Seahawks-Falcons Live: Atlanta Holds Off Seattle Surge to Win First Playoff Game for Mike Smith, Matt Ryan

Tony Gonzalez, Harry DouglasFinal, Falcons 30-28: The Falcons are not the most feared team in the NFC, but they have won, and they are going to the championship game.

More importantly, Mike Smith and Matt Ryan have finally won their first playoff game, and they’ve done it in a manner that should scare the crap out of them and ensure a solid week of practice.

This game will be used as a how-not-to in teaching young quarterbacks and coaching staffs in the future. Atlanta did just about all it could to lose before finally shutting down Seattle.

The Seahawks (12-6) have a great season to hang their hat on. While balanced and able to stick in games, they just couldn’t do enough in the first half today, but they have a strong foundation for the future. Atlanta (14-3), meanwhile, found out firsthand what it can do well and what it cannot, and it faces a much bigger test (and another running quarterback) next week against San Francisco.

Ryan finished the game 24 of 35 for 250 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Wilson had 24 completions as well, on 36 passes, and racked up 385 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His primary target, Zach Miller, came through for 142 yards.

That will be it for us today. Wander on over to our Patriots live blog for some AFC action.

4th Quarter, 0:06, Falcons 30-28: Can we agree that, however this game ends, the Falcons have not coached it well? That should have been an easy kick. Instead, Seattle has the ball near midfield.

4th Quarter, 0:08, Falcons 30-28: Perhaps the football gods just wanted Matt Ryan to really win it. After sleepwalking in the second half, including that inexplicable interception, Ryan gunned two passes for 41 yards to get the Falcons where they needed to be for a field goal.

That will do it. Atlanta wins a game that it deserved to for 52 or so minutes. Seattle gets a dose of tough luck, but the Seahawks made their bed in the first half before nearly climbing out of it for a win in the second half.

4th Quarter, 0:31, Seahawks 28-27: How does this happen? Honestly. How does this happen?

Who hasn’t been sitting here for the whole second half, wondering when the clock would tick away and Atlanta would take the win it has been assured for the last couple of hours?

Nope. The Seahawks aren’t just “back in it.” They’re ahead, and Matt Ryan is in the unenviable position of having to work the length of the field with two timeouts and just half a minute.

The Falcons just need a field goal.

4th Quarter, 0:31, 27-27: Oh, good heavens. The Seahawks were outplayed for much of this game, but they stuck with it, and now football luck has smiled upon them.

The Seahawks appear to have scored on a fumble at the goal line, and the officials have now confirmed the score. Seattle has tied the game on the most improbable of plays.

Are the Seahawks lucky, or are the Falcons just snakebitten?

4th Quarter, 0:34, Falcons 27-21: A Marshawn Lynch sighting! After a game where he couldn’t do much of anything, Lynch has come through in the biggest moment.

Russell Wilson found Lynch for a 24-yard catch-and-run, and Lynch nearly made it into the end zone. Instead, the Seahawks have plenty of time (34 seconds), three timeouts and all the momentum.

Fun fact: If the Seahawks had recorded a field goal in either of the two opportunities where they missed (4th-and-1, and the end of the first half), the game could be tied, or Seattle could be within three points.

4th Quarter, 2:00, Falcons 27-21: It’s down to this. Two minutes. Game on the line. Touchdown ties it, and extra point wins.

This is the kind of situation Russell Wilson has been planning for his entire life, and now he gets the drama in the most dramatic of situations. Matt Ryan and Co. will have to watch, because the ball is in Wilson’s hands as this one comes down to the final ticks.

4th Quarter, 5:40, Falcons 27-21: Russell Wilson’s magic ran out there, but he still has time to do something if the Seattle defense can do its job.

Everybody wants a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning come playoff time, but depending on how these last couple of games turn out, there may be a change coming in the NFL. While a premier pocket passer has always been what teams prefer, what Colin Kaepernick and Wilson have done with their legs in the last two games has been incredible. Teams just can’t stop them sometimes.

Then again, there’s a reason a passer is actually needed in the quarterback spot. If Matt Ryan and Brady do their jobs today, they’ll prove exactly why.

4th Quarter, 5:48, Falcons 27-21: Talk about a worst-case scenario for the Falcons. They thought they had this all sewn up, and now the Seahawks have a chance — and the momentum.

