For three games they’d run nice and easy, never once trailing, facing only one gotta-have-this drive. (That came against Denver, and they got it.) But the Falcons play in the NFL, where nothing stays nice and easy, and Sunday they happened on an opponent who wouldn’t yield and a predicament that would have taxed the faith of a saint.
So it was that Matthew Thomas Ryan, named after two saints, took a snap at his 1 and backtracked into the end zone with 59 seconds remaining and his team, without a timeout to its name, down a point. Already Ryan had been sacked seven times, and as a nod to Carolina’s pressure the Falcons did something odd. At a moment of near-desperation, a time when you’d expect every receiver on the roster to be zigging this way or that, they dispatched only two men to run routes.
Roddy White down the left side, Julio Jones on the right. Everybody else stayed to block, and even as he retreated Ryan did a strange thing: He faked a handoff to Jacquizz Rodgers, and here you almost laughed. What offense in its right mind bothers with faking a run at its 1 with no timeouts left?
This carefully considered offense did. “It was actually more a protection thing,” Ryan would say of the play-action ploy, and it worked. Given a clean pocket for the first time in ages, he stepped forward and let fly. The ball traveled 65 yards and came down in the professional hands of Roddy White, who’d beaten Josh Norman and outleaped (for the second time this day) safety Haruki Nakamura. Just like that, the undefeated Falcons were positioned to win on a day they coulda/shoulda lost.
Said Todd McClure, the center: “It’s unbelievable. Matt said, ‘I went back and threw it as far as I could, and Roddy made a play.’ ”
Said Ryan: “It was a good throw and a great catch.”
Said White: “I try to track [the ball] at its highest point and jump just before [the defender] does. It’s kind of easy to do.”
Well, no. It’s not easy to do. But the beauty of these Falcons is that they have enough talent to carry them above and beyond. It’s why they’re 4-0 and have all but lapped the field in the NFC South. It’s why they’re capable of winning much more than the NFC South.
Ryan again: “I threw it high and far. We practice that. Roddy went up and got it.”
Then this: “In that situation, you have to make a play that changes the outcome of the game.”
The famous Cam Newton nearly made such a play inside the final two minutes, but he fumbled while lunging for what would have been the clinching first down. (John Abraham, man in the news, knocked it loose.) Had Newton held the ball, the Falcons wouldn’t have touched it again. As it was, the ball was moved backward and Carolina coach Ron Rivera flinched at fourth-and-1, and for his timidity he wound up losing.
If you have a choice, you don’t give a great quarterback a chance to beat you. And that’s what Ryan is becoming – a great quarterback. He has won unwinnable games before (meaning Chicago as a rookie), but in the fifth year of his NFL life he has become the guy who, as the glib coach Jimmy Johnson used to say, “can sink the 8-ball on the break.” How else to describe a quarterback who took his trailing team 77 yards in 49 seconds without needing to call time?
That the Falcons won on a day when they weren’t the best only tells us they’re not just gifted but fierce. They needed that test, and they aced it. Said Mike Smith, their coach: “It was just a matter of time before we would have to play from behind.”
Said McClure: “We’ve got unbelievable skill guys, and we know that if there’s a little bit of time we can win.”
Apart from the ending, this wasn’t a great day for the Falcons. Because of the ending, it became a great day. It showed them that they can do whatever it takes to win. It showed them that their quarterback can absorb a dozen big hits and rise above the bruising. It showed them that their ceiling is higher than the roof of the venue for this stunning escape.
By Mark Bradley