Monday January 14, 2013

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons called on a pair of Matty Ices to turn back the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history.

After the top-seeded Falcons squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan completed two long passes and Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal with 8 seconds to give Atlanta a stunning 30-28 victory over Russell Wilson and the gutty Seattle Seahawks in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

The Falcons (14-3) overcame their reputation for choking in the playoffs, winning their first postseason game since 2004. They’ll host San Francisco in the NFC championship game next Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Wilson threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, doing all he could to make the Seahawks (12-6) the first playoff team ever to rally from such a daunting deficit in the final period. Marshawn Lynch appeared to have locked it up for Seattle when he scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left for a 28-27 lead.

But the Seahawks’ defense, which is one of the NFL’s best and had totally stymied the Falcons in the fourth, went to a softer coverage and got burned. The Falcons had just enough time to pull off a comeback of their own.

Ryan, shaking off the struggles in his first three playoff appearances, hooked up with Harry Douglas on a 29-yard pass in front of the Falcons bench, and coach Mike Smith quickly signaled a timeout.


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Then, Ryan went down the middle to his favorite target, tight end Tony Gonzalez, a Hall of Famer-to-be playing what could’ve been his final game.

Gonzalez hauled in the 19-yard throw, and Smith called his final timeout with 13 seconds remaining. Instead of risking another play and having the clock run out, he sent Bryant in for the field goal try.

The Seahawks called time just before the ball was snapped, and Bryant’s kick sailed right of the upright. That turned out to be nothing more than practice. The next one was right down the middle, giving the Falcons a stunning victory. Bryant took off toward the Falcons logo in the middle of the field, pumping his right fist before he was mobbed by his teammates.

"Wow," Smith said.

Wilson finished with 385 yards passing and did all he could to lead the Seahawks back from a 27-7 deficit entering the final quarter. When Lynch powered over, the ball breaking the goal line just before it squirted from his arms, Seattle celebrated like it had won its second straight playoff game on the road, having already taken care of Robert Griffiin III and the Washington Redskins.

Not so fast.

Ryan and Bryant led the Falcons back.

"Our quarterback is a special player," Smith said. "They call him Matty Ice, but I feel like we’ve got two Matty Ices. There’s Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant."

Wilson’s last throw, a desperation heave into the end zone, was intercepted by Falcons receiver Julio Jones.

Gonzalez, who had never won a playoff game in his 16-year career, broke down in tears after Bryant’s kick went through the uprights.

"I’ve never cried after a win," said Gonzalez, who has stated repeatedly that he’s "95 percent" sure this is his final year. "I was thinking, ‘Here we go again. I guess it wasn’t meant to be."’

It was.

The Falcons won the first playoff game of the Ryan era, having gone one-and-done in his previous appearances to give the team -- and its quarterback -- a reputation for excelling in the regular season but choking in the postseason. Not anymore. Atlanta is one win away from the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Ryan threw three touchdown passes and overcame two interceptions, finishing 24 of 35 for a personal-best 250 yards in the postseason. He threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez, a 47-yarder to Roddy White and a 5-yarder to Snelling, the latter with 2:11 left in the third quarter to give the Falcons a seemingly commanding lead.

No team had ever rallied from a 20-point deficit in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Wilson nearly pulled it off, running 1 yard for a touchdown to make it 27-14, then going to Zach Miller on a 3-yard touchdown pass that closed the gap to 27-21.

Finally, taking over at his own 39 after an Atlanta punt, Wilson completed three passes for 50 yards, the last of them a short throw to Lynch that went all the way to the Falcons 3 after the quarterback spun away from rushing Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.

BALTIMORE 38, DENVER 35

DENVER -- Welcome to NFL immortality, Joe Flacco.

Somewhere up there in the all-time playoff archives near the "Hail Mary" by Staubach and the "Immaculate Reception" by Franco now lives the "Flacco Fling" by the Baltimore Ravens quarterback.

One big throw down the sideline, 70 make-or-break yards on a wing and a prayer -- a high, arcing touchdown pass that soared through the icy air, flew over two defenders, landed in the hands of Jacoby Jones, saved the game for Baltimore and kept Ray Lewis’ 17-year career going at least one more week.