Russell Wilson’s running, which was simply keeping Seattle from being an embarrassment before, is now what’s powering the Seahawks. Wilson scrambled for nine yards to get this drive going, and his stick-with-it is proving hard to beat for a second week in a row.

4th Quarter, 7:43, Falcons 27-21: And the Falcons are punting. Russell Wilson time.

4th Quarter, 9:13, Falcons 27-21: Oh boy. Russell Wilson and Zach Miller, who were about the only two Seahawks doing anything for much of the game, have done it again.

After Robert Turbin turned a short catch into a 30-yard gain, Wilson slipped one in to Miller, and the Seahawks are within a score with plenty of time left.

4th Quarter, 11:03, Falcons 27-14: Rookie mistake — by the guy who’s been in the league since 2008. (Does it still count as a rookie mistake if Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game?)

Ryan just launched a bomb down the left sideline, which is all well and good, except for the fact that he threw it into double-coverage, and Earl Thomas intercepted it. Now, it could be worse. It wasn’t a pick-six, and Thomas went out of bounds where he caught it, meaning Seattle doesn’t have instant great field position.

But what on earth was Ryan doing? What happened to playing conservatively and running out the clock?

Remember, the Redskins had the upper hand in their playoff game against the Seahawks last week, and Seattle stuck around and then came up with the win. The Falcons are playing much better, and have been for a larger portion of the game than the Redskins, but Seattle won’t roll over. Now the Hawks have a chance to get back in it.

4th Quarter, 13:01, Falcons 27-14: We’re starting to see why we thought the Seahawks could compete in this game. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late — although 13 minutes, and a couple of defensive stops, could turn this game in a different direction.

Russell Wilson was good on that drive, using his arm to get Seattle down the field. Atlanta’s defense isn’t as rugged as it was in the first half, but Wilson will have to do that two more times. And the Seahawks’ defense has to come up with a stop.

3rd Quarter, 2:11, Falcons 27-7: Oh, that was sick. The Falcons have destroyed the Seahawks by air and by ground this game, and they just made it look even easier with a Matt Ryan shovel pass to little-used Jason Snelling. Ryan has dominated from the quarterback spot, and the key now is to get his confidence even higher as this one winds down, with the 49ers waiting next week.

Richard Sherman, meanwhile, was called offsides on trying to block that kick.

That drive was 14 plays, 80 yards, and 7:36 long. That’s how it’s done, kids.

3rd Quarter, 4:30, Falcons 20-7: This could be the back-breaking drive.

Matt Ryan is really making it happen. He’s getting excellent protection in the pocket and is just picking apart the Seattle defense. He almost had a nice touchdown down the right-hand side to Harry Douglas, too. Douglas, who usually plays in the slot, just missed the catch, which would have gone for a score and badly embarrassed Richard Sherman, who saw the pass go over his outstretched arm.

The Falcons will be happy to run out the clock and add another seven.

3rd Quarter, 8:19, Falcons 20-7: The Falcons just completed on another big third down, with Matt Ryan connecting with Tony Gonzalez. If the Seahawks have any chance of a comeback, it has to start there — stopping Atlanta on third down.

3rd Quarter, 9:35, Falcons 20-7: Anyone else notice how happy Mike Smith looks on the sidelines? Monkey. Off. His. Back.

3rd Quarter, 9:47, Falcons 20-7: There we go. The Seahawks are finally on the board.

Russell Wilson found some nice holes in the Atlanta defense on that drive, with a big completion to Zach Miller on 2nd-and-18 and then a great 27-yard touchdown strike down the left sideline to Golden Tate. The Falcons’ defense wasn’t as sharp on the drive, but Wilson still gets credit for being able to make the plays when his receivers found holes.

One interesting note on that drive was that Marshawn Lynch was yanked on 3rd-and-1 again. Seattle converted, but it’s got to be hard for a team that has leaned on Lynch all season long to just switch things up in a game that’s already haphazard.

3rd Quarter, 15:00, Falcons 20-0: Some of the stats are close to even at halftime, except for that whole score thing. The Falcons have 268 net yards to the Seahawks’ 193, and 14 first downs to Seattle’s 10.

Matt Ryan is 12 of 18 for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and Russell Wilson is 10 of 17, also for 135 yards.

Where the real gap remains is on the ground. Seattle, which was expected to have the rushing edge, has just 58 yards. Atlanta, meanwhile, has 133. Yeah, that would do it.

