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Falcons can finally exhale

ATLANTA -- When Mary didn't answer Seattle's call, when the Atlanta Falcons held on to finally win their first playoff game of the Mike Smith-Thomas Dimitroff-Matt Ryan era, Smith raised both fists in the air, turned back toward his team -- and blankly stared.

For just a moment, Smith looked emotionally spent, stunned even. It hadn't been pretty, but it had been in typical Falcons, come-from-behind form.

Atlanta 30, Seattle 28.

It was an unbelievably compelling weekend of football. All four games were entertaining. One went to overtime. Another came down to the final minute. And three teams that played for conference championships advanced again: New England, Baltimore and San Francisco.

The Falcons are moving on to the NFC title game, and just like that, a coach and quarterback who couldn't win in the postseason in three previous tries are now 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. In a remarkable game that they almost blew, the Falcons changed their narrative and now will be playing at home next Sunday against the 49ers, who crushed Green Bay, 45-31, on Saturday night.

The moment and the accomplishment of surviving to beat Seattle weren't lost on Smith. It is why first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter gave Smith a bear hug as Smith turned to go shake Seattle coach Pete Carroll's hand. This was a huge deal for Smith, for the Falcons' organization he has successfully led since 2008 and for an owner who desperately wants to win a championship.

The win meant so much to Falcons owner Arthur Blank that he wept. Blank hit on his general manager and head coach in 2008, and they, in turn, hit on Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft a few months later. Dimitroff and Smith have steadily built the Falcons into the most consistent team in the NFC. In the past five seasons, only the New England Patriots have had more wins than the Falcons.

But that postseason record had become a problem. An 0-4 record, particularly after taking a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter against the Seahawks, would have created an untenable situation. Heads probably would not have rolled, but who is to say? At the very least, Blank would have made everyone uncomfortable, and no one wanted that; not the general manager and certainly not the coach.

"I feel like I feel after every game," Smith said standing in his office inside the Falcons locker room 20 minutes after the game ended. "You just feel that you accomplished something. Every time you go out, you're judged. You only get so many opportunities. We know that ultimately we're going to be judged in the second season, when we've had the [regular-season] success we've had. We were able to get that done today. I'm really happy for Matt."

Typical "Smitty," Ryan said of his coach's habit of deflecting credit or attention.

Smith had his team ready. Last week, he called them "loose" and said he didn't think that his players would be tense given the magnitude of the situation. During a telephone conversation on Friday, Smith sounded relaxed and was chatty, talking about football philosophy and how defensive coaches will spend this offseason devising ways to defend the read option.

Smith said he had kept the week "as close to a normal prep week as you can have" and said his players were "excited to get ready to go out and compete."

If Smith had allowed his mind to wander to just how he would feel with his first postseason W under his belt, he would not say.

"My thought process with my brain is the same preparation that you go through each and every week," Smith said. "That's how I'm wired. Here's the time we're kicking off, let's go through it. I haven't thought about the outcome. I know this: I know our guys have had that same mindset as well."

The Falcons played nearly flawless football first half and led 20-0.

In the second half, Seattle regrouped behind Wilson's superb play. With 31 seconds left in the game, Seattle took a 28-27 lead, and the Georgia Dome fell silent.

Wearing a deep red blazer and grey slacks, Blank was on the sideline by then. Smith paced the sidelines, but was confident in his preparation. During the bye week, then again twice last week, the Falcons practiced for special situations. This was one. Smith knew if the offensive line could protect Ryan, Ryan could move the Falcons down field like he had 21 times previously in his career.

This franchise might have failed in the postseason under Smith and Ryan, but it had thrived in pressure situations late in games. Ryan showed in his rookie year he could orchestrate fourth-quarter, game-winning comebacks. He had five this season alone.

Before the game-winning drive against Seattle, Ryan looked into the huddle and said, "We're going to make some plays, and we're going to score."

Ryan's first pass went to Harry Douglas for 22 yards. The next went to Tony Gonzalez, who was matched against a linebacker, a matchup Gonzalez usually wins and did for a 19-yard gain.

When Matt Bryant crushed a 49-yard field goal, Smith's program was validated.

"I think it's huge for Smitty," Ryan said. "For a guy that's so consistent day in and day out, he doesn't go seeking media stuff, he's not out there, so people don't really get a great feel for what he's like. But with us he's been so consistent for five years, and we know we haven't played our best football at this time the last couple of times we've been there, but it wasn't a result of what he's done. He's always put us in good positions. We just haven't executed. So to be able to get that done for him feels pretty good."

The Falcons were going to celebrate this one Sunday night, but there was work to be done. Smith said that the game provided him with "a great teaching tool and learning tool for us" as they prepare for San Francisco.

"We're not satisfied at all," Smith said. "Really, we feel like we have lots of things we can correct. This was a tale of two halves. As well as we played in the first half, the second half was almost 180 degrees the opposite direction."

A postseason win was a postseason win, but Smith wasn't kidding himself. The goal is to get another, then another, and the Falcons will have to play a lot better against San Francisco to keep their postseason alive.