The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
When he trotted out to attempt a game-winning 49-yard field goal against Seattle in the second round of the NFL playoffs Sunday afternoon, Matt Bryant of the Atlanta Falcons wasn’t pondering all the negative ramifications that would come raining down should he miss.
First and foremost among the downsides would be Atlanta’s star-crossed recent history. Following three post-season failures under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons had been labeled as a team that choked come playoff time. That story line played over and over during the buildup to Sunday’s game.
On an individual level, Hall of Fame bound tight end Tony Gonzalez was about to retire without ever experiencing the joy of a playoff victory in 16 NFL seasons. Nor had Bryant, the former Bridge City star in his 11th NFL year, ever been on the winning side in a playoff game. Ditto for QB Matt Ryan.
Now, as the moment of truth arrived against Seattle, the Falcons worst nightmare seemed to be coming to life.
Atlanta, after posting an NFL best regular-season record of 13-3, was on the verge of joining the 1993 Houston Oilers in NFL infamy as having blown the biggest playoff lead in league history. The Falcons, playing a team with a rookie quarterback, had led 20-0 at the half and 27-7 after three quarters.
With 31 seconds left, however, they were trailing 28-27. A roaring Georgia Dome crowd had gone silent. Even some of Atlanta’s players, the most prominent of them being Gonzalez, thought the Falcons were toast and a nightmarish winter was about to begin.
“I thought the game was over,” said Gonzales. “I thought, ‘well, I guess this is how I’m going to go out.’ I guess that’s why I got so emotional at the end.”
Bryant, however, after two Matt Ryan pass completions produced a flicker of hope, was thinking only positive thoughts when an improbable opportunity knocked for him. To do otherwise would have made the pressure suffocating
“Obviously, I knew the importance of the kick,” he said Monday afternoon. “To be honest, it felt like almost any other kick. I seem to live and die with each kick. I can’t stand to miss one. All that was on my mind was keeping my head down and kicking through the ball. That was what I did.”
The game winner didn’t happen until after Seattle coach Pete Carroll attempted to ice him by calling time out, just before the ball was snapped. Even though he knew it wouldn’t count, Bryant went ahead with the kick. And it missed wide right.
“Once they called the time out, my approach to the kick wasn’t the same,” he said. “I sort of relaxed and missed it. Then I made a little bit of an adjustment. I knew I hit the next one really good.”
All’s well that ends well. With one sweep of Bryant’s trusty right leg, the Falcons had a date with San Francisco in the NFC championship game. He, Gonzales and Ryan finally had that elusive playoff victory. The Falcons no longer carried a 500-pound gorilla on their back. Across the state of Georgia, folks were breathing a collective sigh of relief.
And to think all that happened because a 37-year-old kicker from Southeast Texas, who has had to scrape and claw to sustain an NFL career, didn’t melt under intense heat.
“In the moment, I wasn’t aware of feeling that much pressure,” said Bryant. “But, after watching the tape, my reaction made it clear that wasn’t just another kick. It started sinking in more today because I’ve done several interviews with national media people. Be sure and tell everybody back home that Bridge City got mentioned in all the interviews.”
After reflecting upon the events of the past 24 hours, Bryant did concede that somewhere in the back of his mind were the headlines had his kick been off the mark.
“Sure, you understand everything that’s out there,” he said. “The stories about our playoff problems were talked about all week. You could feel the nerves and the heightened emotions. But once a game starts, your mind and body shut it all out and you just go out and do your job. That’s the best way I can explain it.”
While Bryant’s role in the 30-28 victory over Seattle was obvious, only a few of his teammates knew what he’d done to try and rally teammates after the Seahawks took the lead.
“A lot of guys were down, but I knew there was still time,” he said. “I felt the need to remind the offensive guys on the sideline that we had been in this situation before and come back to win. Earlier in the year, we were losing to Carolina by one point and had the ball on our own one with 40 seconds left. We got into field goal range and I kicked a 40-yard field goal on the last play. If you do it once, you can do it again.”
The 49-yarder that sunk Seattle was the 17th game winner of a Bryant career that is seemingly getting better with age. It zoomed to the top of his most memorable kicks, alongside the final play, 62-yarder that lifted Tampa Bay over Philadelphia in 2006.
Meanwhile, the numbers continue to show the former Baylor Bear as one of the league’s most reliable kickers.
A year after being No. 1 in the NFL with a 93.1 percent success rate on field goals, Bryant hit on 33 of 38 in 2012 (86.8). Sunday’s game winner was his 10th consecutive make from 49 yards or longer. In three plus seasons with Atlanta, he’s 93 of 105 overall (88.6 percent). For his career, he’s made 233 of 276 for 84.4 percent.
“It’s been a very good year,” he said. “I had two bad games — against Dallas and against Tampa Bay. I’d hurt my back the week of the Dallas game, I was kind of off balance and I missed a couple. In the Tampa game, the process kind of broke down. Other that those two, it’s all been good.”
Because it has, Atlanta is one win from the Super Bowl. And Matt Bryant is the toast of the town.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.