First Down/Fourth Down: Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez finally break through
Atlanta fans did not expect it to be easy, right?
Sure, through three quarters, it looked like the Falcons would stroll on in to the NFC title game. But given this team's playoff history (not to mention the repeated resiliency Seattle showed all year), Sunday's game would have felt odd without a little drama.
Or, rather, a preposterous amount of drama.
The Falcons took a 27-7 edge into the fourth quarter, only to watch Seattle rally with 21 unanswered points. The early chapters of Matt Ryan's legacy hung in the balance -- to erase his and the Falcons' postseason demons, the Atlanta QB needed to take his team from its own 28 into field-goal range over the game's final 25 seconds.
He needed all of two passes to get the job done. Ryan connected with Harry Douglas for 22 yards to midfield, then drilled one in to Tony Gonzalez, who was in search of his first playoff win, for 19 more. Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal and a subsequent failed Seattle Hail Mary cemented a dramatic 30-28 Atlanta victory.
Ryan's detractors, no doubt, will point to his fourth quarter prior to that final drive -- a stretch that included a three-and-out, a misfired 3rd-and-8 pass and a ghastly interception.
But, with his back to the wall, Ryan delivered when he most needed to Sunday.
First Down/Fourth Down takes a look back at some more of the highs and lows from Atlanta's thrilling triumph.
First Down: Russell Wilson.
Specifically, Russell Wilson in the second half. The last of the rookie starting quarterbacks alive in these playoffs, Wilson orchestrated a mesmerizing road rally that nearly pushed Seattle into the conference championship game.
Wilson tossed a pair of touchdown passes and ran for a third in the second half, as Seattle attempted to become the first road team to win a playoff game it trailed by 20 points since the 1957 Lions. His 385 yards through the air made Wilson the first rookie QB to top 300 yards in a playoff game since Sammy Baugh in 1937.
The future could not be any brighter for Wilson in Seattle. He proved again, on the national stage, that he is as calm and collected as the league's most veteran quarterbacks.
Fourth Down: Icing the kicker.
Does this strategy ever work? It certainly did not Sunday, when Seattle's Pete Carroll opted for a timeout just as Atlanta Matt Bryant lined up for his potential game-winning kick.
Bryant, of course, pushed his first attempt wide right, only to be granted a reprieve by Carroll's efforts to ice him. Kick two sailed right through the middle of the uprights for the Atlanta victory.
First Down: Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez's career may have ended without Atlanta's late rally -- the future Hall of Fame tight end has said he is "95 percent" sure he'll retire after this season. Instead, he helped prolong the Falcons' year with the clutch catch to set up Bryant's game-winner.
All told, Gonzalez hauled in six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. And in case you were not sure how much a playoff win meant to him, Gonzalez could not hold back tears after Seattle's final Hail Mary attempt failed.
Fourth Down: Seattle's inability to get points at the end of the second quarter.
The Wilson-led comeback nearly made this moot, but the Seahawks' two-point loss brought their first-half failures back into the limelight again.
Seattle had a pair of red-zone trips in the first half and came away with zero points -- Michael Robinson was stuffed on 4th-and-1 from the 11 midway through the second quarter, and Wilson took a sack on third down just prior to halftime that caused time to expire.
The Seahawks would have loved a touchdown both times, but a field goal in either circumstance may have made the difference in the game's outcome.
The handoff to Robinson, one play after Robert Turbin was stuffed on 3rd-and-1, is particularly hard to justify. Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks' leading rusher and a physical back in his own right, would have been a better option.
Man, this one was fun. It is easy to understand how Sherman could rub people -- players, coaches and fans -- the wrong way with his constant trash talking. The Seattle cornerback backs it up, though, more often than not.
He was on his game early, swatting down several deep balls from Ryan. Sherman made sure he let the Falcons hear about each one, too, making a "You're crazy for throwing at me" gesture repeatedly.
White landed a meaningful counter-punch late in the second quarter. He beat Sherman deep down the middle of the field and, with Kam Chancellor late coming to help, hauled in a pass from Ryan for a 47-yard TD. Of course, White celebrated by chirping in Sherman's ear; Sherman responded with a sarcastic golf clap.
This was two of the league's best at their respective positions going toe-to-toe, and it was enthralling television.
Fourth Down: Atlanta's chances of covering Vernon Davis next week.
The Falcons have a week to prepare their defense for Colin Kaepernick's thus-far unstoppable San Francisco attack. They'll first have to figure out some way to limit the damage Davis does.
Seattle tight end Zach Miller flew open at will Sunday, en route to 142 yards receiving and a wide-open touchdown. Given the similarities in the Seahawks' and 49ers' offenses, we can expect San Francisco coordinator Greg Roman to try to exploit that Atlanta defensive weakness as well.
First Down: Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers.
Seattle had the third-best rushing offense in the league during the regular season, but it was Atlanta that carved out consistent yardage on the ground Sunday.
The Falcons outrushed the Seahawks, 167-123, with Turner chewing up 98 yards and Rodgers chipping in 64 -- 45 coming on one carry early, in which Rodgers plowed Seattle safety Earl Thomas before breaking loose. Rodgers also delivered a nice kickoff return after Seattle's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Fourth Down: Bruce Irvin.
Irvin had a very impressive rookie season for the Seahawks. Sunday seemed to show, however, that he's not quite ready to take over as an every-down player.
With Chris Clemons out of Seattle's lineup thanks to the knee injury he suffered on Washington's chewed-up field last week, Irvin inherited a starting defensive end position. He finished with one tackle and no sacks, and on just a couple of plays did he even threaten Ryan. Irvin should only get better as a pass-rushing playmaker, but there clearly was a reason Seattle had been using him in very specific situations prior to Clemons' injury.