Halftime, Falcons 20-0: Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense seemed to be doing a little better right before the half, but don’t be convinced — the Falcons were not exactly playing regular defense there, and they got what they wanted, keeping Seattle out of the end zone.

A sign of how bad things are for the Seahawks was what happened in the final play. Seattle failed to even get a field goal, blowing up the timing and planning on the final play. That kind of ineptitude is what is keeping an overwhelmed Seattle team from even getting on the board.

The biggest concern is whether the Seahawks can do anything on either side of the ball in the second half. Any hopes that they could steal one thanks to the Falcons’ poor playoff showing in recent years has disappeared, and any hopes for a shootout seem to be gone, too. Seattle will need some serious breaks to go its way, and maybe a new game plan, for any chance in this one.

Atlanta has been just too strong across the board. The passing offense is stellar, as expected, but the Falcons have also been able to rush at will. Combine that with a Falcons defense that has done what it needs to, and the Seahawks will have to play above their heads to dent this lead.

Seattle can start by going with what works. Marshawn Lynch has clearly lost his effectiveness, and the rushing game has not been good — unless it’s Wilson getting free. Taking advantage of the way Atlanta is lining up to contain Wilson is what has yielded the Seahawks’ yardage so far, and Seattle has to take advantage of what it’s given in the second half. That means more smart running from Wilson, and more passes to the likes of Zach Miller, whose five catches for 94 yards have kept Seattle alive. Wilson can see holes and make plays, but his receivers need to help him out.

Above all, though, Seattle needs to avoid doing what happened right before the half. It’s admirable to try to go for it and get back in the game, but seriously — this team has done nothing good all half. What made them think they could pull that one off? Wilson’s inexperience at quarterback came through on that final play, where he couldn’t even spike the ball in time and tried instead to go for an end zone heave, keeping the Seahawks from even getting three points.

The Falcons, meanwhile, need to stay aggressive. They are getting contributions from a variety of players on both sides of the ball, and Ryan shouldn’t be afraid to keep pushing the tempo in the second half. Running and controlling the clock is a good idea, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the team’s rhythm.

We’ll see how these teams come out of the locker room after halftime, but there hasn’t been any evidence so far that Seattle can keep up.

2nd Quarter, 2:00, Falcons 20-0: Marshawn Lynch is playing, but he’s not doing much. There was some question of whether he was injured — or possibly in fumble exile — after the Seahawks went with Michael Robinson on that 4th-and-1.

We’ll chalk that up to Pete Carroll being smarter than us all on counts.

Lynch is back in and running, but he doesn’t look quite right. He may have tweaked something.

The Seahawks are at midfield with little chance to do something before the half.

2nd Quarter, 4:16, Falcons 20-0: Quite a few people are enjoying how Richard Sherman got burned on that Roddy White touchdown, and White looked like he had something to say after he popped up from the score. Sherman hasn’t won any friends in this league, and it’s going to be a long day if he can’t back up his chirping with some solid play.

2nd Quarter, 4:16, Falcons 20-0: This one’s over.

Matt Ryan is not choking this time. He just flung one of the most beautiful 47-yard passes ever seen, hitting Roddy White — who easily outstepped the defenders — right in the end zone for six points.

The Falcons are just dominant in every part of the game right now, and you have to wonder what could have been done to stop that one. White outran one defender, who whiffed to the ground, and was past the other defender coming back in coverage when Ryan hit him. Ryan, meanwhile, had plenty of time to throw thanks to his offensive line continuing to give him great protection.

Seattle has not threatened anywhere in this game, and a 20-point deficit is fitting for what they’ve done so far.

2nd Quarter, 5:38, Falcons 13-0It’s one thing to be gutsy and get your team back in the game. It’s another to destroy your team’s chances of winning by going for it on a risky 4th-and-1 in the second quarter. But, then again, this one may be on the Seahawks for not converting, not on Pete Carroll for trying. Seattle needed to do something, after all.

Michael Robinson was apparently not the man for the hour. The Seahawks got all the way to the 12 yard line and decided to go for the much-needed touchdown rather than a field goal, but the Falcons’ defense was up to the task and stuffed Robinson on 4th-and-1. Now Atlanta has even more momentum, and Matt Ryan looks excited for another drive.

2nd Quarter, 9:07, Falcons 13-0: Russell Wilson could do worse than just throw to Zach Miller all game long. Miller has been Wilson’s only reliable receiver so far, and that 34-yard pickup over the middle is exactly what Seattle needs to keep its confidence up against this deficit.

