TOP 20 GAMES OF 2012

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Game 17: NFC Championship Game

Bridesmaids Again

Bridesmaids educated a lot of us on what it's like to play second sister at a wedding. Just don't admit you killed two hours watching it on HBO.

Ask any NFL player who's been on the doorstep of a Super Bowl title, and he'll stress that playing second fiddle -- bridesmaid -- doesn't cut it.

Similarly, being top seed and making it to the conference championship game simply isn't enough. There's such finality to playing deep into January, only to have the season come to a crashing halt.

Such has been the recent legacy of the Atlanta Falcons, who just haven't been able to get over the hump, despite averaging over 11 wins per season since 2008.

How They Ended – Best Seasons in Falcons History
Season W-L Record Result
1998 14-2, 1st in NFC West Lost to Broncos in SB XXXIII
2012 13-3, 1st in NFC South Lost to 49ers in NFC Championship
2010 13-3, 1st in NFC South Lost to Packers in Div. Playoff
1980 12-4, 1st in NFC West Lost to Cowboys in Div. Playoff
2004 11-5, 1st in NFC South Lost To Eagles in NFC Championship
2008 11-5, 2nd in NFC South Lost to Cardinals in Wild Card


Meanwhile, Atlanta's opponent in the NFC title game -- our No. 17 game of 2012 -- entered Championship Sunday with five conference titles (and five Super Bowl rings, to boot). Much of the San Francisco 49ers' aura revolves around the West Coast Offense and legends like Bill Walsh and Joe Montana. Yet, a large portion of their organizational success also should be attributed to playmaking defense.

It was that side of the ball that decided the 2012 NFC Championship Game, specifically a four-down sequence that sent San Francisco to its sixth Super Bowl.

The 49ers had clawed their way back from a 17-0 deficit behind second-year QB Colin Kaepernick, who completed 16 of his 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown. San Francisco eventually took a 28-24 fourth-quarter lead, but the Falcons wouldn't go down without a fight.

With 2:16 to play, Matt Ryan and Co. had a first down at the 49ers' 16-yard line.

Plenty of time, plenty of options…

First-and-10: Atlanta goes with a rare running play to Jacquizz Rodgers that only gains a yard. More importantly, it takes the game to the two-minute warning. What is the strategy here? Well, Mike Smith obviously needs a touchdown on the drive, but he wants to make 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh burn his timeouts in the process.

Second-and-9: The Falcons overload the right side of the formation with three receivers, leaving Julio Jones alone on the left. Ryan immediately wants to hit Jones on a corner route, but San Francisco brackets the star wideout. Ryan eventually gets the ball off to Jason Snelling for a five-yard gain, but the Falcons QB gets crunched in the process and comes up holding his left shoulder, noticeably wincing.

Third-and-4: Atlanta comes out in a similar formation, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has Ryan sprint right and try to hit Roddy White on an out route for the first down. Having Ryan sprint right not only shrinks the field, but also telegraphs where the Falcons are going with the ball. 49ers LB Ahmad Brooks -- the man who crunched Ryan on the play before -- backpedals to his left, gets into Ryan's throwing lane and leaps to swat the pass.

Fourth-and-4: Fourth-and-the-season, quite simply. Atlanta aligns three receivers to the right, with White inside and Jones split far outside. Ryan looks outside, then pivots and attempts to hit White over the middle, right at the first-down line. But once again, a San Francisco linebacker is there to make the play. The Falcons get the matchup they want -- White vs. NaVorro Bowman -- but it doesn't matter. Bowman makes a little contact on White, but more importantly, brings his arm around to swat the ball. The refs aren't going to make any call in this situation.

A different series of plays could have netted a different result for the Falcons. Instead, they were watching Super Bowl XLVII from home.

Just like that, for all intents and purposes, the game is over. And the Falcons are left to watch someone else's big day. Again.

Trouble: It's tough for a quarterback to make plays with a shoulder injury, even if it's his non-throwing shoulder. Ryan sprained his AC joint on the aforementioned hit by Brooks, and while various TV guys downplayed the impact of an injury to his non-throwing shoulder, the Falcons QB was obviously affected. Perhaps they don't understand how that can alter delivery, mechanics and specifically torque. It's like a batter suffering an injury to his front hip, eliminating his ability to swivel and generate power through his lower body.

Ryan only made three throws post-injury, but two came on the ill-fated four-down sequence chronicled above. Maybe, just maybe, if he'd been able to fully let it rip on that fourth-down play, the ball would've gotten there before Bowman's hand. Either way, Ryan was definitely feeling the pain.

In the NFL, a split second can make all the difference.

(Almost) Play of the Game: Had Atlanta pulled this game out, everyone would have been talking about Dunta Robinson's mad rip job on Michael Crabtree at the 1-yard line to prevent the 49ers from pulling ahead early in the fourth quarter. The Falcons were protecting a precarious 24-21 lead. Getting a turnover on their own two-foot line was nothing short of huge.

Ironically, Crabtree had just performed a world-class gloating routine. Two plays before his fumble, the 49ers wideout took a 33-yard catch-and-run to the Falcons 10 and got his flex on.

Impressive physique, Mr. Crabtree. Just try not to fumble moments later.

Catch or not, Harry Douglas made a great adjustment to the ball, and the call came out in his favor.

Controversy: The refs might have given the Falcons a little help on their final full drive of the game. On third down with 4:22 to play, Matt Ryan lofted a pass to a wide open Harry Douglas near the right sideline. It wasn’t Ryan’s best throw. Douglas adjusted to the ball, lunging forward to corral it against his body, but it sure looked like that sucker was moving. Close call.

Best Player on the Field: Jones absolutely dominated. The second-year wideout repeatedly burned 49ers corner Tarell Brown -- as well as safety Dashon Goldson -- en route to an 11-catch, 182-yard ballgame. Oh, and two touchdowns, too. The only thing more consistent than Jones’ play -- particularly in the first half, when he racked up 135 yards and both scores -- was Brown’s whining. The 49ers corner was constantly looking to the refs for help -- a push-off call, OPI, something!

You can see all of Jones’ great plays -- toasting Goldson (not in a good way) on his first touchdown catch, the Cris Carter-esque toe tap on his second -- by clicking right here.

Historical Symmetry: Thirty years ago, the Falcons found themselves in a situation similar to the final play of the 2012 NFC Championship: trailing the 49ers, with just enough time for one throw from near midfield. Atlanta and San Francisco weren’t playing for a conference crown, but it was an extremely important Week 12 game, with the Falcons trying to stay alive in the wild-card race and the 49ers vying for the NFC West.

With two ticks on the clock and the ball at the 49ers’ 47-yard line, Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski heaved it up into the stratosphere. The rest is NFL lore.

Why This Game is No. 17: While this NFC title bout was an excellent overall game that clearly did not disappoint its 42 million viewers, it was not worthy of top-10 status. Atlanta’s desperation attempts ended on somewhat of a whimper, with Ryan helplessly holding his injured shoulder.

Still, the big-game stakes and San Francisco’s comeback certainly make it deserving of the No. 17 spot.

Visit NFL Game Center for more on the NFC Championship Game.

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