Did Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons Choke Away NFC Championship Game?

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Did Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons Choke Away NFC Championship Game?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this year's playoffs Matt Ryan had won more games in his first five years in the league than any quarterback in NFL history.

But Ryan and his team still carried that "can't win the big one" tag around until last week's dramatic home win over Seattle.

After Sunday's performance against the San Francisco 49ers, Ryan's reputation as a big-time quarterback—in both the regular and postseasons—should be unquestioned.

Ryan did not shrink under pressure, driving his team within six yards and one questionable non-call of winning the game.

Instead, for the second straight week, it was the Falcons' defense that folded—this time after being spotted a 17-point advantage compared to last week's 20-point edge.

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On Sunday, through the first half, Ryan was nearly perfect, throwing three touchdown passes against zero interceptions and feeding one beautiful pass after another to Roddy White, Julio Jones and surefire Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.

But about midway through the third quarter the Niners defense stiffened, reaching Ryan for its first sack of the day, followed by its first interception then a Ryan fumble on a perfect snap from center Todd McClure. 

Ryan still finished the game with a performance that should shake the playoff choker image, completing 30 of 42 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns in the Falcons 28-24 loss to the Niners.

After the Niners took their first lead of the game at 8:23 of the fourth quarter, Ryan drove Atlanta 70 yards on 14 plays to the San Francisco 10, converting three third downs and putting the Falcons on the cusp of victory.

But Ryan's fourth-down pass to Roddy White was ruled incomplete despite what some said was pass interference by Navorro Bowman, the Niners linebacker.

Of course, had Atlanta's defense showed up beyond the first half that repeat last-minute drive would not have been necessary.

Atlanta's defense, which limited quarterback Colin Kaepernick to two three-and-outs in the first quarter, then gave up three straight scoring drives to the Niners, allowing the second-year quarterback to gain confidence and yardage and get his team back in the game.

Kaepernick only threw one touchdown pass, but completed 16-of-21 passes for 233 yards.

As the game wore on San Francisco's running game also picked up the pace with Frank Gore averaging 90 yards on 21 carries and the team gaining 141 yards against the Falcons. 

The Falcons, who sacked Kaepernick twice in the early going, began to lose steam, failing to pressure him and missing tackles as Gore and a stable of running backs started to chew up yardage and the clock into the third and fourth quarters.

In the end, the No. 4-ranked defense during the NFL regular season proved to much for the Falcons, but not because Ryan was not up to the task. Because his defense could not hold up its part of the bargain.

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