They were 31 seconds away from being remembered for the greatest choke in the NFL playoff history, but now the Atlanta Falcons only have to win a home game to qualify for their second Super Bowl appearance in the franchise’s 47-year history.
Atlanta blew a 20-point lead against Seattle last Sunday, only to recover with quarterback Matt Ryan’s two completions covering 41 yards, followed by Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal for a 30-28 victory. A look at the Falcons:
Team’s theme: Having finally come through in a playoff game, two years after being blown out by Green Bay as a No. 1 seed, the Falcons believe they can move on with confidence and win over the doubters. They’re underdogs at home.
How they got here: After an 8-0 start, the Falcons finished 13-3 to win the NFC South title and earn a No. 1 seed. They held leads of 20-0 and 27-7 over Seattle before falling behind and then rallying.
Super Bowl-bound if: Atlanta’s No. 24-ranked defense can handle San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Falcons had trouble with Carolina’s multidimensional Cam Newton twice in the regular season, then Seattle’s Russell Wilson ripped them for 385 passing yards and 60 rushing yards. It may have helped them to face Wilson in advance of Kaepernick’s visit.
Homeward-bound if: They have to rely strictly on Ryan’s passing and need another late comeback from him. Ryan consistently delivers when it counts, but producing another game-winning drive after he’s done so seven times this season would be asking a lot against San Francisco’s defense.
Biggest variable: Michael Turner’s running. He played a big role in the Falcons’ scoring 27 points in the first three quarters against Seattle, finishing with 98 yards on 14 carries. Such production would be huge against the 49ers.
Best player: Tony Gonzalez, tight end. An All-Pro selection in his 16th season, Gonzalez caught 93 passes for 930 yards in the regular season, then made the reception that led to the winning field goal Sunday — giving him his first carer playoff victory.
Best player you’ve never heard of: Kroy Biermann, defensive end. Actually, you may know his wife, Kim Zolciak, formerly of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” A Montana product, Biermann has played in every game for five seasons. Biermann recorded four sacks in the regular season and will be vital to the Falcons if John Abraham’s ankle injury continues to limit him.
Local connections: Tim Toone (No. 17) is a receiver from Weber State who has bounced around the NFL since 2010, when he became “Mr. Irrelevant” as the last player drafted, by Detroit. Toone signed with the Falcons in mid-November and remains on the 53-man roster, but usually is listed as inactive on game day. Offensive line coach Pat Hill worked at Utah from 1977-80 on Wayne Howard’s staff. Ryan played in a memorable game against BYU as a Boston College quarterback in 2006, when his winning touchdown pass in overtime went to a receiver named Tony Gonzalez.
Reasons to cheer for them: There’s not much to dislike about them, let’s say that. Gonzalez, a former Cal football and basketball player, would become a great story if he makes his first Super Bowl appearance, and Ryan is a down-to-earth star. The Falcons have played in only one Super Bowl, losing to Denver 14 years ago when ex-Ute running back Jamal Anderson was their most recognizable player.
Reasons to cheer against them: Outside of Gonzalez and Ryan, they’re a rather bland, faceless team. And they don’t have a championship-caliber defense, which makes them undeserving — even if that would lend itself to an entertaining Super Bowl.
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Thursday • Atlanta