SEATTLE -- Matt Ryan stood on the rain-drenched CenturyLink Field turf and surveyed the opposing defense, detecting a gaping-wide gap in the depleted Legion Of Boom. And then the veteran quarterback's eyes lit up, and he prepared to receive a shotgun snap and air-mail a leather package to the NFL's most imposing pass-catching beast.
It was third-and-6 at his own 42-yard-line; it was midway through the fourth quarter of Monday night's game, with the Atlanta Falcons holding a 31-23 lead over the Seattle Seahawks; and it was time for the league's reigning MVP to become Matty Ice.
"Those are the plays you have to hit," Ryan told me later. "You've got the safety in the center, and one-on-one bump coverage on the outside, and they've got a couple of guys out in the secondary. So yeah, I'm keeping my eyes to the center to freeze the safety and then throwing it to Julio on the outside and letting him go get it."
Standing tall in the pocket as the Seahawks blitzed, Ryan executed the play to perfection, looping a glorious pass that All-Pro receiver Julio Jones hauled in over his shoulder just inside the right sideline for a 29-yard gain. With cornerback Jeremy Lane trailing a foot behind him and safety Bradley McDougald closing fast from the middle of the field, Jones made the crucial catch which gave the Falcons a first down at the Seattle 29. Not insignificant was the reality that Richard Sherman, the star cornerback who typically shadows Jones, watched helplessly from the same sideline as he rested his surgically repaired foot atop a medical knee scooter.
"It's all about winning matchups," Jones said afterward. "I'm just trying to beat my man. Matt delivered a great ball."
Suddenly, after a messy first half of the 2017 season, the Falcons (6-4) are back in the NFC playoff chase -- though third in the NFC South, they'd be the sixth seed if the season ended today -- and can harbor non-illusory hopes of defending their conference championship. With consecutive victories over the Dallas Cowboys and Seahawks, Atlanta is starting to regain some of the consistency and confidence that seemed missing through the season's first two months.
On Monday, in front of 69,026 revved up fans and a thoroughly entertained television audience, Ryan and his teammates reminded everyone that they've still got some juice.
"We're getting our swagger back," said Jones, who caught five passes for 71 yards against a Seahawks secondary that was also missing standout safety Kam Chancellor. "Last year's last year -- but you can't win games off last year, and it can't do anything for this year. We're just trying to get it going and get an identity as the 2017 Falcons."
For the first time since late September, when Atlanta completed a 3-0 start at the mercy of NFC North opponents before dropping four of their next five, the 2017 Falcons appear capable of soaring. With five of their six remaining games against NFC South foes, catching the New Orleans Saints (8-2) and Carolina Panthers (7-3) is well within the realm of possibility.
Before Monday's game, Falcons coach Dan Quinn -- a former Seahawks defensive coordinator -- talked to his players about coming out aggressively and setting a tenacious tone. That had not been the case during the two teams' meeting at CenturyLink during the 2016 regular season, when the Seahawks jumped out to a 17-3 advantage before pulling out a 26-24 victory -- an outcome Atlanta reversed in a 36-20 divisional-round playoff triumph at the Georgia Dome last January.
This time, even with Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman sidelined by a concussion, the Falcons were the ones who thrived from the jump. With Sherman (torn Achilles) lost for the season and Chancellor (neck) soon likely to join him on IR, the Seahawks were ill-prepared to endure the head injury that knocked rookie cornerback Shaquill Griffin from the game on Monday's second play from scrimmage.
Though Ryan (19 of 27, 195 yards) didn't put up overly impressive stats, he went after the diminished Seattle secondary early, drawing a 25-yard pass interception penalty on Lane to set up the Falcons' first touchdown, and throwing a two-yard scoring pass to Mohamed Sanu to give Atlanta a 14-0 lead with 7:52 remaining in the first quarter.
"We talked about coming out and going," Mack said. "That was important. We did a pretty good job of that -- coming out hot and keeping the pressure on."
Said Ryan: "Tonight was good... starting fast, especially in an environment like that. We had execution from the start and sustained it for four quarters. That's progress."
The Seahawks (6-4), as is their custom, willed their way back into the game. Seattle trailed 24-17 at the half, a deficit that could have been smaller were it not for an ill-fated fake field goal call by head coach Pete Carroll 10 seconds before halftime: With Seattle facing fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 17, Walsh came on for an apparent 35-yard attempt, but holder Jon Ryan flipped the ball to fellow Canada native Luke Willson, and the tight end was stuffed by the Falcons' Grady Jarrett for a four-yard loss.
In the second half, Russell Wilson (26 of 42, 258 yards, two touchdowns; seven rushes, 86 yards, one TD) threw everything he had at the Falcons' defense, but Ryan answered the challenge. His 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Levine Toilolo, which gave the Falcons a 31-20 lead midway through the third quarter, was a thing of beauty: after sliding to his right and looking toward halfback Tevin Coleman, he lofted a perfect ball to the left side of the end zone.
And on that pivotal third-and-6 play, there was no question where Ryan wanted to go.
"If I hadn't thrown to Julio," Ryan said, laughing, "I'd have heard about it afterward."
Said Mack: "That's definitely a cheat code. They're a special pair."
After Seattle nearly made up an 11-point deficit in the final 3:49, with Walsh's potential overtime-forcing field goal falling just short, Ryan felt a little bit better about a season that -- in his eyes -- hasn't been as sloppy as commonly perceived.
"I feel like we've been a lot closer than a lot of people give us credit for," Matty Ice said. "But you've gotta do it, period -- that's the bottom line. There's definitely a sense of urgency to get stuff done, but there's no panic. Every inch counts. We saw that tonight. And I believe it's closer to being really, really good than most people think."
The 2016 Falcons will always be remembered as the team that came painfully close to winning a championship, only to let it slip away. On Monday night in Seattle, the 2017 Falcons fended off a furious comeback and kept their title aspirations alive -- and their quarterback lived up to his nickname at a very opportune time.