The other three playoff losses in the last four years would have paled in comparison to what was unfolding Sunday at the Georgia Dome. Up by 20 points against the Seattle Seahawks, the Atlanta Falcons found a way to trail by one point with just 31 seconds left.
Another post-season defeat would have brought tight end Tony Gonzalez to tears. Instead, the tears he released were tears of joy – and relief. On a Matt Bryant 49-yard field goal with six seconds left, the Falcons edged the Seahawks 30-28, to advance to the NFC Championship game next week against the San Francisco 49ers, who beat Green Bay Saturday night.
“I’ve never cried after a win,” said Gonzalez, who had the key catch that set up the winning kick. It was the first playoff win for Gonzalez in his illustrious 16-year NFL career.
He was so emotional because for much of the afternoon, Atlanta looked awesome. The Falcons – behind strong running by Michael Turner and a stifling defense – led 20-0 and seemed destined for a pedestrian victory.
But the Seahawks found a groove, led by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and ate away at the lead. Wilson was remarkable, hitting on 24 of 36 passes for 385 yards and two touchdowns. And when Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run, Seattle led 28-27 with 31 seconds to play.
“I was thinking: ‘Here we go again. It wasn’t meant to be,’ ” Gonzalez admitted.
But, apparently, it was. The Falcons had two time outs remaining. Quarterback Matt Ryan hit Harry Douglas for a 29-yard gain on first down and then found Gonzalez over the middle for a 19-yard gain and just like that, Atlanta was in range to save the season.
Bryant’s kick was good, and Gonzalez cried, the sold-out Dome erupted and the entire organization breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“Wow,” said coach Mike Smith, whose job very well could have been lost with a defeat.
“It was just a crazy game,” said Ryan after his first playoff win. “I feel good right now. We kept fighting and found a way to win. . . It was tough. . . Everybody just hung in there. That’s one thing this experienced team has gone through. We’re just mentally tough.”