The record will show Justin Tucker kicked a 47-yard field goal 1:42 into the second overtime Saturday to give the Ravens a 38-35 victory over Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. But it was so much more. It was a crazy, back-and-forth instant classic of an AFC divisional playoff game. The highlight? That would be Flacco’s game-tying touchdown to Jones on third-and-3 from the 30 with 31 seconds left in regulation and no timeouts.

"At that point," Flacco said, "you have to start taking shots. You have to get a little lucky."

And while Flacco gets to celebrate that throw, Manning will have a long offseason to think about a really bad one.

On Denver’s second possession of overtime, he stopped and threw across his body to the middle of the field and into the arms of Ravens cornerback Corey Graham at Denver’s 45. Baltimore (12-6) ran five plays and gained 16 yards before Tucker sailed his winning kick inside the right upright.

The Manning throw, intended for Brandon Stokley, was one that quarterbacks from junior high to the pros are advised not to make. It’s a throw that unraveled all the good Manning has accomplished during this, his comeback season from neck surgery during which he threw for 37 touchdowns and led the Broncos (13-4) to top seeding in the AFC.

After he thaws out, the Ravens, 9 1/2-point underdogs for this one, will get ready for a game at either New England or Houston, who meet Sunday for the other spot in the AFC title game.

This game, the longest since the Browns beat the New York Jets 23-20 in 1987, was an all-timer -- up there with San Diego’s 41-38 double-overtime victory over Miami when it comes to drama, momentum shifts and the unexpected. But Flacco’s throw might best be bookended next to one made by Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, who famously brought the term "Hail Mary" to football after his game-winning toss to Drew Pearson beat Minnesota in the 1975 playoffs.

Staubach was near midfield when he threw his.

Flacco, who finished with 331 yards and three scores, was standing at the 25 for his throw, buying time in the pocket when he saw Jones sprinting down the right sideline into double coverage.

Defensive back Tony Carter slowed up and let Jones streak by him. Instead of staying step for step with Jones, safety Rahim Moore tried to leap and knock down the ball. Flacco, who throws the high, deep ball as well as anyone, got it over Moore’s head and into Jones’ hands.

"I started to step up in the pocket and I kept my eye on the safety’s depth at that point," Flacco said. "Just felt I had a shot of maybe getting over him. At that point in the game, you don’t have any timeouts, when you’ve got to go a pretty decent length you’ve got to start taking shots at some point. It happened to work out."

Jones caught it and pranced into the end zone, blowing kisses toward the crowd.

"I was kissing to God. I was thanking the Lord," Jones said. "I don’t disbelieve in myself. I’ve been believing in myself since I was born. Never no disbelief."

Manning was moving the Broncos along slowly and steadily. But on second-and-6 from the 38, he rolled to his right, stopped, planted and threw across the field toward Stokley at the right hash mark. Graham stepped in front of the receiver for the interception. The Ravens D-back also had a first-quarter interception, which he returned 39 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

On many days, the two interceptions would have made him the star of the game. On this day -- he was just another player making big plays for Baltimore. Even he was amazed at the Flacco-Jones touchdown.

"It was one of those miraculous plays," Graham said. "I don’t think it’ll ever be forgotten."

The wind chill at kickoff was 2 degrees, and Manning, wearing an orange-and-gray glove to get more feel in the icy weather, fell to 0-4 lifetime in playoff games when the temperature is 40 or less. He finished 28 for 43 for 290 yards and accounted for all three Denver turnovers -- the two picks and a lost fumble that set up the touchdown that tied the game at 28 late in the third quarter.

Combined, the mistakes nullified a record-setting day for returner Trindon Holliday, who returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 104 yards for another score. Both were playoff records for longest returns, as was the 248 total return yards he had.

This was, more or less, the unthinkable for the Broncos, who came in on an 11-game winning streak and the odds-on favorite, at 3-1, to win the Super Bowl -- in Manning’s hometown of New Orleans, no less.

Instead, this loss goes down with the most devastating in Denver history. Right there with the 30-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 4, 1997 -- another year when Denver looked very much like Super Bowl material.

