The Atlanta Falcons pulled out a narrow win and now they're headed to the NFC Championship. Here's how it went down.
I haven't slept much recently. I say that not to throw a wink at fellow parents on the site or to complain, but to illustrate my state of mind when the game began yesterday. I had a couple of beers in front of me, my baby boy dressed in a Falcons onesie and a nice combination of confidence and jitters.
If you made it through this game without screaming like a fool, nearly suffering a nervous breakdown or throwing things around your home, you are a liar, sir or madam. It was not only one of the best games I've ever had the pleasure of watching, but also one of the most terrifying.
The Falcons built a 20-0 lead on the Seahawks in the first half, something that seemed utterly unbelievable as recently as Sunday morning. They did this by shutting down the Hawks' offense, capitalizing on mistakes and playing some very sharp offense. One Matt Ryan interception was all that marred the first half and kept the Falcons from going up by even more, which would become relevant shortly. For that half, though, I was jubilant, suddenly convinced the Falcons were going to nail Seattle to the wall.
The Seahawks showed why they were America's darlings coming into this game in the second half, however. They unleashed Russell Wilson, and the rookie responded with an unbelievable second half. The Seahawks didn't just erase the deficit, they took a one point lead with just over thirty seconds left in the fourth quarter. We were all left wondering why, but it was pretty simple: The Seahawks played great football and the Falcons did not.
By the last drive, my emotions were all over the chart. I yelled at the television. I jumped up and down. I may have drop-kicked a window. It's all kind of a blur. When the dust settled, Matt Bryant had nailed a field goal, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks couldn't quite get set up for a field goal in time and the Falcons have their first playoff win in many moons.
And now, as I write this, with my cusomtary four hours in between the game and my ranting and raving, that seems too clinical for what happened. This was a playoff football game, full of sound and fury and signifying monkeys thrown forcibly off collective backs. The Falcons played stellar football for one half, lousy football for another and then great (and lucky) football again for the last 30 seconds. It was a crazy game.
What we saw from these Falcons today was a microcosm of everything that is both good and terrible about them in 2012. On the good side of the ledger, they showed an ability to shut down a dynamic offense, an ability to pass against an elite secondary and the ability to break out some new wrinkles and actually run the football. On the other side, they made too many mistakes on offense and the defense did little in the second half. This is a team that can beat anyone in the NFL, but it will rarely be pretty.
At the end of the day, the Falcons did win, and they get a crack at the 49ers next weekend. Over time, we'll remember this as a great game and not as one that almost stop Dave Choate's heart. For the Falcons, what really matters now, after this first playoff win of the Mike Smith era, is where they're headed next.
To the performances.
- The first half. Mike Nolan does a masterful job of finding an offense's weaknesses and stunning them into submission, even if that act doesn't play well after halftime when offenses adjust. Getting the 'Hawks to play shaky football for an entire half is a triumph in and of itself.
- Matt Ryan was masterful for long stretches of this game. When Ryan is dealing, he's one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks, and never afraid to try to fit a throw in a tight window. That's a combination that can lead to some pretty big success.
- Michael Turner had the finest game he's had all season. Over 14 carries, he piled up 98 yards, taking it to the Seahawks defensive line over and over again. You can argue that the Falcons should have run him more often late in the fourth quarter, and I hope the Falcons will give him some run again versus the 49ers.
- Jacquizz Rodgers really only contributed one 45 yard run and a few short carries, but that one run was huge. If he's looking to make a case for a bigger role in 2013—and he is—that carry alone helped to make his case.
- Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are three of the finest receiving options in the NFL. Yesterday, they combined for 170 yards and two touchdowns receiving, showing off their characteristic brilliant route-running and soft hands.
Also, Julio Jones ended the game on a leaping interception in the end zone. That's pretty amazing.
- The offensive line did a great job of keeping the Seahawks off of Ryan. Bruce Irvin is a talented rookie, but Sam Baker did a wonderful job of keeping him out of the backfield entirely.
- The interior of the defensive line provided a pass rush when John Abraham was gone. Two sacks split between Jonathan Babineaux and Vance Walker, and plenty of pressure besides. If Abe misses the 49ers game, the Falcons will need those guys to step up again.
- Akeem Dent was all over the field. He's really coming into his own as a linebacker.
- This team does not know how to say die. Even after blowing a 20 point fourth quarter lead and going down with just over 30 seconds left, they managed to come back and win. There's something to be said for just smacking your opponents around. If you can't do that, there's a lot to be said for hanging in until the very end.
- I say this out of love, but man was that fourth quarter a disaster. It's instructive to look at the team's failings because they could easily repeat them against the 49ers a week from now, without changes. The Falcons blew a huge lead because their defense struggled to contain Russell Wilson's short passes and running ability, because they couldn't effectively rush the passer and because they got away from the run and made too many mistakes in the passing game. That's about the speed of it.
- Ryan was a man of two arms. One, of course, was the one that won the game for the Falcons. The other saw him throw two picks and a few underthrown or overthrown balls that killed drives. Ryan was still fighting nerves in this one. I'm hoping the win will remedy that.
- Matt Bosher had one of his worst games in a very long time, pairing a couple of booming kickoffs with a poorly done squib and short punts. Thankfully, it didn't end up affecting the game too much, but it was a rare poor effort for him.
- The defense needs to adjust after halftime. Pete Carroll and Harbaugh are smart coaches who make changes when things aren't going their way, and the Falcons need to be willing to change things up on the fly in order to keep up with the 49ers' potentially high-flying offense.
- No complacency. No nerves. They hurt the Falcons badly this time around.
Game MVP: I don't know how to pick one, given the course of this game. Ultimately, I'll give it to Bryant, for his clutch kick that won the game.
Game Theme Song: This one was suggested by Danny Lanier. I think it fits.
One Thing To Take Away: The Falcons can beat anyone. They just don't make it easy.
Next Week: The 49ers. The 2013 NFC Conference Championship. Visit Niners Nation.
Final Word: Holycrapthatwasclose.
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