Two seeming longshots faced off spectacularly Sunday, and it was the less-hyped one who prevailed.
A lot of the big stories of this past weekend's NFL playoffs came with a whiff of familiarity. After all, there there's not much new to be said about established superstars like Peyton Manning (whose Denver Broncos lost a double-overtime thriller to the Baltimore Ravens, 38-35) or Aaron Rodgers (whose Packers continued their wretched downward spiral in the postseason, losing to the San Francisco 49ers 45-31) or Tom Brady (who wiped out the Houston Texans 41-28).
About the only teams left to write anything new about are the Seattle Seahawks, who have appeared in the Super Bowl once, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006 (21-10), and the Atlanta Falcons, who only made it to the big game in 1999 when they lost to the Broncos (34-19). When the two seeming underdogs faced off on Sunday in what would turn out to be the most entertaining game of the weekend, it was the greater underdog—the Falcons—who ended up claiming the title of the league's most exciting upstart.
It's been so long since the Falcons came close to winning anything that many of their fans have stopped believing they can; in late November, when the Falcons had the best record in the entire NFL, a poll showed that most Georgia fans were more interested in the national championship chances of the University of Georgia Bulldogs. (The Dawgs lost the SEC championship to Alabama and didn't make it to the title game.)
The Falcons entered the postseason still No. 1-seeded, but few observers really thought they had any kind of chance. This was partly because of the team's history and partly because the memory of last year's playoff humiliation, when they were beaten by the New York Giants 24-2, was still fresh in the minds of players and fans. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was terrible in that game, throwing 41 passes and gaining just 199 yards, never once getting his team inside the Giants' 10-yard line.
Ryan sent a strong signal on December 16 that this year was going to be different when his team hosted the Giants in Atlanta and thrashed them 34-0. Still, that was a regular-season game, and the Falcons, though they finished with a 13-3 record, were still perceived by football writers as "soft"—a team with speed and finesse but one that couldn't show muscle when it counted, in the postseason.
That's why nearly all the analysts I know were emphatically on Seattle's side for Atlanta's matchup against them Sunday afternoon. The Seahawks had dominated the last six week of the season, setting modern-era records for margin of victory and wiping out the 49ers, one of the league's strongest teams, 42-13 on December 23. They were, as TV commentators never stopped reminding us, this year's "Team of Destiny."
Destiny, though, has a strange way of treating its favorites. The Falcons, playing at home, got off roaring, leading 10-0 in the first quarter and 20-0 at half time. They looked like they had destiny on a leash when all of a sudden Russell Wilson, the Seahawks' little (at 5 feet 11 inches, he's the shortest passer in the league), fiery rookie QB, came back with a vengeance. With the Falcons leading 27-7 and just 15 minutes left to play, Wilson found that Atlanta had gone into soft coverage—i.e., playing their extra defensive back deep—and bore down, leading his team on three long, unflustered TD drives. In the process he collected a spectacular 385 yards passing. The last TD came with just 31 seconds left and surely indicated whose corner destiny was in. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch was hit hard at the one-yard line and fumbled the ball into the end zone. A replay, however, showed that he had possession when breaking the plane of the end zone—by inches—and Seattle went up 28-27.
It was at this point that Matt Ryan, for the first time in his career, seized the moment and pulled an entire franchise—for one week at least—out of the can't-win-the-big-game doldrums. Starting from his own 27-yard line, he lofted a 29-yard sideline pass to Harry Douglas, and then with 19 seconds on the clock, threw a gutsy pass over the middle to his great but aging tight end, Tony Gonzalez, who carried two defenders with him to Seattle's 32.
With 13 seconds left, Falcons kicker Matt Bryant was two yards wide to the right on a 49-yard field goal try—but destiny, which had moved back again to Atlanta's bench, stepped in. Pete Carroll had called a timeout seconds before Bryant's kick; his second shot split the uprights and Atlanta led 30-28.
But the game was not yet over. With three seconds left, Wilson unleashed a titanic heave halfway across the field into the Atlanta end zone, where it was intercepted by the Falcons' super-fast receiver Julio Jones, whom Coach Mike Smith had shrewdly tapped for the special team assignment. It was Matt Ryan's first playoff victory after three losses; Gonzalez, a sure Hall of Famer in what appears to be his final season, wept openly as he ran out on the field to embrace his teammates. In 16 tough seasons, it was his first playoff win.
And so the Atlanta Falcons became the team of destiny. At least until next week, when they play the 49ers in the last stop before the Super Bowl.