Falcons respond to Seahawks’ rally to reach NFC title game

Atlanta Falcons kicker Matt Bryant reacts to his game-winning field goal against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half of an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Atlanta Falcons kicker Matt Bryant reacts to his game-winning field goal against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half of an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ATLANTA — Matt Bryant pumped his fist and celebrated atop the Falcons logo at midfield. Tony Gonzalez broke down in tears. Matt Ryan relished the thought of not having to answer a familiar question.

The Atlanta Falcons finally showed they could win a playoff game. And, wow, what a game it was.

After a meltdown in the fourth quarter, the Falcons pulled off a comeback that will long be remembered in championship-starved Atlanta. Ryan completed two long passes before Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining, lifting the NFC’s top seed to a stunning 30-28 victory over Russell Wilson and the gutty Seattle Seahawks in a divisional game Sunday.

“Wow!” said Falcons coach Mike Smith, summing up this classic as well as anyone could.

Atlanta squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, falling behind for the first time when Marshawn Lynch scored on a 2-yard run with 31 seconds left and Ryan Longwell knocked through the extra point for a 28-27 lead.

No team has won a playoff game when facing such a daunting deficit in the final period. The Falcons, thanks to a pair of Matty Ices — Ryan and Bryant — didn’t become the first victim.

Ryan, shaking off his struggles in three previous playoff losses, hooked up with Harry Douglas for a 29-yard pass in front of the Falcons’ bench, and Smith quickly called a timeout. Then Ryan went down the middle to Gonzalez, a Hall of Famer-to-be playing what could have been his final game.

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

The Seahawks called a timeout just before the ball was snapped, and Bryant’s kick sailed right. That turned out to be nothing more than practice: The next one was right down the middle as Bryant took off in the other direction, pumping his fist before he was mobbed by teammates.

The Falcons 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.

“Nobody flinched,” Ryan said. “We just kept battling, kept doing what we do.”

Bryant knocked through his third game-winning kick of the season, but he’d never made one as big as this.

“When they scored their touchdown, I walked down (the sideline),” he said. “I told the offensive line, I told (Ryan), I told all the receivers, ‘We’ve done this before.’ ”

Wilson threw two touchdown passes and ran for another, doing all he could to pull off the most improbable of comebacks for the Seahawks. But the Seattle defense, which is one of the NFL’s best and had stymied the Falcons in the fourth quarter, went to a softer coverage and got burned.

“We had high, high hopes for the rest of the season,” Wilson said. “When the game was over, I was very disappointed. But walking back into the tunnel, I got so excited about next year. The resilience we showed was unbelievable.”

Wilson finished with 385 passing yards as the Seahawks wiped out 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 Griffin III’s Washington Redskins.

It would’ve been the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history.

Not so fast.

Ryan led the Falcons back and wiped out his 0-3 mark in the playoffs, including a crushing loss to Green Bay two years ago when the Falcons were in the same position — the NFC’s top seed.

“The one thing I’ve learned during my five years in the league, and specifically in the postseason, is that it’s hard,” Ryan said.

He’ll no longer be asked why he can’t win in the playoffs.

“That’s going to be nice,” he said. “But our goal is not to win one playoff game. Our goals are still in front of us. We still have two more games to go.”

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.

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

It was.