ATLANTA – Matt Bryant pumped his fist and celebrated atop the Falcons logo in the middle of the field. Tony Gonzalez broke down in tears. Matt Ryan relished the thought of not having to answer a familiar question.
The Atlanta Falcons finally showed they could win a playoff game.
And what a game it was.
After a meltdown in the fourth quarter, the Falcons pulled off a comeback that will long be remembered in championship-starved Atlanta. Ryan completed two long passes, and Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining, lifting the NFC’s top seed to a stunning 30-28 victory over Russell Wilson and the gutty Seattle Seahawks in a divisional game Sunday.
“Wow!” Falcons coach Mike Smith said, summing up this classic as well as anyone could.
Atlanta (14-3) squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, trailing for the first time all day after Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left and Ryan Longwell knocked the extra point for a 28-27 lead.
The Falcons, thanks to a pair of Matty Ices – Ryan and Bryant – refused to crumble.
Ryan, shaking off his struggles in three previous playoff losses and two interceptions against the Seahawks, hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 29-yard pass in front of the Atlanta bench, and Smith quickly signaled a timeout. Then Ryan went down the middle to his favorite target Gonzalez, a Hall of Famer-to-be playing what could’ve been his final game.
Gonzalez hauled in the 19-yard throw, and Smith called his final timeout with 13 seconds remaining. Instead of risking another play and having the clock run out, he sent Bryant in for the field-goal try.
The Seahawks called timeout just before the ball was snapped, and Bryant’s kick sailed right of the upright. That turned out to be nothing more than practice. The next one was right down the middle as Bryant took off in the other direction, pumping his fist before he was mobbed by his teammates.
“Our quarterback is a special player,” Smith said. “They call him Matty Ice, but I feel like we’ve got two Matty Ices. There’s Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant.”
The Falcons overcame their reputation for choking in the playoffs, getting their first postseason victory since the 2004 season. They’ll host San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake.
“Nobody flinched,” Ryan said. “We just kept battling, kept doing what we do. That’s been the makeup of our team all season.”
Bryant knocked through his third winning kick of the season. But he’d never made one like this, with so much on the line.
“When they scored their touchdown, I walked down (the sideline),” he said. “I told the offensive line, I told Matt (Ryan), I told all the receivers, ‘We’ve done this before.’ ”
Wilson threw two touchdown passes and ran for one, doing all he could to pull off the most improbable of comebacks for the Seahawks (12-6). But the Seattle defense, which is one of the NFL’s best and had totally stymied the Falcons in the fourth quarter, went to a softer coverage and got burned.
Atlanta had just enough time to make a comeback of its own.
“We had high, high hopes for the rest of the season,” Wilson said. “When the game was over, I was very disappointed. But walking back into the tunnel, I got so excited about next year. The resilience we showed was unbelievable.”
Wilson finished with 385 yards passing as the Seahawks wiped out a 27-7 deficit entering the final quarter. When Lynch powered over, the ball breaking the goal line just before it squirted from his arms, Seattle celebrated like it had won its second straight playoff game on the road, having already taken care of Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.
According to STATS, it would have been the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history.
Not so fast.
Ryan led the Falcons back, wiping out his 0-3 mark in the playoffs, including a crushing loss to Green Bay two years ago when the Falcons were in the same position, as the NFC’s top-seeded team with home-field advantage in the playoffs.
“The one thing I’ve learned during my five years in the league, and specifically in the postseason, is that it’s hard,” Ryan said.
Now, he’ll no longer be asked why he can’t win in the playoffs.
“That’s going to be nice,” Ryan admitted. “But our goal is not to win one playoff game. Our goals are still in front of us. We still have two more games to go. That’s the mindset I have. That’s the mindset this team has.”
Wilson’s last throw, a desperation heave into the end zone, was intercepted by Falcons receiver Julio Jones.
Gonzalez, who had never won a playoff game in his 16-year career, broke down in tears after Bryant’s kick went through the uprights.
“I’ve never cried after a win,” said Gonzalez, who has stated repeatedly that he’s “95 percent” sure this is his final year. “I was thinking, ‘Here we go again. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.’ ”
The Falcons finally lived up to their excellence during the regular season since Smith, Ryan and general manager Thomas Dimitroff took over in 2008, instantly reviving a franchise that seemed down and out after Michael Vick’s dogfighting case. Atlanta has won 56 regular-season games over the last five years, more than any team except New England, but had a reputation for choking in the postseason.
Check that off the list. Atlanta is one win from the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Ryan threw three touchdown passes, tying a Falcons playoff record, and finished 24 of 35 for 250 yards – the first time he’s eclipsed 200 in the postseason. He threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez, a 47-yarder to Roddy White and a 5-yarder to Jason Snelling, the latter with 2:11 left in the third quarter to give the Falcons a seemingly commanding lead.
Wilson took over from there, running 1 yard for a touchdown to make it 27-14, then going to Zach Miller on a 3-yard TD pass that closed the gap to 27-21.