The Falcons, who hadn't won in the playoffs under coach Mike Smith, advanced to the NFC Championship Game with a dramatic 30-28 victory over the Seahawks.
ATLANTA — Up and down the Falcons’ sideline, their players exuded confidence after Marshawn Lynch’s touchdown left Atlanta trailing by one point with 31 seconds to play. Never mind that they were half a minute from a playoff collapse of major proportions.
“The first thing our defense came back and said to us was, ‘Hey, they left too much time on the clock. We know you all got it,’ ” said wide receiver Harry Douglas. “And the first thing we said was, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make every play count.’ “
Kicker Matt Bryant knew his moment for goathood or heroics loomed just ahead, and that he carried the hopes and dreams of a Falcons team that would be excoriated if they blew a 20-0 lead to lose in the playoffs for the fourth straight time.
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“I walked down and told the O-line, I told Matt (Ryan) and I told all the receivers, ‘You know what? We’ve done this before,’ ” said Bryant.
In the huddle, after Jacquizz Rodgers returned the kickoff to the 28-yard line, Ryan reminded his teammates that they had enough time, and they had enough timeouts; just go out and execute.
“It’s not a big fire and brimstone speech,” he said. “It’s the same thing I say in those situations every time I go out there.”
Tackle Tyson Clabo had a more telling point.
“You know, fellas, we just need 30 yards,” he said in the huddle — a message that resonated with veteran center Todd McClure.
“You think about it like that, that’s two pass plays,” McClure said.
But there was, at least momentarily, one pocket of doubt amid the Falcons’ outward wall of optimism. And it came from none other than veteran Tony Gonzalez, who had experienced too much playoff heartbreak to be so sanguine that this one would end differently.
“At the end of the game,” Gonzalez said, “I promise you, I thought, ‘Here we go again. I guess it wasn’t meant for us to get a playoff victory. Especially for me individually. I guess it was never going to happen.’ “
Considering that Gonzalez has said he is 95 percent certain he’s retiring at the end of the season, a loss would have meant his Hall of Fame career was over. And it would have ended without a playoff victory in six attempts.
Which is why, when all those statements of self-assurance by the Falcons came true, and Bryant booted his 49-yard field goal, and time finally ran out, Gonzalez crumbled to the ground and wept “like a baby,” he would say afterward.
“I’ve cried after a loss, but I’ve never cried after a win,” Gonzalez said. “I thought it was over. Because I’ve been here 16 years, six playoff games, and I was like, ‘Here we go again.’ Especially with that big ‘ol lead. I was like, ‘I guess it’s not meant to be.’ “
It was only fitting the play that put the Falcons in field-goal range was a 19-yard strike down the middle from Ryan to Gonzalez. For the man with more receptions than anyone in NFL history not named Jerry Rice, it was a play he’s executed hundreds of times. But never with more on the line.
“Probably the best catch I’ve ever had, even though it was probably one of the easiest, too,” Gonzalez said with a laugh. “Because he put it right on my chest. It’s the most important catch I’ve ever had in my life. Shoot, I’ll never forget it. It was wonderful.”
That moved the ball to Seattle’s 31 with 13 seconds left. Rather than mess with another play, Atlanta coach Mike Smith sent in the 37-year-old Bryant, who had two previous game-winners this season.
“I feel like we have two Matty Ices,” said Smith. “We have Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called a timeout to, well, ice Bryant, but the Falcons still went through with the play. The boot sailed wide right, though the timeout made the outcome moot. Bryant said his timing had been off, and the redo gave him a much-needed chance to fix the problem.
“It’s a good thing they had called a timeout, because we were able to get ourselves back together,” he said. “I missed it right. It was my fault. It was a timing thing I was able to adjust on that second one.”
Bryant’s mantra during that spine-tingling moment?
“I’ve got to stay down and kick through the ball,” he said. ” ‘Down and through’ is what I tell myself. I do that on every kick. That’s all there is to it. Stay down, kick through it, do your best and whatever happens, happens.”
What happened for the Falcons was the removal of the mounting stigma — particularly for Smith and Ryan — that they can’t win the big one. After playoff losses to Arizona following the 2008 season, Green Bay (2010 season) and the New York Giants last year, it was a huge relief to face the 49ers in the NFC title game rather than more questions about playoff failures.
“I think the one thing I’ve learned in my five years, and specifically in the postseason, is that it’s hard,” Ryan said. “I mean, it’s difficult to do. We knew coming in it was going to take 60 minutes of our best football to come out with a win, and that’s kind of the way the game shook out today.”
And the Falcons hope they’ve finally shaken out all of the doubts about their readiness to compete for a title.
“It was huge,” said McClure, the only current Falcon to have played in their last playoff victory in 2004. “It was a gorilla. Everybody felt it. If they told you anything different, they’re lying to you.
“I’ve never been more nervous for a football game than I was for this one. Just driving down all week, and to go win, and the way we won, is just unbelievable.”
The Falcons — except Gonzalez — would tell you they had it all the way.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.On Twitter @StoneLarry
|Falcons finally win|
|The Falcons won a playoff game Sunday for the first time under coach Mike Smith.|
|2008||11-5 (2nd in NFC South)||Lost at Arizona, 30-24|
|2009||9-7 (2nd in NFC South)||Didn’t make playoffs|
|2010||13-3 (1st in NFC South)||Lost to Green Bay, 48-21|
|2011||10-6 (2nd in NFC South)||Lost at NY Giants, 24-2|
|2012||13-3 (1st in NFC South)||Defeated Seahawks, 30-28|