For the best perspective on the Falcons’ stunning, 36-20 Divisional Round playoff win over Seattle on Saturday, let’s start at the finish.
Seattle had just taken possession after a rare Falcon punt, with 2:41 remaining in a two-score game.
Were Falcon fans nervous?
51-years of negative history told them to be. Not to mention the Seahawks previous scoring drive, which lasted all of one play, covering 31 yards.
Then Russell Wilson promptly hit Paul Richardson with a 58-yard pass. The game was on!
But Falcon coach Dan Quinn successfully challenged the ruling of a catch, bringing the ball back to the Seattle 20. On third-and-10, Wilson completed a 16-yard pass to Doug Baldwin.
Oh, the angst.
Suddenly, it was over. Throwing over the middle to Luke Willson, ably defended by Jalen Collins and De’Vondre Campbell, Wilson watched in horror as Deion Jones grabbed the ball and sped down the Seahawk sideline.
“I saw Jalen and De’Vondre make a good play on the ball,” Jones told Jeanna Thomas of SB Nation. “I was really just trying to get over there and help out with the tackle. The ball was still up, and I just knew that I had to grab it before anyone got there.”
A rookie linebacker, Jones was one of seven Falcon defensive starters making their first playoff appearance. He exemplifies the “fast and physical” style of play Quinn envisions for his defense.
Another playoff newcomer, second-year safety Ricardo Allen, also had a fourth-quarter interception. “We’re going to come out and make you pay,” Allen told Thomas.
Imagine that. A Falcon defense with attitude.
The Falcon defense gets overlooked, of course. Any unit short of Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain of the ‘70’s would when compared to the Falcons 34-points-per-game offense. But this defense has come a long way. They fly across the field, and arrive at the ball with velocity. It’s a novel experience to see Falcon defenders repeatedly knock ballcarriers backwards.
Like Thomas Rawls. A week after ripping the Lions for 161 yards rushing, the Falcons held him to 34 on 11 carries.
It didn’t begin that way. They allowed Seattle to drive 89 yards for a touchdown to start the game, and then add a field goal on the next possession. After that, the defense was championship worthy.
“We are growing,” rookie safety Keanu Neal told Thomas. “We’re young, but we are starting to mold together as a unit. And it showed today. They drove and scored on the first drive, but after that, we buckled down and really handled business.”
“They’re hitting their stride at the right time,” veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney told Thomas. “We’ve got to win one more, then, after that, win one more.”
Imagine hearing such talk last August.
After Jones’ return to the 15, Devonta Freeman then barreled to the two. That run put the tandem of Freeman and Tevin Coleman over 100 yards for the game, against a Seattle defense that held them to half that a few months ago.
That also made Alex Mack the star of the game, according to ProFootballFocus analyst Khaled Elsayed. “If a player did stand out, it’s this one,” Elsayed told Tim Weaver of USA Today. “It’s because of what you don’t see from him. You don’t hear the name of center Alex Mack called often. A big change from a year ago, when the names of Mike Person and James Stone were all too common.
“He has solidified the offensive line and, in many ways, the offense as a whole, and this game was the epitome of that.”
The offense answered Seattle’s opening drive with one of its own, but the best drive came right before the half. Taking over on their own one-yard-line, the Falcons went empty backfield, and Matt Ryan found Julio Jones for eight yards.
“Get you some breathing room,” Ryan told espn.com. “That’s your first job as an offense in a backed-up situation.” Ryan then hit Coleman for five, and, one play later, found Mohamed Sanu for 22.
“Oh, we were ahead when we got the first first down,” Sanu told espn.com. The drive ended with a pass to Coleman, all alone in the end zone. The nine-play drive put the Falcons up, 19-10, and so demoralized Seattle that the Seahawks didn’t try to score on their final possession of the half, despite having 53 seconds and all three time outs.
“I thought we played well today,” Ryan told Vaughn McClure of espn.com. “I thought we had a really good plan all week. Kyle (Shanahan, offensive coordinator) did a good job of letting us know what he expected from us, and what he wanted us to do, and how we could win the game. I was proud of how the guys went out there and executed.”
All that was left was for Ryan to take a knee, and listen to the Dome crowd roar, “MVP! MVP!”
“It was pretty cool,” Ryan told the associated press. “Considering the circumstances, too, with the game in hand. That’s got to be as loud as it’s ever been in here!”
Yes, the Falcons have a team worth getting loud about.