ATLANTA — In the playoffs, when the best teams face off, games are often decided by a mistake here or there, or a penalty called or not called. Under coach Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks have built a reputation of minimizing those mistakes and forcing their opponents to make them instead.
But on Saturday, it was the Seahawks who came up short in a divisional-round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons and their top-ranked offense. The Falcons advanced to the NFC championship game next Sunday, when they will face the winner of this Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers.
The Seahawks were leading 10-7 thanks to two strong drives. After they stopped the Falcons early in the second quarter, Seattle’s Devin Hester, who has returned 19 kickoffs and punts for touchdowns during his career, caught a punt, spun away from a defender, then sprinted to his left and down the sideline.
Falcons punter Matt Bosher helped drag down Hester short of the goal line, but the Seahawks appeared poised to build a double-digit lead. A holding call on Seattle linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis negated the runback, however, forcing the Seahawks to start instead at their own 7-yard line. Two plays later, quarterback Russell Wilson fell backward into the end zone, allowing the Falcons to score a safety.
After the ensuing kickoff, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan quickly hit receiver Taylor Gabriel for 37 yards. Four plays later, the Falcons kicked a 35-yard field goal to go ahead 12-10.
The quick turnaround unhinged the Seahawks while the Falcons never looked back and captured their first playoff victory in four years 36-20.
The Falcons’ defense harassed Wilson, forcing him to scramble, and they bottled up running back Thomas Rawls, who ran effectively early in the game. After nearly being burned by Hester in the second quarter, the Falcons did a good job of keeping the ball away from him — until he returned a fourth-quarter kickoff 74 yards to set up Seattle’s final touchdown.
In his five years in the league, Wilson has built a reputation for late comebacks. In 2012, his rookie season, Wilson led the Seahawks back from a 20-point deficit in a playoff game, also in Atlanta, only to lose on a late field goal.
That magic was not evident Saturday in front of a raucous crowd at the Georgia Dome. While Wilson and the Seahawks were forced to fight for every yard, the Falcons swarmed the field, and Ryan showed why he is considered a leading candidate to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Ryan is not flashy. He does not scramble like Wilson or throw fastballs into tight coverage like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But at 6-foot-5, he has a wide view of the field to go with an accurate arm.
This season, his ninth in Atlanta, Ryan passed for 38 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards. He had a 69.9 percent pass completion rate and the top passer rating, impressive statistics that often go unnoticed, perhaps because the Falcons rarely play in prime time.
Ryan flashed those skills often Saturday. In the second quarter, he mixed short and long passes effectively to lead the Falcons 99 yards on a drive that ended with a 14-yard pass to Tevin Coleman that put Atlanta up 19-10.
Ryan’s numbers — 26 completions on 37 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions — were enough to prompt the Falcons fans to chant “M-V-P, M-V-P” in the fourth quarter.
Several of Ryan’s passes were dropped or underthrown. But he made few mistakes against Seattle’s defense, one of the stingiest in the NFL.
Seattle’s chances of a comeback fell when defensive back DeShawn Shead left with a knee injury in the third quarter. The Seahawks were already missing free safety Earl Thomas, who broke his leg in Week 13.
It was the Falcons’ defense, one of the most porous in the league, that ultimately provided the capstone.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Wilson was again forced to run out of the pocket to buy time and find a receiver. In desperation, he lofted a pass downfield that Falcons safety Ricardo Allen plucked out of the air and returned 45 yards.
The victory may have given Falcons fans one last chance to visit the Georgia Dome, the team’s home since 1992.
Next season, the team will move into Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a $1.5 billion palace 90 feet to the south. The Falcons are now 4-2 in playoff games in the Georgia Dome. If the Packers beat the Cowboys in Texas today, the Falcons will host the NFC championship game here.
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