Russell Wilson's dream rookie season ends with tough loss
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith began his post-game press conference the only way he could -- he exhaled.
It was a giant sigh of relief from a coach who minutes earlier had watched his team squander a three-score lead in the fourth quarter.
It was a huge release of tension from a coach who had never won a playoff game, until Sunday.
Matt Ryan threw three touchdown passes and led a last-minute drive to set up Matt Bryant's 49-yard game-winning field goal in the Falcons' 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks at a raucous Georgia Dome.
Atlanta will host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
The Falcons owned a 20-point lead late in third quarter, only to see Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson orchestrate three fourth-quarter scoring drives and help give the Seahawks a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds to play.
But that was enough time for Ryan, who like his coach, was 0-3 in the playoffs. Starting at his own 28, Ryan completed a 22-yard pass to Harry Douglas and a 19-yarder to Tony Gonzalez to move into Bryant's range.
Bryant's third game-winning kick of the season ended the Falcons' three-game postseason losing streak and Atlanta notched its first playoff win since 2004.
"Wow," said a relieved Smith. "We talk all the time about playing a 60-minute game and finishing those games, and that's exactly what we did today."
The Falcons didn't seal the victory until wide receiver Julio Jones, playing safety, intercepted Wilson's 48-yard Hail Mary pass to end the game.
Ryan bested Seattle's hyped secondary, throwing for 250 yards with touchdowns to Roddy White, Gonzalez (who won in the playoff for the first time during his 16-year career), and fullback Jason Snelling on a nifty shovel pass that put the Falcons up 27-7 with 2:11 left in the third quarter.
The Georgia Dome was fired-up and the Falcons were in control. But Seattle did not go away without a fight.
Wilson scrambled for a score and then hit Zach Miller on a 3-yard touchdown pass that cut the Falcons lead to 27-21 with 9:13 to play.
Eight minutes later, on the Seahawks' go-ahead scoring drive, Wilson spun away from Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas and found Lynch, who rumbled 24 yards down to the Atlanta 3. The next play, Lynch, who was held relatively in check for most of the game, powered through the Falcons' line for a tying touchdown.
Ryan Longwell's extra point put Seattle up 28-27 with 34 seconds to play.
"I knew we were going to win it. At least, that's what I thought," Wilson said. "Obviously, it didn't work out. Like I said earlier, that resilient attitude that we showed, and that mindset of continuing to play one play at a time, and stay in the game is unbelievable. It was a great game. That's what the playoffs are all about."
After the way the game started, it never seemed like it would be destined to come down the last minute.
The Falcons jumped out to an early lead and seized control after a failed gamble by Seattle coach Pete Carroll.
Trailing 13-0, the Seahawks were threatening in the second quarter. Carroll went for a first down on 4th-and-inches from the Falcons' 11 and elected to give fullback Michael Robinson a shot at picking up the first down. Robinson was stuffed, and four plays later, Ryan lofted a high-arcing bomb to White, who ran under the perfect throw for a 47-yard touchdown and a 20-0 Falcons' lead.
"You have to make six inches or whatever it was," Carroll said. "We got to fourth down and thought we could knock it out."
A chant of "Rod-dy! Rod-dy!" erupted in a packed Georgia Dome, and the Falcons looked like they were in total command, after a second defensive stand kept Seattle off the scoreboard at halftime.
With Seattle at the Falcons' 11, Jonathan Babineaux sacked Wilson on third down, and time expired before the Seahawks could get another play off. Babineaux also had a fumble recovery in the first quarter.
A Seattle team that averaged 38.8 points over its last five games went to the locker room down 20-0.
"We could have kicked a field goal to end the half there," Carroll said. "We had five opportunities to score in the first half and just didn't get it done."
The Seahawks got on the board on their first drive of the second half. Wilson hit Golden Tate on a 29-yard touchdown pass to give Seattle hope.
The Falcons responded with a time-consuming, 14-play drive, capped by Ryan's 5-yard shovel pass to Snelling that seemed to slam the door.
Despite the loss, Carroll and the Seahawks head into the offseason with a lot of promise. Wilson led two comebacks in his first two playoff games, and the Seattle defense emerged as one of the league's best.
"We're mentally strong -- physically strong," said Seattle defensive tackle Alan Branch. "We're just so young. Russell (Wilson) is a great quarterback. He is only a rookie. He can only get better in this league. Who knows. Sky's the limit."
While relieved, Smith said his mind already was turning to the 49ers, who were impressive in a 45-31 win over the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.
"We've got to figure out how we're going to play better than we did in the second half of the ballgame today," Smith said. "That's where my mindset is. It's already flipped the switch. We've got a good football team coming in here."
Notes: Falcons DE John Abraham re-aggravated his ankle injury he suffered in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay and left the game in the first half. ... Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons, the Seahawks' leader in sacks (seven), will reportedly meet with Dr. James Andrews regarding his torn anterior cruciate ligament, suffered against the Washington Redskins in the wildcard round of the playoffs. ... White became the Falcons' all-time leader in postseason receptions.
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