All season long Atlanta won close games. Despite a mediocre defense, and poor running game, the Falcons passed their way to victory. With an ability to win tight games, and take advantage of a weak schedule, Atlanta went 13-3 during the regular season earning the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
After leading early, and trailing late, quarterback Matt Ryan passed the Falcons into the NFC Championship game last week against Seattle. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line Ryan had his chance Sunday against San Francisco. From the 49ers 10 yard line, in the final two minutes, back-to-back Ryan passes intended for Roddy White fell incomplete. San Francisco's 28-24 win earns them a trip to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
In much the same way that the Falcons roared to a big lead against the Seahawks, Atlanta jumped on San Francisco with a seven play, 80 yard touchdown drive to begin the game. By the time the 49ers offense got on the field for a third time, after going three and out in their first two drives, Atlanta led 17-0. The Falcons controlled the ball for more than 11 of 15 minutes during the first quarter.
But as has been the case all year, the Falcon defense stumbled. Of the final eight Niner drives of the game, they scored on four of them, missed a field goal, fumbled at the Atlanta one yard line, kneeled down to end the first half, and ran off enough clock to punt with less than 20 remaining and virtually end the game. In other words, every drive following the opening two three and outs was a productive one.
The Falcon running game, which showed life against Seattle, never got on track. Atlanta ranked 29th in the NFL averaging just over 83 yards a game on the ground during the regular season. Against San Francisco only five first downs were achieved via the ground game. The Falcons averaged 3.5 yards per carry and totaled 81 yards rushing in the loss.
And still, Atlanta was in the position that they dreamed of. Trailing by four, with over eight minutes to go, they had the ball on their own 20 yard line with the game hanging in the balance. Ryan, who passed for just shy of 400 yards and three touchdowns, drove down the field, converting two third downs, and had the ball at the 49ers 16 yard line with a first down and plenty of time remaining. After a one yard rush by Jacquizz Rodgers, and a five yard completion to Jason Snelling, the drive stalled.
Before the two incompletions that ended the game, Ryan had completed 30 of 40 passes. Julio Jones caught 11 of them and Tony Gonzalez eight. In what was likely his final game in a Hall of Fame career, Gonzalez was not targeted on the final drive. Jones, who totaled 182 receiving yards and two scores, did not see a ball come his way once Atlanta reached San Francisco territory.
Ryan and Gonzalez got the monkey off of their back finally winning a playoff game against Seattle. They will watch the Super Bowl knowing that they were one play away from being in it.