Let’s go back to the 2011 season and take a look at a few things. The Falcons traded their first, second and fourth round picks, as well as the first and fourth round picks in the 2012 draft, for the sixth pick in the 2011 NFL draft. With that pick they took wide receiver Julio Jones out of Alabama. With the 158th pick of that draft, they selected running back Jacquizz Rogers from Oregon State. These two players, along with others, would play a pivotal role sooner than some may have thought.
In the third game of the 2011 season, they lost to Tampa Bay, putting their record at 1-2. By week 5, a loss to the Green Bay Packers would have the team at 2-3. A season filled with promise looked to be going down the drain quickly. It was at that point the team had to make a decision on how to proceed. What they did was win eight of their final eleven games to finish 10-6. It would be the first time in franchise history the team would go to the playoffs in consecutive years. They would enter the playoffs second in the NFC South. Good enough to earn a #5 seed.
They would score the game’s first points when a penalty against the Giants was enforced in the end zone. Just like that it was 2-0 Falcons. There would be no moving on, no win. The Giants would go on to score the final 24 points in a rout to advance to the NFC Championship game en route to the title.
Just like that, the season was over. All the work that was put in to get this team past the hump did not pay off. QB Matt Ryan now had a chimp growing into a monkey on his back. Could he ever win a playoff game? Well, there was always next year, no matter what that might bring.
Next year came along and the 2012 season kicked off for Atlanta. If you paid attention to the experts and the prognosticators, they were the team to beat in the NFC South, maybe even the NFC.
The season started in Kansas City and the game ended as 40-24 Falcons win. Ryan would have a great day going 23-31 for 299 yards, three touchdown passes and one rushing. The sixth pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Julio Jones, would get six receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns. A nice start to what would hopefully be a great year.
Week seven was a bye week and the team would be 6-0 for the first time in franchise history. By that time, the weapons at Ryan’s disposal were starting to show. Jones would have a few more big games. TE Tony Gonzalez, who will not age, had one game with 91 yards and another with 123. To add to that, WR Roddy White had some huge games himself. It was shaping up to be that great year they were hoping for. The only thing in their way would be a second half collapse.
Wins over the Eagles and Cowboys would have them at 8-0 going to New Orleans. The Saints were the team they were trying to unseat as division champs. Though that looked to be a lock, the Saints have always proved they can play with anybody. A win over New Orleans would definitely start the talk of an undefeated season. That win and the unbeaten season would have to wait though. The combination of QB Drew Brees and TE Jimmy Graham were too much. They still had a chance to win the game late, but Jabari Greer brilliantly broke up a Ryan pass intended for Roddy White, at the last second.
Now 8-1, the Falcons reeled off three more wins before going to play the Carolina Panthers. This was one of those games where your team knew they should win. This was a game where, so long as you took care of the fundamentals, you would come out the victor. What they ran into was the Cam Newton show. Newton would torch them throwing for 287 yards and two scores, to go along with 116 yards rushing and a score. That helped the Panthers build a 23-0 nothing lead that led to the big win. Carolina would cruise to a 30-20 win putting the Falcons at 11-2. It was very important at this point that the team understood they were playing for something. The home field advantage is huge in the NFL playoffs. They could not afford to lose that, plus momentum they would need going into the postseason. We all know that it’s not how you start the year; it’s how you finish it that matters.
They would lose just one more time, to Tampa Bay, but they had the number one seed they needed so bad. They would have a first round bye and wait for the winner of one of the wild-card games. They got the Seattle Seahawks up first. Seattle was the one team that nobody wanted to play at this point in the year. They were hot and getting better. Their rookie QB Russell Wilson came into his own about halfway through the season. He showed poise beyond his youth and almost led his team to the division title. The Falcons came out smoking and took a 20-0 lead on the strength of two Matt Ryan touchdown passes and two Matt Bryant field goals. Seattle had no answer and the Falcons defense was relentless. Wilson had trouble getting to the edge. He was not given time to set his feet, or scramble to a spot. The Seahawks running game was stuffed and there appeared to be no answer for them. By the end of the third quarter it was 27-7 and a Falcons trip to the NFC title game was all but assured.
The thing about that was the Seahawks had been here and done this before. Heck, they had just done it the week before going down 14-0 to the Redskins in a blink of an eye. In that game they scored the last 24 points for the win. So they were faced with a fourth quarter deficit not seen before in the history of the playoffs. Seattle’s response was one for the history books. Wilson would run for a touchdown and throw for another to make it 27-21. Now we had a game and it wasn’t over. Seattle got the ball back at their own 39 with three minutes to play. On a third and five at the Falcons 27, Wilson hit Marshawn Lynch for 24 yards down to the three. After a penalty on Atlanta, Lynch would score from two yards out to make it 28-27 Seattle. There was just 31 seconds left on the clock. Falcon’s players were standing or sitting holding or hanging their heads. They could not believe what had just happened to them. A game they had dominated just turned into a nightmare to forget. Yet, there was still those 31 seconds of play left. On first down Matt Ryan hit Harry Douglas for 22 yards to midfield. The Falcons called a timeout and set up for the next play. There were 13 seconds left and Ryan had time for one more play to get into field goal range. That play would be to Tony Gonzalez and the old vet would get to the Seattle 31 where they would call their last time out. It would be a 49-yard try to salvage a season that was thought to be lost just a half a minute before. Just before, or just as, Matt Bryant kicked it, Seattle called timeout. The ball was already in flight so the curious eye had to look. It went wide right, but the timeout just called would give Atlanta one last chance. After a Seattle timeout to freeze him, Bryant put the ball right down the middle and Atlanta was headed to the NFC Championship game. Oh and that Rogers guy they got in the draft the year before, he played hard. He played hard and strong and when it counted he busted a huge 45-yard run to end the first quarter. He would wind up with 10 carries for 64 yards and was a great compliment to Michael Turner. It was one of the greatest games one could ever hope to see and Atlanta was now just one win away from going back to the Super Bowl.
In order to get to New Orleans, the Falcons will have to beat the 49ers of San Francisco. In his five seasons Matt Ryan has built the label of a choker. He became the guy that couldn’t win the big one. With his late game heroics Saturday, he probably has taken care of both labels. He has finally won a playoff game and now finds himself on the brink of football immortality.
To lead his team to a win, he will need to manage the game and then control it. He cannot afford to be off or rush his passes. He will need the help of both Turner and Rogers out of the backfield. They cannot afford for the running game to not show up. Without that, the Falcons will have to rely solely on the arm of Ryan. He is good, but that good may be too much. Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and the rest of the receiving corps must play the game of their lives. Gonzalez could be the key against a staunch 49ers defense. The offensive line will have to hold against the Niners furious pass rush. They must allow Ryan time in the pocket to execute. The defense must find a way to contain Colin Kapernick and not allow him to beat you with his arm and feet. They must hold the edge so as not to allow room for him to maneuver like he does. When they bring the pass rush they must take every chance they have to knock him down. Kapernick is in a groove, but he is still young and learning. He must be rattled early and often. RB Frank Gore will have to be put in check because his style creates many opportunities for Kapernick. The key is the Falcons just have to play their style of ball for four quarters. They have proven all year long that when their offense is clicking, they cannot be stopped.
They have all the pieces in place and the feel of destiny around them. They have fallen short and waited till next year long enough. Mike Smith has taken this team to the brink of where they want to be. Tony Gonzalez just tasted postseason victory for the first time. Matt Bryant has been kicking since forever. These are guys that have earned a shot at being called champions. A franchise that has overcome their divorce from Michael Vick. A team that with two more wins will be able to call themselves World Champions.