Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Falcons never flinched

Seconds from colossal collapse, they knew exactly what to do

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ATLANTA -- Up and down the Falcons' sideline, their players exuded confidence after Marshawn Lynch's touchdown left Atlanta trailing by one with 31 seconds to play. Never mind that they were half a minute from a playoff collapse of major proportions.

"The first thing our defence came back and said to us was, 'Hey, they left too much time on the clock. We know you all got it,' " said wide receiver Harry Douglas. "And the first thing we said was, 'Hey, we've got to make every play count.' "

Kicker Matt Bryant knew that his moment for goat-hood or heroics loomed just ahead; and that he carried the hopes and dreams of a Falcons team that would be excoriated if they blew a 20-0 lead to lose in the playoffs for the fourth straight time.

"I walked down and told the O-line, I told Matt (Ryan), and I told all the receivers, 'You know what? We've done this before,' " said Bryant.

In the huddle, after Jacquizz Rodgers returned the kickoff to the 28-yard line, Ryan reminded his teammates that they had enough time, and they had enough timeouts; just go out and execute.

"It's not a big fire and brimstone speech," he said. "It's the same thing I say in those situations every time I go out there."

Tackle Tyson Clabo had a more telling point.

"You know, fellas, we just need 30 yards," he said in the huddle -- a message that resonated with veteran center Todd McClure.

"You think about it like that, that's two pass plays," McClure said.

But there was, at least momentarily, one pocket of doubt amid the Falcons' outward wall of optimism. And it came from none other than veteran Tony Gonzalez, who had experienced too much playoff heartbreak to be so sanguine that this one would end differently.

"At the end of the game," Gonzalez said, "I promise you, I thought, 'Here we go again. I guess it wasn't meant for us to get a playoff victory. Especially for me individually. I guess it was never going to happen.' "

Considering that Gonzalez has said he is 95 per cent certain he's retiring at the end of the season, a loss would have meant his Hall of Fame career was over. And it would have ended without a playoff victory in six attempts.

Which is why, when all those statements of self-assurance by the Falcons came true, and Bryant booted his 49-yard field goal, and time finally ran out, Gonzalez crumbled to the ground and wept "like a baby," he would say afterward.

"I've cried after a loss, but I've never cried after a win," Gonzalez said. "I thought it was over. Because I've been here 16 years, six playoff games, and I was like, 'Here we go again.' Especially with that big 'ol lead. I was like, 'I guess it's not meant to be.' "

It was only fitting that the play that put the Falcons in field-goal range was a simple 19-yard strike down the middle from Ryan to Gonzalez. For the man with more receptions than anyone in NFL history not named Jerry Rice, it was a play he's executed hundreds of times. But never with more on the line.

"Probably the best catch I've ever had, even though it was probably one of the easiest, too," Gonzalez said with a laugh. "Because he put it right on my chest. It's the most important catch I've ever had in my life. Shoot, I'll never forget it. It was wonderful."

That moved the ball to Seattle's 31 with 13 second left. Rather than mess with another play, Atlanta coach Mike Smith sent in the 37-year-old Bryant, who had two previous game-winners this season.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called a timeout to, well, ice Bryant, but the Falcons still went through with the play. The boot sailed wide right, though the timeout made the outcome moot. The next one split the uprights.

-- The Seattle Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2013 C6

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