The proverbial playoff monkey is off the Falcons' back. Let's celebrate.
The tears in Tony Gonzalez's eyes told the entire story.
A postseason victory had been a long time coming for the Mike Smith-led Falcons, and the wait for one included its fair share of painful losses. For many members of the organization, Gonzalez and Smith included, this was an achievement a lifetime in the making.
But after a roller coaster 60-minute effort, one that incited nearly the entire spectrum of human emotion, a playoff win was ultimately achieved.
Matt Ryan led a miraculous comeback, Matt Bryant's right leg proved clutch, and Julio Jones, of all people, hauled in an interception as time expired. The Falcons won 30-28, and will face the San Fransisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
For the first time since 2004, and for the first time under the current regime, the Lombardi Trophy appears within reach for Atlanta.
"I haven’t started to breathe again yet," Falcons' owner Arthur Blank said following the game. "Seriously, I can’t breathe."
Breaking Down an Amazing Comeback
Mr. Blank wasn't alone. This game came down to the wire despite a lopsided first half, as the Falcons were forced to mount a comeback after surrendering the lead with less than a minute left in regulation.
Thanks to a Marshawn Lynch touchdown, the Seahawks found themselves up 28-27 with just 31 seconds remaining. But anyone that's been following the Falcons over the last five years knew the game was far from over at that point.
Ryan's first throw of that final drive, which started at Atlanta's 28 yard line, was reminiscent of his pass to Michael Jenkins that set up a game-winning FG against the Bears in the miracle win from '08. This time, it was Harry Douglas who came down with the grab, bringing the Falcons closer to field goal range and giving fans hope.
With just a few chances left to move the football into Seattle territory, who else but Gonzalez gets open and hauls in a pass at the Seahawk 31 yard line. The rest, as they say, was history.
Bryant booted 49-yard field goal, and soon after, Atlanta was crowned the winner.
"The best way to predict the future is to remember the past, and the past was that we had done this before," said Bryant, who has three game-winning kicks this year.
The best athletes rise up to the occasion when the game matters the most, and that's exactly what we saw from Atlanta on that final drive. Matt Ryan, Harry Douglas, Tony Gonzalez, and of course, Matt Bryant did what was required of them to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Did Pete Carroll Cost His Team a Win?
Pete Carroll will be criticized in the coming days for giving the Falcons so much time to orchestrate a comeback—and he should be. As Matt Ryan has proved time and time again, he only needs a few seconds to lead his team down the field. The Seahawks learned that the hard way.
Carroll also called a time out just prior to Matt Bryant's first attempt at a game-winning FG, an attempt that was missed wide right. The second try was right down the middle.
"I hate to be dealing with this right now that we got beat today, but the future is so bright for this team, and they know that," Carroll said. "They’ll live with this frustration for a long time."
Abraham Hurt Yet Again
Playing at roughly 80 percent health, John Abraham seemed to be just fine in the first half, creating substantial pressure on Russell Wilson (even though he failed to record a sack or tackle). However, he re-tweaked his hurt ankle in the second quarter, and that would be the end of the day for the four-time Pro Bowler.
His status for next week's game against the 49ers remains uncertain.
The loss of Abraham was far too apparent in the second half, as the Falcons failed to generate much of a pass rush without their star defensive end. And with another mobile quarterback coming to town in the NFC Championship Game in the form of Colin Kaepernick, Atlanta will be in trouble if Abraham is unable to suit up.
Falcons Contain Lynch
Despite being the 21st ranked rush defense during the regular season, the Falcons did an admirable job containing the outstanding Marshawn Lynch, who was held to just 83 total yards. While he did score a touchdown with less than a minute to play, Atlanta's ability to stop him from breaking free for a big run proved to be one of the biggest difference-makers on Sunday.
Lynch also fumbled away the ball on a crucial drive in the first quarter, setting up a Falcon touchdown.
On the flip side, the Falcons running attack had a phenomenal day. Michael Turner, who created much ire among the Falcon faithful this season with his sub-par play, racked up 98 yards on the ground in just 14 attempts. Additionally, Jacquizz Rodgers had 64 yards in 10 carries, including a 45-yard sprint—the longest of his young career.
Atlanta's run-heavy offense was essential, keeping the dangerous Seahawk defense on its toes. Had Matt Ryan been forced to throw the ball 40+ times, the Falcons would've had a very difficult time winning.
Tony Gonzalez Finally Gets a Postseason Win
No one on that field deserved a win more than Gonzalez, who, despite an amazing 16-year career, was 0-5 in his first five playoff appearances.
The future Hall of Famer got a little emotional after the game, and who can blame him? This was the biggest victory of his life.
"After 16 years, never winning a playoff game, I was ... I've never cried after a win," Gonzalez said to FOX. "I was thinking, 'Here it goes again, I just guess it wasn't meant to be.' For us to come back the way we did, I'm so proud of our guys."
Gonzalez, 36, had 51 yards and a touchdown against Seattle, showing the world yet again that age is nothing but a number.
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Hats off to the Seahawks, who played a heck of a game. With so much quality young talent, we can expect to see them competing in the NFC for the foreseeable future. In spite of being such an inexperienced team, Seattle did a fantastic job clawing back from a 20-0 deficit, and certainly gave Atlanta a run for its money. Odds are these two clubs will face off again soon.
The Falcons will take the next day or so to celebrate a monumental win—as they should—but the focus will soon shift to the 49ers, who blew out the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.
An old rivalry renewed with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. It doesn't get much better than this.