Monday, December 18, 2017
Sports

Ryan leads surging Falcons to NFC title game

ATLANTA — Matt Ryan huddled the offense on the sideline and spoke with passion. The Falcons quarterback moved in a circle, making eye contact with every teammate as he delivered his message. Intensity contorted his face. It appeared to be the pep talk of a leader whose team is struggling.

Here's the thing, though: The Falcons were ahead 26-10.

It seems Ryan is over being a playoff lemon.

Saturday, as a 36-20 throttling of the Seahawks concluded in an NFC division game, Ryan put his team in the victory formation and took a knee as "M-V-P!" chants boomed through the Georgia Dome.

"It's pretty cool," Ryan said, grinning. "It was pretty cool, considering the circumstances, too, with the game in hand."

Returning to the postseason for the first time in four years, Ryan threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Falcons into the league championship game for only the fourth time in their 51 years.

Atlanta will face either the Cowboys or Packers, who meet today in the NFC's other division-round game.

Even up by 16 points in the third quarter, Ryan — 1-4 in his previous playoff appearances (the lone win against Seattle in the 2012 season) — wouldn't let his offense relent. He exposed every hole in a weakened Seahawks defense, making the accomplished unit look shoddy. The Falcons scored on five of their first six possessions, including touchdown drives of 75, 99 and 75 yards.

Ryan didn't provide an opening for the Seahawks to mount the type of comebacks they've become known for during the Pete Carroll era.

After the teams traded long touchdown drives to start the game, the contest became a bludgeoning in the second quarter. It turned on a penalty.

With Seattle leading 10-7, returner Devin Hester unleashed a wicked spin move and dashed for an 80-yard punt return to the Atlanta 7-yard line. But Seattle linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis was called for a holding penalty. So Seattle was back at its 7, losing 86 yards of field position.

"Just a ridiculously large play in the game," Carroll said.

Two plays into the drive, quarterback Russell Wilson stumbled after an offensive lineman stepped on him and fell into the end zone. Safety, Falcons.

And after the Seahawks' kickoff, Ryan drove Atlanta in range for a 35-yard Matt Bryant field goal. In four minutes of game time, the momentum had swung from the Seahawks being on the brink of a 17-7 lead to the Falcons taking a 12-10 lead.

After that, Atlanta dominated.

"It's just really hard to think it's over," said Carroll, whose team couldn't follow up a dominating win over Detroit in the opening round.

After a 26-24 loss at Seattle during the regular season, the Falcons showed off all their offensive weapons against the "Legion of Boom."

Ryan hooked up with Julio Jones on a 7-yard touchdown and Tevin Coleman for a 14-yard score before finishing off the Seahawks with a 3-yard toss to Mohamed Sanu with just less than four minutes left.

Eight players caught passes from Ryan, including running back Devonta Freeman on a 53-yard play that included a dazzling fake on replacement free safety Steven Terrell right in the middle of the field.

The Seahawks missed safety Earl Thomas, out for the season with a broken leg.

"They've got a lot of momentum," Carroll said of the Falcons. "This is what they looked like the last four weeks."

This looked like the team that second-year coach Dan Quinn, a former Seahawks defensive coordinator, promised to build. Aggressive. Attacking. Balanced. Great chemistry. He has taken some of the good from former coach Mike Smith — now the Bucs' defensive coordinator — re-energized it and added his toughness and defensive expertise to the equation.

"We are much closer to that identity," Quinn said.

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