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Sports

January 13, 2013

NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS: Thrilling finish

Late Seattle rally nixed by last-second Falcon FG

ATLANTA — Matt Bryant pumped his fist and celebrated atop the Falcons logo in the middle of the field. Tony Gonzalez broke down in tears. Matt Ryan relished the thought of not having to answer a familiar question.

The Atlanta Falcons finally showed they could win a playoff game.

And, wow, what a game it was!

After a historic meltdown in the fourth quarter, the Falcons pulled off a comeback that will long be remembered in championship-starved Atlanta. Ryan completed two long passes and Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds remaining, lifting the NFC’s top seed to a stunning 30-28 victory over Russell Wilson and the gutty Seattle Seahawks in a divisional game Sunday.

“Wow!” said Falcons coach Mike Smith, summing up this classic as well as anyone could.

Atlanta (14-3) squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, falling behind for the first time all day when Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left and Ryan Longwell knocked through the extra point for a 28-27 lead.

No team has ever won a playoff game when facing such a daunting deficit in the final period.

A pair of Matty Ices — Ryan and Bryant — made sure the Falcons didn’t become the first.

Ryan, shaking off his struggles in three previous playoff losses and two interceptions against the Seahawks, hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 29-yard pass in front of the Falcons bench, and Smith quickly signaled a timeout. Then, Ryan went down the middle to his favorite target Gonzalez, a Hall of Famer-to-be playing what could’ve been his final game.

Gonzalez hauled in the 19-yard throw, and Smith called his final timeout with 13 seconds remaining. Instead of risking another play and having the clock run out, he sent Bryant in for the field goal try.

The Seahawks called time just before the ball was snapped, and Bryant’s kick sailed right of the upright. That turned out to be nothing more than practice. The next one was right down the middle as Bryant took off in the other direction, pumping his fist before he was mobbed by his teammates.

“Our quarterback is a special player,” Smith said. “They call him Matty Ice, but I feel like we’ve got two Matty Ices. There’s Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant.”

The Falcons overcame their reputation for choking in the playoffs, winning their first postseason game since 2004. They’ll host San Francisco in the NFC championship game next Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

“Nobody flinched,” Ryan said. “We just kept battling, kept doing what we do. That’s been the makeup of our team all season.”

Bryant knocked through his third game-winning kick of the season. But he’d never made one like this, with so much on the line.

“When they scored their touchdown, I walked down (the sideline),” he said. “I told the offensive line, I told Matt (Ryan), I told all the receivers, ‘We’ve done this before.’”

Wilson threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, doing all he could to pull off the most improbable of comebacks for the Seahawks (12-6). But the Seattle defense, which is one of the NFL’s best and had totally stymied the Falcons in the fourth quarter, went to a softer coverage and got burned.

Atlanta had just enough time to pull off a comeback of its own.

“We had high, high hopes for the rest of the season,” Wilson said. “When the game was over, I was very disappointed. But walking back into the tunnel, I got so excited about next year. The resilience we showed was unbelievable.”

Wilson finished with 385 yards passing as the Seahawks wiped out a 27-7 deficit entering the final quarter. When Lynch powered over, the ball breaking the goal line just before it squirted from his arms, Seattle celebrated like it had won its second straight playoff game on the road, having already taken care of Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins.

According to STATS, it would’ve been the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history.

Not so fast.

Ryan led the Falcons back, wiping out his 0-3 mark in the playoffs, including a crushing loss to Green Bay two years ago when the Falcons were in the same position, the NFC’s top-seeded team with home-field advantage in the playoffs.

“The one thing I’ve learned during my five years in the league, and specifically in the postseason, is that it’s hard,” Ryan said.

Now, he’ll no longer be asked why he can’t win in the playoffs.

“That’s going to be nice,” Ryan conceded. “But our goal is not to win one playoff game. Our goals are still in front of us. We still have two more games to go. That’s the mind-set I have. That’s the mind-set this team has.”

Wilson’s last throw, a desperation heave into the end zone, was intercepted by Falcons receiver Julio Jones.

Gonzalez, who had never won a playoff game in his 16-year career, broke down in tears after Bryant’s kick went through the uprights.

“I’ve never cried after a win,” said Gonzalez, who has stated repeatedly that he’s “95 percent” sure this is his final year. “I was thinking, ‘Here we go again. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.’”

It was.

The Falcons finally lived up to their excellence during the regular season since Smith, Ryan and general manager Thomas Dimitroff took over in 2008, instantly reviving a franchise that seemed down and out after Michael Vick’s dogfighting case. Atlanta has won 56 regular-season games over the last five years, more than any team except New England, but had a reputation for choking in the postseason.

Check that off the list. Atlanta is one win away from the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Ryan threw three touchdown passes, tying a Falcons playoff record, and finished 24 of 35 for 250 yards — the first time he’s eclipsed 200 yards in the postseason. He threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez, a 47-yarder to Roddy White and a 5-yarder to Jason Snelling, the latter with 2:11 left in the third quarter to give the Falcons a seemingly commanding lead.

Wilson took over from there, running 1 yard for a touchdown to make it 27-14, then going to Zach Miller on a 3-yard touchdown pass that closed the gap to 27-21.

Finally, taking over at his own 39 after an Atlanta punt, Wilson completed three passes for 50 yards, the last of them a short throw to Lynch that the bruising runner took all the way to the Falcons 3. The rookie quarterback made it all possible, spinning away from blitzing Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to keep the play alive.

The Seahawks, though, will spend the offseason kicking themselves for that last Falcons’ drive, and for squandering two scoring chances in the first half.

On fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 11, Seattle passed on a field goal and a chance to give the ball to Lynch, their beast of a back. Fullback Michael Robinson took the handoff and was stuffed for a 1-yard loss by safety William Moore.

Then, with the clock winding down before halftime, Seattle used up all its timeouts and wound up regretting it when Wilson was sacked by Jonathan Babineaux at the Atlanta 20. Time ran out before the Seahawks could get off another play, sending Atlanta to the locker room with a 20-0 lead.

Bryant also connected on field goals of 37 and 39 yards in the first half.

“At halftime, we talked about how we can’t get ahead right away. It’s going to take a while,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “It was an exquisite job of refocusing to a football game after being down like that.”

NOTES: The Falcons played the second half without defensive end John Abraham, who re-injured his ailing right ankle. No word whether he’ll be able to play next week. ... The Falcons did a good job on Lynch, who was held to 46 yards on 16 carries. ... Atlanta got surprising production out of its maligned running game. Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards, Jacquizz Rodgers added 64 and the Falcons finished with a season-high 167 yards overall.

Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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