ATLANTA -- It's been almost 150 years since this city has burned. Which, come to think of it, is roughly how long Tony Gonzalez has worn a uniform and the Falcons last won a playoff game.
But there are no fires to squelch this time.
All is calm and peachy in Georgia because the fans did not riot after all, and Matt Ryan isn’t hearing how he’s a hopeless loser after all, and Matt Bryant’s 49-yard winning field goal try didn’t fall a yard short, and Gonzalez didn’t crumple to the ground and weep like a broken-hearted schoolgirl after all.
Well, actually, that last part? That did happen.
“Like a baby,” he corrected, between a detectable choke in his voice. “My emotions, they were up and down. A rollercoaster. You have to understand, man, I’ve played 16 years in this league. I’m 95 percent sure I’m going to retire after my last game and I thought today might be it. I said I guess this is it. This is how I’m going to go out.”
Well, when you play for a team that never experienced the euphoria of a post-season celebration ever since Ryan arrived as a savior and Mike Smith became coach and Gonzalez came looking for a golden ride to the sunset, this happens. This becomes hard to pull off. This slippery, stubborn, damn near impossible first playoff victory puts you through hell -- at least it did for Gonzalez and Ryan and the Falcons on Sunday in a game they had ... to … win.
Do you realize how hard it is to build a 20-point lead, then blow it in the fourth quarter, then have your quarterback rally in the final 31 seconds, then see your Hall of Fame-bound tight end make what he called the biggest catch of his life -- out of 1,248 -- then see your kicker blast a 49-yarder for the lead and then watch your punter horrifically squib the next kickoff, then sweat out a Hail Mary from an opposing quarterback who already passed for nearly 400 yards? Some teams endure that over a season. The Falcons crammed all that in during a glorious and frightful afternoon at the Georgia Dome -- which remains standing, we’re happy to report.
The good news for the Falcons is they survived the Seahawks and what could have been the worst fourth-quarter collapse in NFL history. The better news is they go into next week’s NFC title game with the 49ers knowing they’ve already experienced all the highs and lows. Chasing Colin Kaepernick, by comparison, will be a breeze.
They go into the Niners game with a sense of relief, knowing the hard part is over and knowing exactly what it takes to win a playoff game now that, you know, they’ve actually done it. Shakily, but still. Until Sunday, the Falcons were post-season meat, done in by their own mistakes and going 0-for-three since a new era began in 2008.
But Ryan grew up and showed us something in Falcons 30, Seattle 28. He wasn’t flustered by anything, from kickoff to final gun. That game-winning drive was the stuff of a poised and confident quarterback who was firmly in control of his emotions and the circumstances. He stood tall and threw hard. It took him two passes and 18 seconds to put Bryant in field goal range. That was Elway-like.
“No panic at all from him,” said receiver Roddy White. “Nor did I expect to see any. It was like he knew we would win, and so when your quarterback feels that way, then you feel that way.”
He’s not hotter than the quarterback he’ll see Sunday. The last time Ryan ran up against someone running a temperature as high as Kaepernick was two years ago when Aaron Rodgers came to Atlanta and destroyed a Falcons team that held the top seed. The situation is just about the same with the 49ers -- the Falcons hold home field once again against a young, talented QB. But, if the regular season season and the Seattle game were any indication, Ryan will be a different quarterback this time.
“I think your past experiences kind of harden you,” he said. “I think they make you a little tougher in those situations. You kind of forget about the past and try to execute and move on. I don’t have to answer certain questions anymore, and that’s kind of enjoyable. But I really didn’t think about that too much. It was just going out and doing what I could and getting my teammates to go out and do our jobs. We just felt confident.”
Ryan played with an edge all year, gritting his teeth whenever someone raised his playoff record, calmly waiting until now to prove himself. Those 13 regular season wins? They meant something in the small picture, absolutely nothing in the big picture. The whole season came down to a playoff game. Ryan knew he had to beat Seattle. Nothing less.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” he said. “I knew it would be hard, but I couldn’t have imagined this.”
When the Falcons’ defense -- missing pass rush specialist John Abraham in the second half due to a bum ankle -- caved to Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, Ryan was placed in a bad spot. Or maybe it was a good spot. Maybe it had to be this way. This is how quarterbacks build legacies, with game-winning drives in big games. And this was as big as they come, at least for this franchise.
You want to know the ramifications of a loss? OK, here are a few possibilities: Ryan would become a scapegoat, fair or not; Smith (who’s a fine coach) would be on the clock next season, if not out of a job; owner Arthur Blank would probably lose his grip on a brand new stadium currently being proposed; and the fans, frustrated and fed up, could’ve begun a collective tune-out of the team. The Falcons would’ve had to go to great lengths to rebuild trust both within the organization and outside of it after getting the No. 1 seed and a clear path to the Super Bowl only to blow it by frittering away a 20-point fourth-quarter lead. In short, Atlanta would’ve been burning, indeed. With white hot rage.
“A lot was at stake for this franchise,” said Bryant. “A lot.”
Instead, we saw Ryan use two throws to put his team in position to win, and the last one, a 19-yarder, was pure poetic justice. He found Gonzalez, who never won a playoff game in his life, who’s on the verge of making his retirement official, who turned and saw the ball coming his way and hugged it like an ill family member.
“The most important catch I’ve ever had,” said Gonzalez, which makes sense, because he’s never played in a more meaningful game. “I’ll never forget it.”
Bryant’s kick was solid and found the sweet spot between the uprights. And although a poor squib by Matt Bosher almost gave Wilson a chance, the last pass of the day was intercepted by Julio Jones. Then, madness.
“I’ve never cried after a win,” said Gonzalez. “I’ve cried after I lost games. But this was different. This was unique. This was so, so special for so many people.”
“I still can’t believe I cried like that. Did you see that?”