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As the clock wound down toward an impossible Falcons loss in the Georgia Dome on Sunday—the kind of defeat that could haunt a franchise for years—the potential damage reverberated on the home sideline. This is year five of the Mike Smith era, and year five of Matt Ryan as the anti-Vick, and year five of a playoff drought: 56 regular-season wins but not a single one in the playoffs entering Sunday. To blow a 27--7 lead at the start of the fourth quarter against a rookie quarterback.... Unthinkable. But there were the Falcons, 25 seconds left, trailing Russell Wilson and the Seahawks 28--27. Reality was setting in.
I guess it wasn't meant to be, tight end Tony Gonzalez thought bitterly on the sideline.
Ryan wasn't thinking that. He was thinking—and told his offensive mates—"Make a play. Make one play." Since the 2008 draft that's the attitude the Falcons had gotten used to from their quarterback, who said all the right things and did all the right things—except win in January. He'd played poorly, overall, in three playoff losses, so the pressure was on him in a very big way to win this particular game. Earlier in the year he had decided to ban sports TV, sports radio and sports Internet from his life. This way he wouldn't have to hear about how no player in football faced the kind of pressure that he did in the postseason. Instead, the 27-year-old former first-overall pick watched and read a lot of TMZ, something Mr. Straitlaced felt sheepish admitting after the game. Anything but football.
"Sometimes," Ryan says, "it's good to be naive."
But again, there was Ryan with a bad fourth-quarter interception to Earl Thomas that helped the Seahawks take the lead in the final minute. With 25 seconds left, Ryan got the ball back at the Falcons' 28, needing about 40 yards to feel good about Matt Bryant's chances of making a field goal. Ryan hit Harry Douglas for 22 yards to midfield, then considered his options on the next snap, with 19 seconds left. Surveying the coverage at the line, he noticed that strong safety Kam Chancellor, who'd been successfully jousting with Gonzalez most of the day, was not on the six-time All-Pro tight end; instead, Seattle matched linebacker Bobby Wagner on Gonzalez.
"I felt good about that matchup," says Ryan. "Real good." Gonzalez went up the right seam, and Ryan hit him with a perfect strike. Gain of 19. Then Bryant's 49-yard field goal won it.
Gonzalez was celebrating the first playoff victory of his 16-year career but said he was happiest for his quarterback. "He needed this, and he went out and did it."
Atlanta has had a strange season, tying for the league's best record at 13--3, but not in a dominant way. "Nobody picked us today," Gonzalez said, "as well they shouldn't have. We haven't been consistent." Afterward he said to Ryan, "Seems like it wasn't going to happen any other way. I kinda like it that way."
The alternative could be buried late Sunday afternoon as fans filed out of the Georgia Dome, knowing the Falcons are two victories—starting this Sunday with the NFC title game, against dangerous San Francisco—from the franchise's first Super Bowl title. But everyone knew how close they'd come to the Hindenburg of NFL disasters.
"That's not a monkey off our backs," says center Todd McClure. "It's a gorilla."