The Atlanta Falcons were 31 seconds from being a footnote in history. The Seattle Seahawks were less than a minute from one of the greatest comeback in playoff history. Not since the 1957 Detroit Lions had a team overcome a 20-point fourth quarter deficit in the playoffs.
The Falcons have been here before. The franchise’s history is littered with postseason disappointments in every size and shape. Outside observers would chalk this loss up to same song, different beat.
But this was a different Falcons team. It was the same song, but a very different beat. As reported on Atlanta’s 92.9 The Game, kicker Matt Bryant took time to sing it to every position group on the offense. Prior to Seattle kicking off for the last time, Matt Bryant reminded everyone, “We’ve been here before.”
The Atlanta Falcons have made a living off close games in 2012. Including the playoff game, the Falcons have won 7 of 14 games by fourth-quarter comebacks. Against the Denver Broncos, the Falcons took a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter only to escape with a 27-21 win. It was if the entire 2012 season was a dress rehearsal for the divisional round game.
The Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era essentially began this way. In 2008, the Chicago Bears introduced the world to “Matty Ice.” Much like the Seahawks, the Bears staged a fourth-quarter comeback and led the Falcons 20-19.
With a mere six seconds on the clock, the Falcons put the ball into the hands of a rookie Matt Ryan. While most rookies would have thrown an ill-advised Hail Mary, Ryan instead hit Michael Jenkins with a perfect strike on the sideline. With a single second on the clock, Jason Elam hit a 48-yarder for the win.
In Atlanta, the nickname “Matty Ice” went from cringe-worthy to beloved.
The Falcons' final possession was an eventful one. Matt Ryan placed two perfect passes to get within field-goal range. Tony Gonzalez fighting for extra yardage on the second reception might have been the difference maker. For reasons that defy explanation, a 49-yard field goal seems far easier than a 51-yard field goal.
The field goal took an odd turn when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called a timeout. Matt Bryant used the free time to take a practice shot. Bryant missed wide right, and Carroll went ballistic. It appeared that Carroll was questioning the official as to who called the timeout. The FOX television broadcast was quick to replay video of Carroll himself calling the timeout.
Bryant had no problems when it actually counted. The ball sailed through the uprights with eight seconds left on the clock.
Of Heart, Mind, And Stats
Russell Wilson had put the Falcons defense on its heels in the second half. With 30 seconds left, Wilson appeared to be on the verge of becoming a superstar. According to the stats, he had greatly outplayed Matt Ryan. Wilson had 379 yards, 2 TDs and 0 interceptions as the Seahawks took the lead.
While Ryan did have three touchdown passes, he had only 209 yards and two interceptions.
But Ryan had been here before. With less than a minute to play, Ryan not only knew he how to do it, but that he could do it.
On a much bigger stage, Wilson was given the opportunity to “Matty Ice” the game. After a squib kick gone horribly awry, the Seahawks had the ball at their own 46-yard line. Eerily similar to the 2008 Falcons-Bears game, the Seahawks had six seconds left to get in position for a game winning field goal.
On this day, Wilson was no Matt Ryan. Wilson’s first pass was not a deep prayer, but was not the 20-yard strike they desperately needed. Wilson completed a six-yard pass to Doug Baldwin, who stepped out of bounds. Too far for a field goal, Wilson’s subsequent Hail Mary became his only interception of the day.
A Lesson Learned
The struggle between perception and reality has been there all season for the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons and their fans have been vocal about a perceived lack of respect. Analysts often point to too many close games for the Falcons to be a team worth fearing.
And that might be true.
But the Falcons added a new truth to their history and perception on Sunday.
The last thing any team wants to see is Matt Ryan with the ball and less than a minute to play. And that is something worth fearing.