ATLANTA — At least 15 minutes had passed since the game ended and Arthur Blank, slumped in a chair in the Falcons’ postgame interview room, was still struggling to process what he had just seen.
“I haven’t started to breathe again yet,” the Falcons’ owner said. “Seriously, I can’t breathe.”
He recovered. At some point everybody will recover, presumably before this team plays again. But the Falcons seemed determined Sunday to ensure that that everybody watching (and playing) experienced everything on the spectrum of emotions — excitement, shock, euphoria, fear, paranoia, nausea, relief, joy — before giving Atlanta what they hadn’t in the last eight years: a playoff win.
It started with the Falcons building implausible leads of 20-0 and 27-7 over the Seattle Seahawks. It unfolded with a folding — blowing 20-point leads, threatening to become the flashpoint for all conversations on the greatest collapses and humiliating moments in Atlanta pro sports history.
And then came — yes — an even less likely finish. With 31 seconds to play and the weight of a city and a franchise on him, quarterback Matt Ryan completed consecutive passes to Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez, setting up kicker Matt Bryant for a game-winning 49-yard field goal with eight seconds to play in the game.
Falcons 30, Seattle 28. How did we get there? That will take time to process. But for the first time since the 2004 playoffs, the Falcons have a next week. They are in the NFC title game for only the third time in franchise history and for the first time at home against San Francisco.
When the game ended, Gonzalez, who had long since announced his likely retirement after this season, dropped to his knees on the sideline and cried.
“I was on the ground crying, like a little baby,” he said after experiencing the first postseason win of his 16-year career.
And what was he thinking before the winning drive? “I thought the game was over. I thought, well, I guess this is how I’m going to go out. I guess that’s why I got so emotional at the end.”
We saw the best and the worst of the Falcons on Sunday.
We saw why they won 13 games.
We saw why so many thought to themselves, “How did they win 13 games?” We saw them look like a Super Bowl team early, running the ball better than they had run it in any game this season, capitalizing on Seattle mistakes, building a seemingly insurmountable advantage.
Joy, excitement, euphoria …
Then they turned a corner in the third quarter and smacked into a concrete wall. The Seahawks drove to touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half and four out of five. The last touchdown, coming on a two-yard run by Marshawn Lynch, gave Seattle its first lead at 28-27.
Fear, paranoia, nausea . “Busted coverages,” Asante Samuel said when asked what changed.
Samuel went through a long celebration “rant” (his word), spewing post-game smack-talk and ripping into Seattle’s big talker, cornerback Richard Sherman. (“Tell Richard Sherman to shut his (bleepin’) mouth. Shut your mouth: Stop giving up plays to help your team lose the (bleepin) game.”)
Then, in a quieter moment, Samuel was asked if he was worried.
“Was I worried. Uh, yeah. It was a little stressful.”
The Falcons had been here before. Ryan had engineered five comeback wins with less than 65 seconds remaining since 2008 (two this year against Carolina and Oakland).
He did it again.
First came the 22-yard sideline pass to Douglas at the 50. Then came the 19-yarder to Gonzalez over the middle. The Falcons called time out with 13 seconds to play and sent out Bryant. The Seahawks called timeout in hopes of “freezing” Bryant — and it’s a good thing they did because Bryant kicked anyway and missed wide right.
The next one was perfect. The last time the Falcons celebrated such a field goal, Morten Anderson was kicking them into the Super Bowl.
“The best way to predict the future is to remember the past, and the past was that we had done this before,” said Bryant, who has three game-winning kicks this year.
The Seahawks had a Hail Mary pass in the end. Wide receiver Julio Jones, shagging flies in the end zone, intercepted it.
An unlikely ending to an unlikely sequence of events.
After three playoff losses in the last four years, Blank admitted he felt as much relief as joy.
“I wanted this win so badly for the coach (Mike Smith), Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez, for the Atlanta fans, for Thomas (general manager Thomas Dimitroff). For five years to do for the franchise what they have, to bring it the credibility it currently has, more than anything I wanted this for all them. You want to get that monkey off your back.”
They did that. But you might want to check a replay to be sure.