FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan’s biggest mistake of the day turned into a touchdown in Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings.
It’s been that kind of season for the rookie quarterback and the Atlanta Falcons, who clinched a playoff spot with their 24-17 win at Minnesota.
Ryan’s gaffe came as he was forced out of the pocket and tried to score on a second-down play from the Vikings’ 5 in the third quarter. Ryan went airborne, his feet flipping over his head, and he fumbled near the goal line.
Falcons left guard Justin Blalock said he didn’t see the fumble. Even so, Blalock alertly dived into the pile and recovered the ball in the end zone for the touchdown that ultimately clinched a dramatic turnaround for the surprising team.
It was a fitting "Look what I found" kind of play for one of the league’s biggest surprise stories of the year.
From 4-12 in 2007, the Falcons are 10-5. The team has made the playoffs with its rookie quarterback and first-year coach Mike Smith, and it would win the NFC South and earn a first-round bye if it beats St. Louis on Sunday in Atlanta and Carolina loses at New Orleans.
If the Falcons win and the Panthers lose, they would each finish the season at 11-5. The Falcons would win the tiebreaker based on their 8-4 conference record, which would be one game better than Carolina’s 7-5 mark.
Blalock’s big play gave Atlanta a 24-7 lead and proved to be the winning score when the Vikings rallied with 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Blalock said he cringed as he saw Ryan attempt to launch himself over the goal line.
"I was thinking, ‘No, don’t do it! Slide!"’ Blalock said. "As I saw him taking off, I wanted to be around in case the ball pops up. It just so happened the ball did pop out. A little scrum began, and lo and behold I came up with it."
It was the second straight week Blalock recovered a fumble by Ryan.
Blalock insists no special thank-you from Ryan is necessary.
"It’s part of my job to be around the ball and try to protect the ball carriers whenever I have the chance," Blalock said. "It goes without saying."
Smith managed a laugh on Monday when asked if there will be a new "no airborne" rule for Ryan, a quick learner. Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave already have emphasized this latest lesson to Ryan.
"We talked about it," Smith said. "I know Mike and Matt talked about it, and I know that Bill and Matt talked about it — but we’ll keep those private."
Said Ryan on Sunday: "I can’t be making those mistakes as we come down the line. It’s something you have to learn from, but I am thankful for Justin."
Smith said Blalock was in position because he hustled on the play.
"That’s two weeks in a row Justin has made big plays by running to the football," Smith said. "That’s something we preach all the time to our football team. When the ball carrier is tackled, if you’re not carrying the ball, you need to be around the pile in case something happens."
Smith only smiled when told Blalock hinted he was running to the end zone simply to celebrate a touchdown.
"That’s part of it, too, when it’s in the end zone," Smith said.
No one thought the Falcons could return to the playoffs only one year after disgraced quarterback Michael Vick was sent to federal prison, convicted of funding a dogfighting operation.
New general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith cleaned house, releasing or trading such veterans as Warrick Dunn, Rod Coleman, Alge Crumpler and DeAngelo Hall.
Smith paused on Monday when asked if he believed before the season a playoff berth was possible.
"I thought it was a possibility, but I didn’t put a whole lot of stock in it," Smith said. "As the season progressed it became apparent to me in the way this league was falling out in wins and losses, I thought if we could get to December and be close that we’d have a chance."
Losses by Dallas on Saturday and Tampa Bay and Carolina on Sunday helped pave the way for the Falcons to clinch the playoff spot. Now comes the drive for the first-round bye.
The Falcons, 6-1 at the Georgia Dome, will be favored Sunday against the 2-13 Rams. The Saints will be playing the Panthers at the same time in New Orleans.
There is more reason for Falcons’ fans to hope for a first-round bye: No NFC South team has lost at home against a division opponent this season.
"I think the guys will be up for the challenge," Smith said. "They know if we play well and get the outcome we desire, there’s a lot out there (in the playoff standings) that can change.
"There’s still a lot that’s going to change in how this tournament is put together," Smith added.