Falcons’ greatest moment, No. 2: Matty Ice, Bryant sink Seattle

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 2 takes us to the 2012 season, when Falcons kicker Matt Bryant drilled a 49-yard field goal to give the Falcons a 30-28 victory over the visiting Seahawks. The victory advanced the Falcons to their first home NFC Championship game in franchise history.

Date: Jan. 13, 2013

Setting the stage: A seemingly comfortable 20-point Falcons’ lead heading into the 4th quarter suddenly vanished in the hands of Seattle’s rookie phenom Russell Wilson, and the playoff lives of Matty Ice and the Falcons rested on thin ice before they navigated themselves to an enormous postseason win. With 31 seconds remaining and Seattle holding its first lead of the game at 28-27, the Falcons took over from their own 28-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan delivered a 22-yard strike to Harry Douglas for the biggest catch of his career, and got the ball spotted at midfield. The following play, Ryan found Tony Gonzalez for a huge 19-yard pick up and put Matt Bryant right where he needed to be to knock through the game-winning field goal from 49 yards out.

Bryant on the kick: “Going out there you remind yourself keep your head down. I tell myself all the time right before the kick, down and through down and through. “That was a big kick but we’ve done this before. It’s not like it’s the first time we have seen this situation. We knew we could do it again.”

The Game Plan: Head coach Mike Smith said following the game that the plan was to make sure first and foremost that they stopped Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch. The strategy to contain Lynch was successful and “Beast Mode” was held to just 46 yards on 16 carries. The plan did not account for the type of second half Wilson would have under center for the Seahawks and he nearly pulled off the incredible comeback. Wilson rushed for 60 yards and threw for 385 yards and two touchdowns and led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl victory the next season.

Head coach Mike Smith after the game: “Giving up a 20-point lead is something you have to concern yourself with, but we talk all the time about playing a 60-minute ball game and that’s what we did.”

Matt Ryan found Tony Gonzalez for a huge 19-yard pick up and put Matt Bryant right where he needed to be to knock through the game-winning field goal from 49 yards out. (Brant Sanderlin/AJC)

Tony’s first playoff win: The drama within the emotional followed Gonzalez closely, who had never won a playoff game in what was the 16th season of his Hall of Fame career “All I thought was here we go again,” said Gonzalez. “It just wasn’t meant to be. I thought it was over [when Seattle took the lead], but then when you see Matt Bryant on the sideline saying we’ve done this before we’ll do it again, and then you see a great quarterback and great receivers on the field with you, I had to believe we could do it. It’s probably the best catch I’ve ever had, even though it was probably one of the easiest. But it’s the most important catch I’ve ever had in my life and…shoot…I’ll never forget it.”

What the AJC’s Mark Bradley wrote on the game: For Matt Ryan, this was how it had to be. To win a playoff game, he couldn't just be a good quarterback who throws three early touchdown passes and stage-manages the final minutes. To win a playoff game, he had to turn what would have been the worst loss in Falcons history into the second-best victory. He had become Matty Ice.

To become Matty Ice on Sunday, Ryan first had to become Matty INT. His fourth-quarter interception lit the fuse for a furious Seattle rally and if the Seahawks had taken a half-minute more to score the go-ahead touchdown, we'd be pointing to that interception as proof positive Ryan isn't a postseason quarterback. But Seattle scored with 31 seconds remaining and that's Ryan Time.

October 2008 against Chicago: The Bears take the lead with 11 seconds left; Ryan finds Michael Jenkins and the Falcons win.

September 2012 against Carolina: Falcons down two points, backed up to their 1 with 1:09 to play, no timeouts remaining; Ryan finds Roddy White for 59 yards and the Falcons win.

Said Tony Gonzalez, the great tight end: “He's done this a LOT."

Yeah, but Ryan had never done it in January. He entered Sunday's game 0-3 as a playoff starter and with 31 seconds left, he was one unmade play from whiffing again. But that's the thing about Matt Ryan: He'll leave the occasional play unmade, but never at the end. He's a very good quarterback for 59 minutes; he's a great one in Minute No. 60.

About that 0-3: Not once in those three losses did Ryan have the ball at the end with a chance to win. The losses to the Packers and Giants were out of hand by then and in January 2009, the Cardinals converted on third-and-16 and ran out the clock. Finally, here was Ryan's moment: He controlled the ball and the game and never mind that his interception --- “Something I can't do, “he said --- was a key reason the Seahawks were ahead.

Said guard Justin Blalock: “We practice situations like that. There was no panic. Nobody made the moment any bigger than it needed to be.”

Slot receiver Harry Douglas: “(Ryan) just said, 'No matter what happens, everybody do his job.' ”

Ryan: “It was not a big fire-and-brimstone speech. ... We just said, 'Let's make the first play.' Harry did a great job of getting open.”

In 2008 against the Bears, the rookie Douglas returned a squibbed kickoff 10 yards to give Ryan a chance. This time Douglas shook free on the left side after White and Gonzalez cleared room. The 22-yard gain brought the Falcons to midfield with 19 seconds left.

Douglas: “I already knew the game was over right then. We just had to get it started."

Next snap, Ryan found Gonzalez down the right side for 19 yards and the offense's work was done. Matt Bryant trotted on and swung his leg and all thoughts of 0-for-4 were no more.

Said center Todd McClure: “I've never been part of anything like this, with so much on the line. ... That's a massive boulder off everyone in this locker room.”

This being football, the weight falls hardest on the quarterback. By going 0-for-3, Ryan had become the NFL equivalent of the greatest golfer never to win a major. He never talked about it, not even to his mates, but everyone knew it ate at him. Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff were likewise 0-for-3, but they weren't out there throwing interceptions.

Said Ryan, in as close to a true confession as this guarded man ever gets: “It'll be nice not having to hear the questions.”

But even Ryan, in conversation afterward, conceded he was never going to become a playoff winner by being Matty Nice & Easy. His deliverance was akin to the AFC championship game of January 2007, when Peyton Manning and his Colts fell 18 points behind nemesis New England --- Asante Samuel, now a Falcon, returned a Manning interception for a touchdown --- and the great quarterback had no choice but to let it rip. His Colts would win 38-34 and would soon be NFL champs.

Said Gonzalez: “We were just talking in the shower and we said, 'It seemed like it wasn't going to happen.' (Ryan) liked it because it was tough.”

Maybe it was tougher than it needed to be, but no matter. It's done. The Falcons are bound for the NFC championship game and their quarterback is a playoff loser no more. He's a playoff winner, having won the way Matt Ryan had to win.

Catch a new Top 10 play in Falcons history every week through the end of the season.

No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road

No. 9: Claude Humphrey gets call to Canton

No. 8: Playoff win in the ‘Frozen Tundra’

No. 7: Matt Ryan's first NFL pass

No. 6: Hail Mary pass known as'Big Ben II'

No. 5: The Trade to get ‘Bart’

No. 4: Nobis is Falcons' first-ever draft choice

No. 3: 'Big Ben Right'

No. 2: Matty Ice, Bryant sink Seahawks

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