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Senior NFL Columnist

Ryan, Smith erase stigma as Falcons establish playoff bona-fides

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ATLANTA -- Admit it. You had Mike Smith fired. You had Matt Ryan as a big playoff failure. You had the Atlanta Falcons as playoff chokers, the ultimate team that can't win the big game.

As the Falcons' 27-7 lead evaporated in the fourth quarter Sunday at the hands of the Seahawks and red-hot rookie passer Russell Wilson, and Atlanta was staring at a fourth consecutive playoff loss for the Smith-Ryan regime, you could sense the tension in the Georgia Dome.

But none of it was coming from the two main men who would face the heat if the Falcons lost.

After Wilson led Seattle to a go-ahead touchdown to put the Seahawks up 28-27 with 31 seconds left, Smith walked over to Ryan and calmly had these words for him.

"We're going to win this football game," Smith told his quarterback.

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Bound together by playoff futility, the pressure of not having won in the postseason, their necks on the line -- maybe not job-wise but reputation-wise -- the coach ended up being right. The Falcons won the NFC divisional playoff game 30-28 on a 49-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to advance to the NFC Championship Game next week in Atlanta, and it was Ryan's two passes that set up the score.

Late Sunday afternoon, Smith sat in his coach's locker room, eating the meat off a turkey sandwich, showing none of the tension that surely had to fall over him as his team's big lead went away.

"That was fun," I said.

"At least we made it so the ratings would be good," Smith said.

The cloud of being winless in the playoffs has hung over this team, this coach and this quarterback all year long. Even when they were undefeated through eight games, and then won 13, nobody believed.

It was always, They're good, but ... nothing matters except the playoffs.

"We tried not to pay attention to it, but we knew until we won a playoff game, nothing else would matter," safety Thomas DeCoud said.

This was Ryan's playoff moment. Considered a good regular-season quarterback over his five seasons, Ryan came into this game with three touchdown passes, four interceptions and a passer rating of 71.2 in the playoffs. Included in those three losses was a loss as the top seed in 2010 to the Packers. Ryan never had a 200-yard passing game before Sunday and in his last playoff game last January, the Falcons didn't score an offensive point in a loss to the Giants.

Some called him "Mr. Regular Season."

Like 2010, Atlanta is the top seed in the NFC this year, but you would never know it.

Fraud is a word associated with them.

Not anymore. And it's all because Ryan had his magical quarterback moment, the one that can define a passer.

Starting at his own 28 with 25 seconds left, Ryan hit Harry Douglas at the 50 for 22 yards, then, after a timeout, he hit Tony Gonzalez for 19 yards to the Seattle 31. That set up Bryant's game-winning 49-yard field goal.

"Matt has done it multiple times since he's been here," Smith said. "He just never had done it in the playoffs."

"I think your past experiences kind of harden you," Ryan said. "I think they make you a little tougher in those types of situations."

His teammates say Ryan was calm and cool in the huddle. His message?

"He told us to do our job," guard Justin Blalock said.

On first down, Ryan fired a shot to Douglas on the left sideline for a big start to the drive. On the second play, he hit Gonzalez in the middle of the field to set up the winner.

Two passes. Two big plays. And 41 yards to wipe away five years of listening to people say you can't.

Neither Ryan nor Smith showed the emotions of hearing they were playoff failures. That's not who they are. But it bothered them. How could it not?

You can win 57 games together in five years, win two division titles in five years and become the first Falcons team to have consecutive winning seasons in history and none of that was ever mentioned.

That's what Sunday meant to coach and quarterback.

Ryan had 21 regular-season comebacks in the fourth quarter and overtime, but none will ever be as big as the one he had against Seattle.

Let's put it this way: His you-know-whats were on the line.

It didn't help his cause that he had three yards passing in the fourth quarter with an interception before the final drive. The choke vultures were circling.

"That was just a bad play on my part, something I can't do," Ryan said of the pick.

While Ryan was struggling, Wilson was sensational. He threw for 385 yards, two touchdowns and ran for 60 yards. His ability to escape the pocket and throw frustrated the Falcons time and time again.

In the end, Ryan made the two plays to find a way to win it and ruin what was an amazing comeback by the Seahawks.

"I am glad we got the win and look forward to the San Francisco 49ers next week," Falcons corner Dunta Robinson said.

Nobody was looking forward to the 49ers more than Smith and Ryan. It meant they were playoff winners -- finally.

No more calling Smith the Marty Schottenheimer of his generation.

No more calling Ryan a shrinking quarterback in the playoffs.

This was their moment, the coach and the quarterback, bound together now by something more than just hearing how they couldn't win the big one.

They had a playoff victory.

And you know what, they're not close to being done. Even as we walked to the locker room after the game, some media members were throwing around the f-bomb -- fraud -- but they can forget that.

This Falcons team is better than you think. A week from Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers will find that out as a now-loose team is one game away from the Super Bowl.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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