2nd Quarter, 9:13, Falcons 13-0: That was a bad penalty on the Falcons there. Offsides are common in the NFL, but that looked like the whole team took off before the ball was snapped.

Atlanta is in firm control of this game, but the Falcons have to keep the pressure up. They need to score while they can and continue to press Seattle so the Seahawks don’t have wiggle room to get back in the game.

Still, a 37-yard field goal is nice.

End 1st Quarter, Falcons 10-0: We told you Atlanta could do some running. Jacquizz Rodgers just ripped off a 45-yarder, and Seattle’s problems continue to grow.

1st Quarter, 0:42, Falcons 10-0: That’s another stalled drive for the Seahawks. Russell Wilson and Zach Miller got a little bit of something going at the beginning, connecting twice for 31 total yards, but Atlanta found a way to contain Wilson — and his legs — after that.

Marshawn Lynch has rushed five times for 22 yards, and that’s an area where Seattle needs to keep pressing if they want to keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ momentum off the field. Lynch’s fumble doesn’t bode well, but he’s usually secure with the ball — he fumbled just twice in the regular season (but has now fumbled twice in the playoffs).

1st Quarter, 3:18, Falcons 10-0: Atlanta is shaking off  that early turnover, and that’s a good sign that the Falcons could be ready to shake off their playoff blues, too.

Matt Ryan was phenomenal on that drive, hitting Roddy White on third down, connecting with Chase Coffman on an incredible sideline catch and then zipping one in to Tony Gonzalez in the back of the end zone, where Gonzalez showed why he’s elite with the presence of mind to get his feet down so the score would count.

The Seahawks didn’t look like they had answers for the Falcons’ attack on that drive, and any confidence Ryan lost in the early going has been regained. The Falcons are playing like they’ve been here before, while Seattle looks skittish.

1st Quarter, 5:54, Falcons 3-0: Well, that won’t work.

Marshawn Lynch just fumbled the ball, and a quick pounce by Jonathan Babineaux turns possession right back to Atlanta.

It’s a shame, too — Russell Wilson had just ripped off a great 17-yard scramble that was very reminiscent of the way that Colin Kaepernick destroyed the Packers last night. Very rarely have scrambling quarterbacks had great success in the NFL playoffs, but what Kaepernick did with his legs last night showed that there’s really no defense for a great running quarterback when teams don’t game-plan for him. Wilson could have similar success today against a Falcons defense that hasn’t been great against the run, whether it’s coming out of the backfield or against the quarterback spot.

1st Quarter, 6:54, Falcons 3-0Forget Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Bobby Wagner makes the first big play for the Seattle defense, scooping up a wayward Matt Ryan throw to negate the lovely field position the Seahawks’ offense had just given Atlanta.

Seattle gets a second chance for a good first impression on offense.

1st Quarter, 8:13, Falcons 3-0: It sounds loud down in the Georgia Dome, and the Seahawks will have to get used to the “12th Man” rooting for the other birds this afternoon.

Seattle’s first offensive foray has ended in a three-and-out, with an offensive penalty and a horrid punt tacked on the end. The Falcons will start near midfield.

1st Quarter, 9:44, Falcons 3-0: That’s why Richard Sherman is an All-Pro, folks. The Falcons had a textbook touchdown set up there, but they couldn’t make it happen on 3rd-and-3 thanks to Sherman closing in and batting that Ryan-to-White score away.

Atlanta settles for a field goal, and Seattle has to be happy with stalling that methodical opening drive.

1st Quarter, 13:55, 0-0: Maybe Michael Turner heard us talking about how bad the Falcons’ rushing game is. He just ripped off a 15-yard run, which is a good sign for an Atlanta team that wants to get firing on all cylinders here early.

Turner did have 800 yards this season, but that’s his lowest total in his five years with the Falcons since coming from San Diego. He’s gone for 1,300 yards or more three times.

1 p.m.: We’re about to start this one, and plenty of people are excited to see their Seahawks back in the playoffs so soon after the poor ending to the Matt Hasselbeck-Mike Holmgren era.

Count Felix Hernandez among the Seattle fans.

12 p.m: We’re coming up on game time here, and this promises to be a good one.

