ATLANTA — All around him hung gloom and doom. At least a few of his Atlanta Falcons teammates; most of the 70,366 fans in the Georgia Dome stands; a raucous sea of red for so much of Sunday now red with anger over another apparent swift Falcons playoff exit.
How could a 27-7 lead over Seattle in the fourth quarter become a 28-27 deficit with 31 seconds to play? How? Why?
But Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant was attending no pity parties. Not as long as seconds clung to the game clock. Not as long as quarterback Matt Ryan had at least one more down to cock his golden arm and launch a prayer goalward.
So Bryant walked up and down the sideline, grabbing every Falcon willing to listen and said, "We've done this before. Let's go."
And they had, of course. More than once. Most conspicuously in this same building three months earlier, against Carolina. Ninety-nine yards from the goal with just 59 seconds to play, Ryan had completed a 60-yard miracle to Roddy White, then shorter throws to Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez to set up Bryant for a 40-yard game-winner.
Naturally, he kicked it through the pipes, the fourth of Atlanta's eight straight victories to open the season.
But this was the playoffs. Ryan had never won a playoff game in his three previous opportunities, the same frustrating statistic as his coach, Mike Smith.
Entering the fourth quarter, all that seemed to have changed. You lead 27-7 on your home field, your quarterback's thrown three touchdowns against a defensive secondary many believed football's finest, you expect victory.
Nor did Seattle seem up to contesting that.
Recalling the mouthy All-Pro Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman after he'd burned him for a 47-yard touchdown catch, the Falcons' White said, "He's a talker, so I just asked him to talk to me for a little while. But he didn't have to much to say after that play."
But after Seattle closed within 27-14 early in the fourth, the 'Hawks suddenly had plenty to say. They picked off Ryan a second time. They closed within 27-21 with 9:13 to go, then went ahead 28-27 with 31 seconds left.
Said Smith: "To give up a 20-point lead is something that you have to concern yourself with."
Bryant wasn't concerned, though. Not much anyway. He knew he had Ryan, the magician they've long called "Matty Ice" for his regular-season heroics.
He also knew, "I'd been hitting them from 61, 62 yards in warm-ups. That's not the same as a game, but I felt pretty good."
Still, a lot has to go right in 31 seconds. You need a good kick return. You need a couple of quick, lengthy completions. Let's face it ... you need luck. Especially when you're playing a confident opponent about to win its seventh straight game while you're fighting both them and your disappointing postseason past in hopes of avoiding a fourth playoff loss in four contests.
"Everything worked," Ryan said. "We got a good kick return [from Jacquizz Rodgers]. Harry Douglas ran a great route [which led to a 22-yard completion to midfield] ... then, at that point, when we know we need another 10 to 15 yards to put us in field goal range, Tony [Gonzalez] is Mr. Reliable."
Said Gonzalez of Ryan's 19-yard toss to him to the Seattle 31, the completion that set Bryant up for a 49-yarder to win it: "As soon as I turned around, the ball was there. Hit me right in the chest. Probably the easiest catch I've ever had."
But that still left the field goal. From 49 yards away. With nothing more on the line than snapping a playoff losing skid dating back to 2004. And a chance to host this Sunday's NFC title game against San Francisco, which would also mean being one win away from the Super Bowl.
"I've had big kicks, but probably not as big as this one," said Bryant. "You just keep telling yourself, 'Keep you head down, kick the ball.'"
Kick the ball. Kick the postseason monkey off his team's back. Nothing to it.
But then Seattle did what teams always do in that situation. They called a timeout just before the snap. Bryant went ahead and kicked it, but it went wide right. The crowd briefly gasped.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll briefly complained.
"The officials told us before the game that nobody would get a chance to do that [practice kick]," he explained afterward. "So I was just challenging it."
This time practice made perfect. The kick that counted sailed, in Ryan's words, "Right through the pipes."
The Falcons had won 30-28, somewhat in spite of themselves.
Said Smith, a relieved smile frozen on his face, "I feel like we have two Matty Ices. Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...