ATLANTA — For most of Matt Ryan’s career, the player with the nickname “Matty Ice” for his cool under fire has been more like Matty No Dice in the playoffs.
But after his best regular season since being drafted third overall by the Falcons in 2008, Ryan turned in his best playoff performance in a 36-20 win over the Seahawks in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday.
Ryan had won only one of five playoff starts before this — also over Seattle at home — but in what could have been the final game at the Georgia Dome, which is being replaced starting next season by a gigantic new stadium next door, he was nearly flawless in deconstructing Seattle’s highly regarded defense.
Ryan was 26-for-37 for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in leading the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game against the winner of Sunday’s Packers-Cowboys game.
“We’re still going, that’s the exciting part,” Ryan said. “This is why you work hard, why you put in all the time during the offseason, during the summer.”
Fans chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!” at various stages of the game, expressing their hope that Ryan will win his first Most Valuable Player award. He had a career-high 38 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions during the regular season and was selected as the first-string quarterback for The Associated Press All-Pro team.
It also was a meaningful win for Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who beat his mentor, Pete Carroll, for his first playoff victory. Quinn had been a trusted defensive assistant under Carroll, serving as Seattle’s defensive coordinator before getting the Falcons’ top job before the 2015 season.
“The first game against them, I’m glad that was out of the way,” Quinn said of a 26-24 regular-season loss in Seattle. “From here on, I hope we battle like crazy over the next 10 years with a bunch of really good teams. The first game was weird, I’ll be honest with you. Now, it’s any time you battle a guy you have tons of respect for, and there are a lot of coaches like that.”
Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney called the feeling “amazing and electric” after the win. “This is exactly what we wanted to feel,’’ he said. “When we have a crowd advantage like that, it helps the team so much, especially on the defensive end. Hats off to the 12th man.”
The Falcons were the better defense in this one, holding Russell Wilson to 225 passing yards and two touchdown passes and intercepting him twice.
“We aren’t really worried about the ultimate game yet,” Freeney said. “We’re just excited right now to be in the position that we’re in.”
The Seahawks got off to a great start, with Wilson orchestrating a 14-play, 89-yard drive on the first possession. He finished off the drive with a 7-yard TD pass to tight end Jimmy Graham in the left flat. Seattle converted three third-down attempts in slicing through Atlanta’s defense on the drive.
But the Falcons answered in impressive fashion, with Ryan taking them 75 yards in 13 plays and finishing off the drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass over the middle to Julio Jones to tie it at 7.
Then came the play that changed the momentum in the Falcons’ favor. Newly signed punt returner Devin Hester, the former Bears All-Pro, looked like his old self in returning Matt Bosher’s punt 80 yards to the Falcons’ 7. But Kevin Pierre-Lewis was called for holding on the play, and instead of having a prime opportunity to extend their lead, the Seahawks were backed up to their own 7. After a 3-yard loss by running back Thomas Rawls, Wilson stumbled on a dropback after having his right foot stepped on by right guard Rees Odhiambo. Wilson fell backward into the end zone and couldn’t get up in time to avoid the safety.
The Falcons then took their first lead of the game after the free kick, as 41-year-old Matt Bryant hit a 35-yard field goal to make it 12-10.
The Seahawks pinned the Falcons at their 1 after being forced to punt on their ensuing drive, but Ryan again went to work on what had become a suddenly vulnerable Seattle defense. Ryan did a good job exploiting the middle of the field, where the Seahawks no longer have injured safety Earl Thomas, and he drove the Falcons 99 yards to make it 19-10 with less than a minute to play in the half.
Ryan again dominated the Seahawks’ defense on his first drive of the second half. He led yet another long drive, this one a 13-play, 75-yard beauty capped by running back Devonta Freeman’s 1-yard touchdown run.