The Seahawks’ defense, while stellar, is going to have its hands full with the Falcons’ many offensive weapons today. While Atlanta once built its passing attack around its rushing game, the offense has been horrible on the ground this year — but just fine through the air. The Falcons haven’t worried too much about it, either. Rather than pushing the rushing game and trying to use it to set up the pass, they’ve come out throwing. Ryan threw 237 times on first down this year, compared to 195 times last year, and he completed 70 percent of those passes (better than his regular completion rate). With 1,937 yards and 11 touchdowns coming off of first-down passing plays, it stands to reason that Atlanta just plans to pass a lot today.

When it comes to weapons, the Falcons have them everywhere — Julio Jones and Roddy White are possibly the best receiver duo in the league, slot receiver Harry Douglas can make plays with his speed, and the running backs can make key catches. The biggest problem, though, could be Tony Gonzalez, who continues to present matchup problems.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll talked this week about what his defense faces against Gonzalez.

“The same that everybody else has — nobody can cover him,” Carroll said. “He’s just killed everybody for a whole career. He’s a fantastic football player. The film I’ve watched, he made six or eight catches in a game with people hanging all over him, in the end zone, in third down situations — he’s just a great, an all-time receiver. We have a really good match-up with [safety] Kam [Chancellor] being in his area, so that will be another exciting one to watch. Our guy is as big and strong as you can get and he’s ready, but nobody has ever stopped Tony. We’re hoping to contain him and not let him get crazy on us. That’s why these guys are so good — everywhere you look they’ve got a big-time player. We’ll see what happens.”

8 a.m. ET: The Falcons like it when Matty Ice is cool under pressure. They just wish he’d start heating up come playoff time.

If Atlanta is ever going to get over the hump, this would be the time. In five seasons under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have gone 56-24 and made it to the playoffs four times, including twice as the No. 1 seed. But Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ many offensive and defensive weapons have flopped when it matters most, failing not only to win but also to even show up several times.

That all can change Sunday after a season that was among one of the Falcons’ more consistent years. Atlanta went 13-3, starting the season with eight straight wins and only dropping in-division contests. Behind Ryan, the team had the sixth-best offense in the league (281.8 yards per game), although a weak defense (23rd passing defense, 20th rushing defense) and rushing attack (29th in the NFL) has been a cause for concern.

The Falcons also have the veteran presence of tight end Tony Gonzalez, whose impending retirement — a la Ray Lewis — could be a motivator in this contest. He had 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns this year, while the receiving tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones combined for 171 catches, 2,549 yards and 17 scores.

Execution has to start with Ryan, who is the unquestioned leader of the team and the main factor in determining Atlanta’s success. Ryan has had a sharp year, completing 68.6 percent of his passes (tied with Peyton Manning for tops in the NFL). He also posted career highs of 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns this year.

But, as Manning showed so well Saturday afternoon, regular-season MVPs do not guarantee playoff success. To advance in the cold months, teams need a balanced attack and a mental toughness, and that’s where Atlanta’s biggest test will come — not only because of the Falcons’ former struggles, but also because of their unique opponent.

The Seahawks are the little birds that could in the AFC West. What began as a season that looked like it would only survive on coach Pete Carroll’s gusto has turned into a shakeup of the NFC’s power structure. Quarterback Russell Wilson has proved himself a draft steal, challenging Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck for Rookie of the Year honors. (He had 26 touchdown passes this season, tying the rookie record.) Running back Marshawn Lynch has proven himself to be dangerous and reliable, with the Seahawks’ attack proving to be unstoppable over the last four games of the season, when Seattle racked up 170 points, much of them thanks to the third-best rushing attack in the league.

Where the Seahawks’ real strength lies, though, is on defense. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner have been the two biggest pieces in a pass defense that is as stingy (sixth best in the league) as it is dangerous. Both players can be counted on to strengthen a unit that has held this team together against some of the best offenses in the league.

The Falcons may be due to finally break through after several years of persistent work, but the NFL does not hand out wins for aggregate effort. The Seahawks have shown up this season focused on taking what is theirs, and the playoff rewards could very well skip Atlanta and come to Seattle if the Seahawks’ defense plays true to form and Ryan struggles early in leading the Falcons’ attack.

Whatever happens, though, it’s sure to be an entertaining affair. Carroll provides amusement every game, and Sherman has found plenty of ways to get under opponents’ skin. The Falcons, meanwhile, have the gaudy stats and pedigree — but a painful inability to cash it in for playoff success.

Check back here before the game for news and updates, then follow us when the game kicks off at 1 p.m. This one is sure to continue what has been a great weekend of football.

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