For one half on Sunday, the best offense in the NFL was stymied by the league’s best defense.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was spending as much time picking himself up off the ground than standing in the pocket looking for options downfield.
What followed for Ryan and the Falcons was a third-quarter turnaround that was stunning and a fourth quarter that left Atlanta frustrated after a 26-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks .
Atlanta’s high-flying offensive attack slogged through the first half, woke up during a 21-point third quarter, and made critical mistakes in the fourth quarter that allowed Seattle to rally.
Rather than walking away from a two-game road trip with wins at Denver and at Seattle, the Falcons are headed home realizing their missed opportunity.
“We didn’t start the way we wanted to in the first half, but I thought we responded really well in the second half and continued to battle,” Ryan said. “We just didn’t finish the way we wanted to.”
Ryan finished 27 of 42 for 335 yards and three touchdowns, all coming during the third quarter. He hit Julio Jones for a 36-yard score on the first drive of the second half; found Mohamed Sanu on a 10-yard TD; and later connected with Levine Toilolo on a 46-yarder as the Falcons rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit.
For one 15-minute stretch, Ryan could do little wrong. He was 13 of 17 for 220 yards, three touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 157.5 in the third quarter. Ryan turned a 17-3 deficit into a 24-17 lead in a blink, against a defense that prides itself on not giving up big plays.
“The offense was just clicking. Everybody settled down,” said Jones, who had seven catches for 139 yards. “Everybody was anxious to play; we’d been out here for a week. When you have those matchups like we had today, everybody is ready to show what they have. Nothing about them, just more on us. Settling down and going out there and just playing football.”
How rare was Ryan’s performance? Since the start of the 2014 season, the Seahawks have held 25 teams to less than 220 yards passing for a game. Ryan needed just three possessions to accumulate that many yards.
What will linger with the Falcons were the missed opportunities in the fourth quarter. Atlanta ran just three offensive plays and held the ball barely 2 minutes after Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka missed a 29-yard field goal.
And three plays after Seattle pulled within 24-23, Ryan’s pass slipped through Jones’ hands, and landed in the arms of Earl Thomas.
“We wanted to stay aggressive at that point there was still plenty of time left, it wasn’t just a time where we were going to run it and punt it away and give (Russell Wilson) and that crew going again, we were going to win the game and having the attitude for that,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said of the play that led to the interception.
“We’ve got excellent guys who know how to attack it just ended up being a tip ball.”
Ryan started the second half completing 16 of 19 passes, and missed on his final four throws. That final throw wasn’t without debate as the Falcons pleaded for a pass interference call against Seattle’s Richard Sherman, but no flag came.
“Before I took off, he grabbed my right side and spun me around before I jumped up,” Jones said. “It was just a missed call. It’s over with. It’s done. We’re onto the next one.”
The turnaround in the third quarter was stunning because of what Seattle did in the first half limiting the best offense in the NFL.
The Falcons had just 86 yards of offense in the first half. Ryan accounted for most of that, hitting on 11 of 17 passes, but for only 83 yards. And he was battered by halftime as well. Ryan was sacked three times and Seattle registered eight quarterback hits in the first half.
Atlanta protected Ryan much better in the second half and he made quicker reads and throws. He was hit just five times and sacked once in the second half.
“You know going into it that it’s going to be that type of a game,” Ryan said. “This is a very good defense, they’re extremely physical, and when you play on the road, as a quarterback, you have to prepare yourself for that.”