All part of an uncharacteristic day for the Broncos, who routed Baltimore on its home field, 34-17, less than a month ago.

But on this day, the coldest playoff game in Broncos history, these were different teams playing for different stakes.

SAN FRANCISCO 45,

GREEN BAY 31

SAN FRANCISCO -- The unproven kid thoroughly beat the former Super Bowl champion and reigning MVP.

With a strong arm that allowed him to pick the Packers apart from the pocket and speedy legs that helped him break free for big gains, Colin Kaepernick did a little bit of everything in a record-setting, sensational playoff debut -- and Aaron Rodgers just couldn’t keep up.

Kaepernick passed for 263 yards and ran the San Francisco 49ers right back to the NFC championship game with a win over Green Bay in an NFC divisional game Saturday night.

Kaepernick rushed for a quarterback playoff record 181 yards and two touchdowns and threw two scoring passes to Michael Crabtree. Next up for the Niners: a game on Jan. 20 for a spot in the Super Bowl, against the winner of Sunday’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and Falcons at Atlanta.

Rodgers never got in sync for the Packers (12-6), finishing 26 of 39 for 257 yards with two touchdowns.

Kaepernick ran for scores of 20 and 56 yards on the way to topping the rushing mark of 119 yards set by Michael Vick in 2005 against St. Louis. Crabtree caught TD passes of 12 and 20 yards in the second quarter and wound up with nine receptions and 119 yards for the Niners (12-4-1) in the NFC divisional matchup.

Kaepernick, sporting a burgundy beanie partially covering his head, was greeted at his locker after the game by former 49ers quarterback John Brodie.

San Francisco had 579 total yards with 323 on the ground, scoring its third-most points in the franchise’s storied playoff history.

Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon each added 2-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter for the No. 2 seed NFC West champions, slim favorites on their home field in a rematch of Week 1. They added to their memorable night by setting a franchise postseason record for yards rushing, 119 of those by Gore to complement Kaepernick.

Rodgers, the former Cal star passed up by San Francisco with the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, never got going. Rodgers rooted for the Niners as a kid in Northern California.

San Francisco advanced to back-to-back NFC title games for the first time since reaching three in a row following the 1992-94 seasons, with 1994 their last trip to the Super Bowl.

Kaepernick topped Vick’s mark with the 56-yard keeper on an option play in the third quarter. That gave Kaepernick 163 yards on 12 carries, also setting a 49ers franchise record for the postseason.

Kaepernick joined Jay Cutler in 2011 and Otto Graham in both 1954 and ‘55 as the only players with two rushing and two passing touchdowns in a playoff game.

David Akers kicked a 36-yard field goal moments before halftime to give San Francisco a 24-21 lead at intermission after Green Bay tried to ice the struggling veteran by calling timeout before his kick.

Mason Crosby’s 31-yard field goal tied the game at 24 midway through the third quarter, then Kaepernick took over again. San Francisco’s defense handled the rest.

Kaepernick had 11 carries for 107 yards rushing by halftime.

San Francisco, fueled all year by its near miss in overtime of the NFC title game, made it two victories against Rodgers and Co. this season after a 30-22 Week 1 win at Lambeau Field.

Kaepernick bounced back from the early interception and again after a second-quarter taunting penalty in which he threw the ball down in the face of safety M.D. Jennings after being hit by Jennings and Erik Walden. Center Jonathan Goodwin grabbed Kaepernick in an effort to settle him down after his 15-yard run was negated by the 15-yard flag.

Two plays later, Kaepernick found Crabtree for his 20-yard TD as San Francisco capitalized on another Packers turnover.

Rodgers answered right back on the Packers’ next chance, driving his team 80 yards on six plays and hitting James Jones on a 20-yard touchdown of his own that tied the game at 21. Green Bay got help from a 15-yard personal foul penalty by Dashon Goldson for a helmet-to-helmet hit on DuJuan Harris.

Former California receiver Jeremy Ross fumbled Andy Lee’s punt early in the second and C.J. Spillman recovered as San Francisco got the ball back at the 9. Kaepernick threw a 12-yard TD pass to Crabtree three plays later.