"Fail Mary II" never had a chance.
Julio Jones made sure the sequel was doomed to failure, picking off Russell Wilson's desperation heave as time expired in Dixie on Sunday.
It wasn't exactly a coaching clinic during Atlanta's heart-stopping 30-28 win over the Seattle Seahawks, but the decision to put the lanky receiver back on defense was a prudent one for Mike Smith as the Falcons finally got over the postseason hump and advanced to the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
"Wow," Smith said after surviving and erasing the stigma of an 0-3 mark in the playoffs for both himself and his quarterback, Matt Ryan.
It shouldn't have been a nail-biter for a Falcons team which came in with more regular-season wins than any other NFC team over the past five seasons. But, Wilson was spectacular in defeat, leading the Seahawks back from a 20-0 halftime hole and a 27-7 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
The rookie star actually put Seattle in front by spinning out of what looked like a sure sack by Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon in the final minute before hitting Marshawn Lynch for a 23-yard gain inside Atlanta's 5-yard line. Moments later, Lynch reached into the end zone and the Georgia Dome had the distinct feel of a morgue.
It was shaping up the latest lost opportunity for Smith, Ryan and the Falcons, who were 26-0 in franchise history when building up a 20-plus point lead at intermission. Seattle, meanwhile, was 0-33 when facing such deficits and NFL teams as a whole were 1-56 in the postseason when trailing by that much after 30 minutes, the lone win being the 1992 Buffalo Bills in "The Comeback" versus Houston.
In the end, however, those numbers held up thanks to two straight big completions by Ryan, who finally lived up to his nickname "Matty Ice" when it counted. The Pro Bowler whipped a 22-yard out to Harry Douglas followed by a 19-yarder up the seam to Tony Gonzalez, setting up a 49-yard field goal by Matt Bryant which sailed through the uprights with eight seconds to play.
"Our quarterback is a special player," Smith said. "They call him 'Matty Ice,' but I feel like we've got two 'Matty Ices.' There's 'Matty Ice' Ryan and 'Matty Ice' Bryant."
"That was a wild game," Ryan added after helping the Falcons snap a four-game postseason losing streak.
It also happened to be a defining moment for Ryan, who connected on 24-of-35 passes for a career playoff-high 250 yards with three touchdown passes and two interceptions.
"It's something that we practice all the time. We have situations that we work end of game situations," Smith said when discussing the late-game comeback. "We knew that we had two timeouts. We knew that there was 31 seconds after we returned the kick. We knew the yardage that we needed to make. We made a nice throw to Harry. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get out of bounds so we had to use a timeout, which changed the scenario a little bit. Then we hit Tony on the route in the middle of the field. Called timeout and got Matt out there to kick it."
Gonzalez, who had never won a playoff game in his brilliant 16-year career, teared up after Bryant's kick went through.
"I've never cried after a win," Gonzalez told FOX after the game. "I was thinking, 'Here we go again. I guess it wasn't meant to be.'"
That was the sentiment for most of Atlanta, where nothing seems to come easy in January. The Falcons were forced to survive the Hail Mary attempt when Bryant's ensuing kickoff caromed off the front line of the Seahawks' return group and the visitors recovered near midfield.
Vision of the "Fail Mary" were dancing in more than one observer's mind.
Back in Week 3 of the 2012 season, the Seahawks topped the Green Bay Packers on "Monday Night Football" when Wilson threw a "Hail Mary" pass intended for Golden Tate. Both Tate and Packers defender M. D. Jennings got their hands on the ball while attempting to gain possession and the two replacement officials nearest the play initially gave separate rulings of touchdown and touchback, before conversing and awarding simultaneous possession to Tate, resulting in a Seahawks game-winning touchdown.
Wilson, despite finishing with a rookie postseason record 385 passing yards and adding another 60 yards rushing, had no more rabbits to pull out of his hat this time as the 6-foot-3 Jones made sure the officials weren't an issue.
"We talk all the time about playing a 60-minute game and finishing those games, and that's exactly what we did today," Smith said. "I like the way we started the game. I like the way we played the first half. Obviously, the second half of the ballgame we did not play our best. To give up a 20-point lead is something that you have to concern yourself with."
Both coaches have had better days. Seattle's Pete Carroll flubbed two red zone possessions that generated no points in the first half, and showed no sense or urgency as Wilson matriculated the Seahawks down the field late, something which won't be revisited since the rookie got the Seahawks the lead anyway.
Carroll also tried to ice Bryant, who was 4-for-4 on field goals of 49-plus yards this season. Sure enough, Bryant missed his practice try and the former Southern Cal coach feigned incredulity at the officials afterward, blaming them for allowing the Atlanta kicker to take his practice swing.
"I agree with everyone," former Super Bowl winning coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy Tweeted after the game. "I don't understand why coaches give the kicker a practice ball with late time out? It makes no sense."
Carroll's failures were tame compared to the winner, however.
Smith did everything he could to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Falcons' mentor was extremely conservative as the Seahawks chipped away, flashed some awful clock-management in the closing moments before ordering the ill-advised squib kick giving Seattle a chance at a Hail Mary.
"We did not execute exactly how we wanted," Smith said when discussing his strange strategy in the waning moments. "These things happen in a ballgame. We were able to go out there and play those last two plays and get the win."
There are no style points in the NFL, though, and Smith finally gets to advance after what was one of his worst performances as an NFL head coach.
The No. 2-seeded San Francisco 49ers visit the dome next Sunday as the Falcons take part in their first NFC Championship Game since losing at Philadelphia in January 2005.
Aren't mulligans great?
"It's just another football game," Smith said. "I'm very happy for our football team. I'm happy for the entire organization. My mind goes right to we get to get ready and we got to figure out how we're going to play better than we did in the second half of the ballgame today. That's where my mind-set is. It's already flipped the switch."