ATLANTA — The quarterback with the most regular-season victories over the last five seasons finally has one in the postseason.
In the spotlight where he has stumbled previously, Matt Ryan came up big Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome and avoided a major scare in helping lift the Falcons to the NFC championship game with a 30-28 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Matt Bryant's 49-yard field goal with eight seconds to play rescued the Falcons after the Seahawks rallied to take a 28-27 lead with 31 seconds remaining.
In front of a raucous home crowd that has been accustomed to major letdowns in recent seasons, Ryan was sharp and got help from an unheralded defense and running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers to wear down the Seahawks, who could not secure a second consecutive win in the Eastern time zone.
The Falcons, the NFC's top-seeded team, will host the San Francisco 49ers next Sunday in the NFC championship game. It will be an opportunity for Ryan, who has 56 wins in the regular season since being the third overall pick in 2008, to establish himself as one of the game's elite quarterbacks. Coming off the best season of his career under first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, Ryan threw three touchdown passes to defeat the Seahawks, but a costly interception in the fourth quarter by Seattle safety Earl Thomas made it a game late.
Seattle didn't do itself any favors, and miscues in the first half will be replayed throughout the off-season. The Seahawks fell into a 20-0 hole at halftime, but it should not have been that bad. They reached the Atlanta 11-yard line on two occasions in the second quarter but came away with no points.
First, fullback Michael Robinson was stuffed for a one-yard loss on fourth and one by safety William Moore, a curious call by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who ran on consecutive plays without calling Marshawn Lynch's number. Then, rookie quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked on a third-and-goal from the 11 in the closing seconds of the first half and the Seahawks, out of timeouts, were not able to get another play off. The six points that were missed loomed large.
Atlanta's run defense thwarted Lynch, limiting him to 46 yards in 16 carries. That put pressure on Wilson, who nearly engineered a terrific comeback. He did most of his damage throwing to tight end Zach Miller and wide receiver Golden Tate.
The Falcons reached the postseason in three of the previous four years only to be blown out in their first game each time. The Falcons were blitzed 24-2 by the New York Giants in the wild-card round a year ago. As the No. 1-seeded team in 2010, the Falcons were crushed 48-21 in the divisional round by the Green Bay Packers. They lost at home to the Arizona Cardinals in 2008.
But with a juiced-up offense more reliant on the passing game under Koetter and a defense retooled by new coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons look stout. Ryan threw touchdown passes to Roddy White, on a 47-yard bomb, and tight end Tony Gonzalez, on a one-yard play fake, in building the big lead in the first half. It was Gonzalez's first playoff victory in a distinguished 16-year career.
The Seahawks rallied from a 14-0 deficit in the wild-card round the week before at FedEx Field after the Washington Redskins scored on their first two possessions. But against Atlanta, they didn't eliminate their red-zone woes until the second half. Wilson fired a 29-yard touchdown pass to Tate and then Wilson scored on a one-yard run to bring the Seahawks to within 27-14 with 13:01 to play.
After the Thomas interception, Seattle quickly drove down and scored again as Wilson hit Miller for a three-yard score to bring the Seahawks to within 27-21. Seattle quickly got the ball back again with 7:23 remaining but punted after picking up only one first down.
The Falcons took a 3-0 lead on the game's opening possession but should have had a touchdown. On third and three from the Seahawks' 21-yard line, Ryan had White open across the middle for a touchdown but was late delivering the ball after looking at Julio Jones on a double move on the other side. His delay in delivering the ball allowed Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman to bat the ball away with his left arm, forcing Bryant to kick a 39-yard field goal.