For a team that’s already played in two conference championship games and a Super Bowl, dubbing a divisional-round win as the biggest in team history seems a bit much. But it’s not.
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan entered Sunday’s game with a goose egg in the playoff win column. After 43 regular season wins from 2008 to 2011, the Falcons made three trips to the postseason and were one and done every time.
Team owner Arthur Blank demanded more, he demanded playoff success. The Falcons’ fanbase demanded more; they demanded the same as the owner.
Dropping a fourth playoff game in as many trips would have been devastating to the franchise. Had the Falcons lost Sunday after establishing a 20-point halftime lead—well, nuclear disaster sites would have been happier places than the city of Atlanta.
The Falcons survived—even though they did blow that 20-point lead—and never again will Ryan or tight end Tony Gonzalez ever have to answer the question: When will you get your first playoff win?
Here are the four-and-a-half plays that changed the direction of the Falcons franchise.
Fourth Quarter, 0:31—Seahawks 28, Falcons 27
Jacquizz Rodgers took the Seattle kickoff five yards deep in the end zone and decided to bring it out.
Rodgers found a hole at the 15-yard line and squirted through it. He avoided contact all the way until the 25-yard line, where he bowled over Kam Chancellor and fell forward to the Atlanta 28.
Fourth Quarter, 0:25—Seahawks 28, Falcons 27
The Falcons, down by one point with two timeouts, lined up in its 10 personnel formation (one running back, four receivers and no tight end, having split Gonzalez out wide) at the 28-yard line.
Harry Douglas ran a deep out pattern and caught a pass in front of Brandon Browner at the 50-yard line. Douglas was knocked backwards but was given progress to the 50.
Douglas did not get out of bounds and Atlanta was forced to use one of their two remaining time outs.
“Our offensive line did a great job with pass protection and Harry Douglas ran a great route, he really did,” said Ryan. “[He] made a tough physical catch, he took a pretty good shot as he was coming down with the football.”
Fourth Quarter, 0:18—Seahawks 28, Falcons 27
The Falcons, now on the 50-yard line with one time out, were 15 to 20 yards from Matt Bryant's field goal range.
Atlanta came out once again in 10 personnel. Gonzalez was on the field but split from the offensive line. He had zero intent on blocking.
Gonzalez stayed in the seam and ran a 15-yard stop route. He caught Ryan’s pass, turned and muscled his way for four more yards to the Seattle 31-yard line.
"Tony [Gonzalez] is Mr. Reliable," said Ryan. "He’s so consistent; he did a great job with the route and created separation to give me a good window to throw it."
Fourth Quarter, 0:13—Seahawks 28, Falcons 27
Smith called Atlanta’s final timeout from the sideline (maybe a little too quickly) with 13 seconds to play and the ball at Seattle’s 31-yard line. There was probably time to run one more play toward the sideline, but not wanting to risk a receiver catching a pass and failing to get out of bounds, the Falcons sent out the field goal unit.
Bryant lined up for the 49-yard field goal with Matt Bosher holding and rookie Josh Harris snapping the ball. Right before the snap, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll called a timeout to ice Bryant. The special teams trio—doing as instructed by Smith, who at all times insists on kicking the field goal, even if a time out is called—went through the motions and kicked the field goal.
Bryant missed—wide right.
Since Carroll called a time out, Bryant got a do-over. Bryant told John Manasso of Fox Sports South in the locker room that the snap-hold-kick combination was a bit off on the first attempt.
Fourth Quarter, 0:13—Seahawks 28, Falcons 27
On Bryant’s second field goal attempt, no one called a time out. From the right hash mark, Bryant let loose a strong kick that split the uprights, just right of dead center.
Bryant said in the locker room that he “could feel it” right after Seattle scored its go-ahead touchdown that he’d get a shot at winning the football game.
“We’ve done this before,” Bryant said he told the offense. “We did it again. It’s a great feeling.”
Smith said after the game that he felt Atlanta had two “Matty Ices” one named Ryan and another named Bryant.
For Ryan, Sunday’s game-winning drive was the 22nd of his career. Bryant’s game-winner was his sixth as a member of the Falcons and third this year.
But no kick or game-winning drive was more important to the Falcons, not ever, than Sunday’s last-minute magic to send Atlanta to the NFC Championship.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.