Rodgers also fielded four kicks for 105 return yards.
With zero carries on the day, Snelling would usually warrant an "incomplete" grade here. But his shovel-pass TD reception was a crucial occurrence for the Falcons (pushing the lead to 20) . . . even if it seemed like a superfluous score at the time.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman merits some kudos for limiting White (five catches, 10 targets, 76 yards) to modest numbers for the day.
But White's diving touchdown reception (47 yards) in the second quarter dramatically changed the tone of the game. Aside from increasing the score to 20-0, White's TD helped take the "lid" off the Seattle defense, meaning the safeties could no longer afford to cheat up to combat the Atlanta rushing attack.
From an offensive standpoint, Jones turned in a solid performance, catching six of his 10 targeted balls for 59 yards. But he gets bonus credit for clinching Atlanta's win on the final play — with a leaping interception in the end zone (off Wilson's Hail Mary).
If Douglas (two catches, 29 yards) accomplishes nothing else in his career from this point forward . . . he'll always be the guy who kick-started the Falcons' game-winning drive, thanks to a 22-yard sideline catch with less than 30 seconds to play.
Years from now, Falcons fans will happily reflect on three Gonzo moments from Sunday:
Coffman's balletic 16-yard catch in the first quarter, prefacing Gonzalez's touchdown, was something to behold. In fact, it inspired a number of Tweets from Cincinnati media (and presumed Bengals fans), with many openly wondering how/when Coffman (three total catches in 2010 and '11) had acquired such grace as a receiver.
From the end of the second quarter to the beginning of the fourth — roughly a 19-minute span — the Falcons allowed consecutive drives of 58, 60, 80, 80 and 62 yards, resulting in three Seahawks touchdowns. That's not a recipe for championship football. It's usually not one for winning football during the playoffs, either.
Bottom line: Yes, Atlanta looked strong in certain spots on Sunday, but the club should also feel fortunate that Seattle squandered one major scoring chance in the first half — when Wilson incurred a rare "rookie moment" and allowed a sack to thwart a potentially easy field goal as the clock expired. The Falcons were very lucky to enjoy a 20-0 halftime advantage.
From a compartmental standpoint, the Falcons' pass rush (two sacks, four QB hits) had a reasonably productive outing. However, the blitz-inspired near-sack on the Seahawks' final scoring possession — which ended up as a Wilson-to-Marshawn Lynch reception for 24 yards (putting the ball at the 3-yard line) — had the appearance of a back-breaking play at the time.
On the plus side, Atlanta's defense should be commended for holding Lynch — who was riding a career-best streak of five games of 100-plus rushing yards — to just 46 on the ground (83 total).
Bryant nailed three kicks of 37, 39 and 49 yards, with the last clinching the Falcons' playoff victory. But his day didn't go without some controversy: Immediately before his game-winning field goal, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had called a timeout (verified by television), essentially icing the Atlanta kicker.
Before Bryant's kick, at least three whistles preceded his progression after the snap. But he attempted the freebie anyway . . . and missed to the right.
My take: In today's "blame-game" society, Bryant must have heard the whistles long before his first try. So, you cannot assume that he would have missed the REAL kick (if no Carroll timeout).
And yet, that's exactly how things will be portrayed in the Sunday and Monday postmortems. Oh well.
Seattle's always-dangerous Leon Washington collected only 61 incident-free return yards on Sunday — a wonderful coup for the Atlanta special teamers.