By Adesina O. Koiki
SEATTLE – More than anyone in pro football, Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn knows how special it is to be a part of a game at CenturyLink Field, the home of the Seattle Seahawks and the raucous, boisterous crowd affectionately known as The 12th Man. That is exactly what makes Monday night’s result even sweeter for the former Seahawks assistant.
Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for two touchdown passes and defensive end Adrian Clayborn continued his stellar defensive play with a fumble return for a touchdown as the Falcons jumped out to a 14-0 lead and held on at the end to defeat Seattle 34-31, winning their second game in a row. The win was not sealed for Atlanta until Blair Walsh’s 52-yard field goal attempt with seven seconds remaining in the game fell just short.
“What an absolute team win from the guys tonight,” said Quinn, who was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator when they won Super Bowl XLVIII following the 2013 season. “Coming here, in this environment, with the crowd, we thought it would be two competitive, tough teams that were going to battle for it in the biggest way.”
And it was Atlanta that threw the first few punches early, scoring touchdowns on each of its first two possessions on offense. It started on the opening kickoff, when return man Andre Roberts returned the kick 50 yards to set the Falcons up in excellent field position. The Falcons converted two third downs on the drive, and then benefited from a pass interference call on cornerback Jeremy Lane in the end zone to set up a first-and-goal situation. Tevin Coleman plunged inform one yard out to open the scoring.
Another long return set up the Atlanta’s second score, but this one was an 40-yard interception return by cornerback Desmond Trufant off a pass by Russell Wilson. Atlanta capitalized on the takeaway, as receiver Mohamed Sanu made a leaping, one-handed catch in the end zone for a two-yard touchdown to cap off the drive and give the Falcons a 14-0 first quarter lead.
Ryan found it easy to throw early on a Seahawks’ secondary that was missing cornerback Rickard Sherman, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury last Thursday, as well as Kam Chancellor, who was out with a neck injury.
Seattle ended the high-scoring first quarter with an impressive nine-play touchdown drive, capped off by Wilson’s four-yard scoring pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, the tight end’s seventh touchdown of the season.
On Seattle’s next possession, Wilson, who was scrambling out of the pocket on a number of his dropbacks, fumbled the ball while being sacked by defensive end Takk McKinley, and Clayborn picked it up and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 advantage.
Again, Seattle answered after a giveaway, scoring 10 unanswered points, including a one-yard run by Wilson on a fourth-and-goal to cut Atlanta’s lead to 21-17.
After a Matt Bryant 44-yard field goal made it 24-17, Seattle had a chance to get within four points once again right before halftime. However, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll decided to run a fake field goal instead of a 35-yard kick. The decision backfired spectacularly, as defensive tackle Grady Jarrett immediately tackled Seahawks tight end Luke Willson after he received a shovel pass from holder Jon Ryan.
Seattle did end up cutting the lead to four on Walsh’s 37-yard kick on the first drive of the third quarter, but then it was Atlanta’s turn to answer a score with a score of its own. Not known for his running ability, Ryan scrambled for 14 yards on a 3rd-and-8 from the Atlanta 46 to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Ryan found a wide open Levine Toilolo running down the left sideline, and the tight end hauled in the pass in the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown for a 31-20 Atlanta lead midway through the third quarter.
After an exchange of field goals, the Falcons had a 34-23 lead with 3:49 left in the game. But last-minute comebacks have been a specialty for Wilson and the Seahawks, and he led Seattle to a 75-yard touchdown drive in just 49 seconds to get the team and the crowd back in the game. Wilson threw a 29-yard touchdown pass over the middle to receiver Doug Baldwin, and, after Graham caught a pass from Wilson for the two-point conversion, the Seahawks were down 34-31 with three minutes remaining.
Seattle, with one timeout remaining and the two-minute warning, decided not to try an onside kick, and that decision proved wise after the defense forced a three-and-out from Atlanta’s offense as defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson sacked Ryan on third down.
The Seahawks got the ball back after a punt at their own 25-yard line with 1:46 remaining and no timeouts, and Wilson promptly led the offense into the fringes of field goal range. On a 3rd-and-5, Wilson ran up the middle for 10 yards to midfield. Three plays later, on another third down, Wilson hit receiver Paul Richardson over the middle for eight yards, moving the ball to the Atlanta 34. Wilson spiked the ball to kill the clock with seven seconds left, setting up Walsh’s game-tying field goal attempt that fell just short.
The Falcons and Seahawks are now 6-4, but Atlanta now owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, in case both teams do not end up winning their respective divisions. Atlanta currently sits in the sixth and final playoff spot, and will return home to start a three-game home stand with a matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at 1 PM EST.