This could have ended a lot differently, and this probably should have ended a lot differently. When a mostly fast, mostly up-tempo, mostly vertical team tries to revert to being conservative, generally what they’re asking for is then received.
Failure. Crushing, and repeated failure.
But this time, disaster was averted as the Falcons beat Seattle 30-28 in what was the third straight thriller during this divisional round weekend. As I write this I’m watching a Patriots-Texans game that’s surprisingly close after it was opened by a 94-yard kick return from Daniel Manning. There was also that time last night when we learned that Colin Kaepernick is for realz, and combined the other two games were won by five points.
But I digress. Back to the Falcons, and their near playoff implosion.
No, you haven’t stepped into a swirling black hole time vortex, and you’re not reading this in January of 2012. I hear those exist, though, so be careful.
Nevermind the fourth quarter Matt Ryan interception on a ball which had no business being suspended in the air for what seemed like at least 18 minutes against one of the league’s premier ball-hawking teams, and it eventually ended up in the hands of safety Earl Thomas with 11 minutes remaining. That was worse than bad, or awful. It was downright Favre-ian. Or if you prefer after last night’s events, Manning-ian.
Four plays later, Russell Wilson threw a touchdown pass to Zach Miller (he somehow had 142 receiving yards today, when his season single-game high this year was 59 yards, and he had only 396 yards overall). That meant a 20-point lead at halftime had nearly evaporated, and only six points of said lead remained to choke on.
It was also the middle touchdown of a fourth quarter cluster-mess that would see the Falcons’ defense give up 21 points…in one quarter. This came from a unit that finished fifth overall in points allowed per game with 18.7, yet today that mark was easily passed in just the second half when Seattle did all of its scoring.
That sounds like a collapse, because it is a collapse. But none of it should have mattered.
With just over nine minutes remaining, Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense had the ball on their own 24-yard line. The desire to watch seconds tick off the clock was understandable, but it shouldn’t have been overwhelming, especially not after 21 unanswered points. Scoring was needed, and a point of any kind. In the process, those seconds would also tick down, and a field goal would have made it a two-score game with, say, five-ish minutes left. Then Ryan and Mike Smith could drink all of the brandy while laughing about almost looking like incompetent fools in January again, a jovial drink they’re ultimately enjoying right now.
So then what did Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter (HIRE THIS MAN) do? An incompletion to Roddy White was followed by a screen to Julio Jones, and a Drew Davis target on third and 13. You know, the same Drew Davis who had four catches all year. Don’t worry about those two fast guys on the outside or Tony Gonzalez when you need a crucial long, field-stretching completion.
One possession later after a forced Seahawks punt, and it was more of the same. Three plays, and a gifted game handed to the opposition after Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combined for two yards on back-to-back runs. A scared, conservative team isn’t a playoff team. Just ask John Fox, and there was also Smith’s boneheaded decision not to attempt a two-point conversion after the Falcons’ final touchdown in the third quarter. Success there would have made it a three-touchdown game, and Wilson’s last-minute heroics would have resulted in a tie and potential overtime, and Ryan wouldn’t have been forced to save a 13-3 season with only 31 seconds left.
But that happened, and that’s what will be remembered.
You’re aware of the calamity that then transpired. Awful tackling, and the absence of John Abraham — who re-aggravated his ankle injury — led to Marshawn Lynch punching it in from two yards away. Then when they were finally forced to revert to being vertical, and doing what’s given Atlanta an effective offense all year (I’m aware they had a season high 169 rushing yards today after averaging only 87.3 per game, making this afternoon very much an outlier), something so very expected happened. Deep balls were caught, and there was an opportunity for a long yet makeable field goal as time expired.
It was converted by Matt Bryant, but even then Atlanta wasn’t satisfied with its attempts to lose which had been so efficient in the second half. Matt Bosher yipped on the squib kick that followed, making it look like an onside kick. Maybe it was failed execution (as Smith said in his post-game press conference), or maybe it was miscommunication. Either way, it set Wilson up for a Hail Mary at midfield. Inherently, that was a prayer, but the mere opportunity shouldn’t have existed.
A week from now, a sometimes conservative offense will meet an always electric offense led by Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who smashed the single-game QB rushing record last night. This is where I’d say something about his ability to make Abraham look silly, after doing the same to DeMarcus Ware and Clay Matthews.
But Abraham might not even be there to face his embarrassment, and we just witnessed what Wilson was able to do with his legs and arm while easily avoiding Atlanta’s minimal pressure. The final damage was 385 passing yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and 60 rushing yards with a touchdown on the ground.
Against a team that won’t bail on the read-option offense as the Seahawks seemed to, it’s difficult to foresee a positive outcome against the Niners, especially if Abraham is out.