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Falcons Avoid Late Choke

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (84) makes a touch-down catch against Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor (31) during the first half of an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (84) makes a touch-down catch against Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor (31) during the first half of an NFC divisional playoff NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Atlanta — The Atlanta Falcons shed their label as playoff underachievers, albeit just barely. They allowed a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter to slip away yesterday at the Georgia Dome and fell behind the Seattle Seahawks in the final minute. But the Falcons somehow regrouped for a 49-yard field goal by kicker Matt Bryant with eight seconds left to beat the Seahawks, 30-28, in a highly compelling NFC semifinal.

“This is something that’s been a long time coming for a good football team,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “I was on the ground crying like a little baby after we kicked that field goal.”

The top-seeded Falcons advanced to Sunday’s NFC title game, in which they’ll host the San Francisco 49ers with a spot in the Super Bowl at stake. They gave quarterback Matt Ryan and coach Mike Smith their first postseason triumph in their five seasons with the team.

And if they and the Seahawks didn’t quite match the memorable football drama produced in the Baltimore Ravens’ double-overtime win Saturday in Denver in an AFC encounter, the two teams at least provided a worthy encore.

“The one thing that I’ve learned in my five years, and specifically in the postseason, is that it’s hard,” Ryan said. “I mean, it is difficult to do. … Nobody flinched. We just kept battling, kept doing what we do.”

Ryan threw three touchdown passes. The Falcons crafted leads of 20-0 at halftime and 27-7 entering the fourth quarter. But Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson ran for a one-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter and, after Ryan threw his second interception of the day, threw a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Miller.

With the Falcons’ offense suddenly going nowhere, the Seahawks moved in front, 28-27, with 31 seconds remaining on tailback Marshawn Lynch’s 2-yard touchdown run. Lynch was ruled after a replay review to have crossed the goal line before he lost the ball, which ended up in the hands of Seattle center Max Unger in the end zone. Another postseason disappointment for the Falcons seemed at hand.

But Smith said: “When they scored that touchdown to go ahead, our group on the sideline never blinked. They said we’ve got 31 seconds and two timeouts.”

Ryan used completions to wide receiver Harry Douglas and Gonzalez to get the Falcons in position, and Smith sent Bryant on the field with 13 seconds to go. Bryant’s kick, which came on his second try after Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called a timeout just before the ball was snapped on Bryant’s first attempt, was true. Yet there still were some plot twists left, as an inexplicable onside kick by the Falcons put the Seahawks near midfield.

A short completion got Seattle to the Atlanta 48-yard line. But the Seahawks opted against a 66-yard field goal try by just-signed veteran kicker Ryan Longwell, and Wilson’s desperation heave was intercepted in the end zone by the Falcons’ Julio Jones, a wide receiver pressed into duty as a final-play defensive back.

The fifth-seeded Seahawks, who’d won their previous six games and had ousted the Washington Redskins from the playoffs a week earlier, were left lamenting their missed opportunities on offense, especially during a first half in which they twice drove deep into Falcons territory but had no points to show for it. Carroll left his offense on the field for one failed fourth-down gamble at the Atlanta 11-yard line, and Wilson took a sack on a later play from the Falcons 11 that left the Seahawks unable to get off another snap before time expired in the half.

The Seahawks had overcome a 14-0, first-quarter deficit a week earlier at FedEx Field. They made the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL playoff history against the Falcons, but couldn’t quite hang on to it.

“I knew we were going to win it,” Wilson said. “At least that’s what I thought.”

Wilson threw for 385 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-for-36 passing performance. Miller had eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown, and Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate had six catches for 103 yards and a third-quarter touchdown.

But Wilson joins the two more celebrated members of his rookie quarterback class, the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III and the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck, in watching the remainder of the postseason. Luck, like Griffin, lost a first-round playoff game.

“We had high, high hopes the rest of the season,” Wilson said. “When the game was over, I was very disappointed. But right before I got back to the tunnel, walking off the field, I got so excited for the next opportunity next year.”

But the day’s main story line was about the at-least-temporary redemption of the Falcons, who entering Sunday had no playoff triumphs to show for their 56 regular season wins the past five seasons. They’d been 0-3 in the postseason since Ryan and Smith arrived together in 2008. They’d lost a conference semifinal here to the sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers two years ago as the NFC’s top seed. Gonzalez had been 0-5 in the playoffs in his 16-year NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Falcons.

“What a way to do it,” Gonzalez said. “I still can’t get over it. I thought, ‘Here we go again.’ I thought it wasn’t going to happen. I am happy. What a roller coaster of emotions. I’m spent right now. . . . I’ve never cried after a win before. I’ve cried after a loss. I thought it was over - 16 years, six playoff games.”

Gonzalez had a touchdown catch in his first postseason win. Wide receiver Roddy White and running back Jason Snelling were on the receiving end of Ryan’s other touchdown throws. Bryant also had a pair of first-half field goals.

Smith deflected a question about what the playoff win meant to him personally, saying he was happy for his team. But Ryan acknowledged he’ll be happy not to be asked questions any longer about his zero postseason victories.

“It’ll be nice not to have to answer it,” Ryan said. “That’s for sure.”