Why weren’t they paying attention?
That’s the Super Bowl question.
Had the Falcons been paying attention, they’d be preparing to meet the Ravens in New Orleans in two weeks. Instead, they’re sitting around wondering about what coulda, shoulda, been after losing, 28-24, to the 49ers in the NFC championship game.
The Falcons could have taken a moment last week to look critically at their win over the Seahawks; look past the euphoric finish and the elimination of their hideous playoff jinx. They could have taken note of the mistakes they made in the Seattle game and taken steps to ensure that they didn’t recur.
But, no. The Falcons went out Sunday and made the same mistakes they had made last week. With one key difference: this week, the last play didn’t go their way.
Against Seattle, the Falcons floated into the locker room at halftime with a 20-0 lead. Did they stomp on the Seahawks when they had them down? No. It’s much more sporting to let a team get back up and make a game of it.
For the first 16 minutes against San Francisco, the Falcons looked like one of the greatest professional football teams ever assembled. They led 17-0 before the Niners even recorded a first down. They ran 23 plays for 202 yards, and held the ball for 11:54. The Niners? Six plays, minus 2 yards, 3:04.
The Falcon faithful were ready to tear the dome off the Dome.
How big was that 17-0 lead? So big that such a lead had never been overcome in an NFC championship game.
But the Falcons had to do the only sporting thing they could. They let the Niners drive 85 yards, hold the ball for 6:46, and score the touchdown that checked the Falcons’ early momentum. For good measure, they let the Niners drive 76 yards for another touchdown on their next possession.
The fans left the dome in place.
A week ago we watched hopelessly — not at all unlike the Falcons secondary — as tight end Zach Miller caught eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. During the week, coach Mike Smith made special mention of the fact that there had been a dead zone in the Falcons secondary. The Niners were paying attention. Their tight end, Vernon Davis — a virtual afterthought recently — led the Niners with five catches for 106 yards and that big second touchdown.
It’s not like utilizing the tight end is an alien concept. The Falcons defense sees the best tight end ever to play the game in practice every single day!
Of course, it’s a problem stopping the pass when you let your opponent establish the run. Seattle ran the ball 28 times for 123 yards.
If a team can rush for over 100 yards in a playoff game, it has a huge advantage. Seattle’s advantage was negated by the Falcons surprising ground game, which churned out 167 yards.
Sunday, the Falcons contained rookie sensation Colin Kaepernick, but Frank Gore led a running game that rolled up 149 yards. And Gore scored the only two touchdowns of the second half.
Meanwhile, the Falcons could amass only 81 yards rushing, and it took them 23 attempts to do so. They do get a slight waiver here, as Michael Turner spent most of the game sidelined by an ankle injury.
Now we come to the guy who really should have been paying attention, the guy who’s supposed to be the smartest guy on the team. The quarterback.
It’s hard to criticize Matt Ryan after he threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns. And once again, he brought the Falcons right down the field with the game on the line.
But he also made the play that made all the difference.
Last week he hurled an interception that fueled Seattle’s comeback, and said that it was “something I can’t do.”
Sunday, he did it again.
Roddy White slipped on Ryan’s interception, and White took the blame for that one. But of all the things we might have envisioned going wrong, Ryan dropping the center snap certainly wasn’t one of them. That turnover was key in turning the game San Francisco’s way.
And what did Ryan have to say about that gaffe at his post-game press conference?
“You can’t do that. You can’t do that in these types of games.”
No, you can’t. You need to be paying attention.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column will appear each week on Thursday.