DETROIT—Any opponent coming to the Georgia Dome in the playoffs will have to deal with the Falcons and their sizzling quarterback.
Matt Ryan staggered the Lions early and finished them off late for a 31-18 Falcons victory Saturday night at Ford Field. The Falcons (13-2) will be the NFC’s top seed with a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
Now the Falcons will try to parlay the NFC’s top seed into postseason success. They couldn’t do it in 2010, when they also posted the NFC’s best record only to lose 48-21 to the Packers in the divisional playoffs round.
“It’s in the back of our minds,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said of that game. “But we know we are a different team than we were two years ago with the passion we play with and the play-making ability is much higher than we had two years ago.”
Atlanta’s victory over Detroit rendered moot the result of next Sunday’s regular-season finale against Tampa Bay at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons now will sit back and watch the rest of the NFC’s playoff contenders fight it out for the five other seeds.
The Lions (4-11) lost their seventh consecutive game and could only take solace in wide receiver Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice’s season-single record for receiving yards (1,848). Johnson, the former Sandy Creek High and Georgia Tech standout, needed 182 yards for the mark and finished with 11 catches for 225 yards.
The Falcons will ride into the playoffs with Ryan and the passing game back to their early-season forms. After Ryan carved up the Giants in a 34-0 victory on Sunday, he was 25 for 32 for 279 yards and four touchdowns against the Lions.
Ryan was 15 of 16 for 184 yards with three touchdowns in the first half as the Falcons raced out to a 21-6 lead. When the Lions rallied to within 21-16 early in the final quarter to energize their fans, Ryan quieted them by leading Atlanta on a 10-play touchdown drive.
Ryan completed six straight passes during drive, including a 15-yard pass to Roddy White to convert a third down. Ryan also had 16-yard scramble on second-and-17 and finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Palmer.
“Matt made some big-time throws for us in that drive,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “That’s what Matt has done for us all season long.”
Ryan’s fourth touchdown pass gave him 31 for the season. That ties the franchise single-season record set by Steve Bartkowski in 1980.
Ryan started the game by completing his first 12 pass attempts for 156 yards, including touchdown passes of 44 and 39 yards to White. Ryan’s next pass fell incomplete to leave him two short of the NFL record for consecutive completions—he’d connected on his final 10 attempts against the Giants.
That ended up being Ryan’s only missed pass in the first half. He was 15 for 16 with 184 yards and added a 16-yard touchdown toss to Jones after the two-minute warning.
But Detroit kicked a field goal to trim the lead to 21-6 before halftime and Atlanta’s offense bogged down to start the second half. After the Falcons went three-and-out on their opening possession, the Lions answered with a 10-play, 60-yard drive capped by Mikel Leshoure’s touchdown run.
The Falcons managed just 18 yards on their second possession of the half. The Lions drove to a first-and-goal at Atlanta’s six-yard line to open the fourth quarter but the Falcons held them to a field goal that made it 21-16.
Ultimately the Lions lost because they were the latest opponent that couldn’t stop Atlanta’s passing game even though the Falcons didn’t run the ball effectively.
In the days before the game, Lions coach Jim Schwartz said the Falcons no longer are the power-running team from years past. Now the Falcons air it out with Ryan, Jones, White, tight end Tony Gonzalez and new coordinator Dirk Koetter.
White had eight catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns and Jones had seven receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown. Gonzalez’s had just one catch but the nine-yard reception converted a third down on the touchdown drive that put the Falcons up 28-16.
“In our offense, I feel like it can be any one of those three guys to step up and make the plays week in and week out,” Ryan said. “Roddy in the first half had some unbelievable plays for us, some explosives. I’m fortunate to have all of those guys around me.”
Falcons players are off until Wednesday. They’ll have a relatively relaxed two weeks as the rest of the NFC playoff picture shakes out and then the wild card teams open the playoffs in two weeks.
The lowest-seeded team to advance from the wild card round will play the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Jan. 12 or 13. As things stand now, Atlanta’s first playoff game most likely will be against either the Seahawks or the eventual winner of the NFC East from among the Redskins, Cowboys or Giants.
But a lot still can change because the 49ers and Packers are the only other NFC teams that have clinched a playoff spot. The 49ers (10-3-1) are the NFC’s No. 2 team at the moment but the Packers (10-4) still can catch them and earn a first-round bye and a home game in the divisional round.
The Falcons no longer have to worry about playoff positioning.
“We are right where we wanted to be,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “When we started talking about it in training camp, we wanted to be a good team by the end of the year and control our own destiny. So far things are working out. We have just go out and finish the deal.”
The Falcons will seek to end a three-game losing streak in the playoffs.
In 2008 they lost 30-24 at Arizona in the wild-card round. After losing to Green Bay in the 2010 playoffs, they fell 24-2 to the Giants in the wild-card round last season.
“I think we are definitely a different football team than we’ve been the past couple of years,” Ryan said. “Right now I think our confidence is high and our experience in the past, both good and bad, have helped us get to the point we’re at. I think the key is to continue to keep the focus where it’s been.”