Matt Bryant swipes hero badge from Earl Thomas
How many National Football League playoff games would involve two teams that have five players who grew up within 100-miles of each other?
And what are the odds of two of those players who grew up six miles apart coming up with game-changing plays in the late stages of the contest?
That’s exactly what happened in Sunday’s National Football Conference divisional semifinal game at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome between the top-seeded Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks, the only remaining wild-card team in the post-season.
Former West Orange-Stark and Texas Longhorn star Earl Thomas made a crucial interception in the fourth period that inspired his teammates to rally and go ahead 28-27 with 31 seconds left.
But his heroic play was trumped by Bridge City and Baylor kicker Matt Bryant who kicked a 49-yard field goal with eight seconds left to give his Falcons a 30-28 victory and punched their ticket to the NFC championship game against San Francisco Sunday in Atlanta.
Other Southeast Texans who also were on the Georgia Dome gridiron included Bryant’s teammates Jonathan Babineaux of Port Arthur Lincoln and Iowa and Sean Witherspoon of Jasper and Mizzou and Jasper native and Texas A&M star Red Bryant, who played for the Seahawks.
The Falcons jumped out to an early 20-0 lead before the Seahawks began to battle back in the second half.
With the Seahawks trailing 27-14 early in the fourth quarter, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a sideline route into double coverage and Seattle’s All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas leaped up and made the interception before stepping out of bounds that put the Seahawks back in business with 11:05 left in the game.
Seattle completely took over the action, scoring on a three-yard touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Russell Wilson to Zach Miller and a two-yard plunge by halfback Marshawn Lynch that put the Seahawks in front 28-27 with 31 seconds left.
But Seattle head coach Pete Carroll made one of his several tactical errors when he ordered a squib kick that was corralled by an up-back, giving Atlanta renewed hope of pulling out the victory.
In an exclusive telephone conversation with Bryant Monday morning the 37-year-old veteran kicker revealed, “After they scored their touchdown, I told the offense that we’ve done this before.” Bryant said that he has made between 10-15 game-winning field goals in his 11-year NFL career but never with so much on the line.
Ryan connected with Harry Douglas on a 29-yard sideline pass and then found his favorite target perennial All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez on a 19-yard strike and Head Coach Mike Smith called a time out with 13 seconds remaining setting the stage for Bryant’s heroics.
Bryant pushed his kick and it missed wide to the right, but just before the snap, Carroll called a time out, opting to “freeze” the kicker rather than conserving a precious timeout in the event the kick was good. That was another one of the coach’s huge mistakes. He also opted to “go for it” on fourth-and-one twice inside the red zone early in the game instead of kicking field goals that would have given the Seahawks the victory.
“Although I’ve been kicking field goals for more than half my life, for some reason I messed up my approach on that kick and it sailed to the right,” Bryant confessed. “I’m certainly glad their coach called that time out.” His kick that counted split the center of the uprights and would have been good even if it had to be 10 yards longer.
Ryan has been the Falcons’ starting quarterback for five years, but had never led his team to a playoff win until Sunday. He fought off the memories of three previous playoff losses and two Seahawks interceptions to set up Bryant’s winning field goal.
This was the third game Bryant has won with his talented toe for the Falcons this season. In our last interview with him during the lockout before the 2011 season, Bryant was a free agent hoping to sign with Atlanta.
“We agreed on a four-year contract after the lockout which made me happy because I really wanted to stay with Atlanta,” Bryant said.
I asked him with his 38th birthday coming up in May how long he intends to play in the NFL. “I’ll play as long as I can kick competitively and somebody wants me,” he replied.
He received congratulations from many of his friends and fans in the Bridge City area but realizes that his mission for this season is not yet complete—it’s still two games away. In fact, although Sunday’s NFC championship game is at home, the Atlanta Falcons still are a three-point underdog to the San Francisco 49ers.
And as far as Earl Thomas is concerned, his season isn’t over yet. Although he would much rather be playing for the right to get into the Super Bowl, he’s got a date Jan. 27 to be the starting free safety in the Pro Bowl at Honolulu.
Despite Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson completing 24-of-36 passes for 385 yards, which is the best performance for a rookie since Sammy Baugh’s playoff game in 1937, both he and Earl Thomas aren’t playing this weekend against San Francisco because of the bad decisions made by their coach Pete Carroll.
Perhaps Matt Bryant and Matt Ryan should send Carroll a thank you card.
KWICKIES…It was deja vu all over again for our Houston Texans who got a lot closer to victory Sunday at Foxborough, MA. than last month but still saw their 2012 season come to a screeching halt as the New England Patriots won 41-28 to advance to the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday at Gillette Stadium. For the second week in a row the Ravens are a 9 ½-point underdog. And for the second year in a row the Texans won their division, won their first playoff game but were ousted in the division semifinal round. So are they a better team this year than in 2011? Their record is better, the expectations were much higher, but their season still ended the same way.
In a little touch of irony Rob Chudzinski was named as the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns last weekend, replacing Pat Shurmur, another first-time head coach when he was hired last year, and named recently-fired San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. Turner had given Chud (as he is called by his friends) his first job as an assistant coach. Chudzinski rooted for the Browns while growing up in Toledo, Ohio.
The Pittsburgh Steelers proved last weekend that they don’t mess around with criminals masquerading as pro football players when they cut rookie running back Chris Rainey following his arrest on a battery charge after an altercation with his girlfriend.
Area golfers can count on one hand the number of days they have been able to play so far in 2013 and probably count on a couple of fingers the days they could drive their golf carts 90 degrees off the cart paths. Perhaps the rice farmers are pleased with the amount of rainfall we’ve registered so far this year, but the golfers surely aren’t.
JUST BETWEEN US…A couple of Orange senior-citizen distant runners battled the elements and successfully won their age divisions Sunday in the 41st Annual Chevron Houston Half-Marathon. Fifth-seven year-old Joe Melanson toured the 13.1 miles course in 1:24:00 to capture the 55-59 age group while 71-year-old Kenny Ruane won the 70-74 age group in a time of 1:52:35. Vidor’s Michael Defee finished third in the 35-39 age group in a time of 2:43:45 in the 26.2-mile full marathon. “I haven’t been able to run much since before Christmas because I’ve been recovering from the flu,” Ruane said Monday. “I treated the race more like a training run because of the cold rain and the North win plus my weakened condition. I’m happy with the way I ran and was surprised to find out I had won my age group. Actually I finished in the top 10-12 per cent of the 13,000 field and beat a lot of runners much younger than me.”