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.