For the first time since 2004 the Falcons won a playoff game on Sunday. The victory didn’t come easy. Leading Seattle 27-7 early in the fourth quarter it seemed as though Atlanta was going to roll into the NFC Championship Game. Indeed they will host San Francisco for the right to go to the Super Bowl; however, the way their 30-28 win ultimately materialized will be remembered for a very long time.
After Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hit Jason Snelling for a five yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter nobody would have criticized an Atlanta fan for peaking at stubhub to see how much a championship game ticket was going to cost. Leading by 20, and having surrendered just one score all day is when the surprisingly adequate Falcon defense returned to regular season form.
Three Seahawks touchdowns later and the Falcons trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left. After throwing a critical interception that led to the second of three Seattle scores in the final quarter, Matt Ryan started the game winning drive with a 22 yard hookup to Harry Douglas. After a 19 yard throw to Tony Gonzalez Atlanta was in field goal range. Falcon place kicker Matt Bryant missed on his initial try from 49 yards out but Seahawk coach Pete Carroll used a timeout before the snap. Bryant's second try was a no doubter. But the game wasn't over yet.
Leading by two with eight seconds left Bryant tried a squib kick but it ended up more like an onside kick. Seattle got the ball near midfield. After a short completion into Falcon territory on first down, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson tried a hail marry on second down. As the clock ran out, and the ball descended, for an Atlanta team that has relied on offense all season long, it was appropriate that wide receiver Julio Jones, playing at safety, intercepted the pass in the end zone to seal the victory.
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The win helps erase bad memories for Atlanta. The Falcons fell in a Wild Card game to the Giants 24-2 last year. Two years Atlanta fell to Green Bay 48-21 in a scenario much like Sunday, a home game following a bye.
Future Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez captured his a playoff victory for the first time during his 16 year career. He caught six passes including a touchdown, and the final Atlanta throw of the day to setup the game winning field goal. Meanwhile, the Falcons rushed for 167 yards, nearly double their average output on the ground.
The win was Atlanta's first against a team that made the playoffs in more than three months. It sets up their first meeting with San Francisco since a 16-14 home win early in the 2010 season.
As for Seattle, the loss snapped a six game winning streak. The Seahawks fell despite Wilson's 385 yards through the air and 60 yards rushing. He accounted for three touchdowns in the loss. Seattle trailed 20-0 at halftime in part because of the decision to pass up a field goal try and go for it on fourth down and one at the Atlanta 11 yard line with under six minutes left in the second quarter. Michael Robinson's rushing attempt lost a yard. Seattle also botched the final possession of the first half. The Seahawks used their final timeout with 25 seconds left, and then were unable to get the clock stopped when Wilson was sacked by Jason Babineaux on the final play of the half.
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Atlanta advances to their second conference champion game. The Falcons lost at Philadelphia in 2004 and beat Minnesota in overtime at the Metrodome in 1998. Atlanta lost their only Super Bowl appearance to Denver 34-19.