From Jon Wagner / SNYGiants columnist
One decade after being a rookie a kicker right in the middle of perhaps the most excruciating defeat in New York Giants history, kicker Matt Bryant was handed a fortunate reprieve on Sunday afternoon and became an instant hero.
Bryant responded by saving the Atlanta Falcons from being ridiculed as the worst chokers in recent NFL playoff history.
Taking full advantage of a blunder by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who negated Bryant’s 49-yard miss with an ill-advised time out, Bryant booted a game-winning kick from the same distance as time expired, to give the Falcons a thrilling 30-28 victory and a trip to next week’s NFC title game, interestingly against the San Francisco 49ers.
The irony in facing that particular opponent is that the former undrafted kicker out of Baylor who began his career in 1999 with the arena league Barnstormers (made famous by another ex-Giant, quarterback Kurt Warner) and then NFL Europe’s Frankfurt Galaxy, was in his first year in the NFL while trying to kick the Giants past the 49ers and into the NFC championship game in San Francisco back on January 5, 2003.
That game never should have come down to a potential game-winning kick as the Falcons’ win over the Seahawks did.
The Giants were coasting with a 38-14 lead late in the third quarter, but 25 straight 49er points later, San Francisco had remarkably gone up 39-38.
With just over three minutes remaining, Bryant had a chance to give the Giants a 41-33 lead on a 42-yard field goal, but long snapper Trey Junkin, who at just 18 days away from his 42nd birthday at the time, was having trouble getting a clean snaps to holder Matt Allen, who happened to play for the Falcons in the preseason that year.
A bad snap by Junkin threw Bryant’s timing off, causing him to miss the kick. The 49ers went 76 yards in just 1:56 after that to take the lead for good, even though the Giants very nearly gave Bryant one last chance at winning the game.
New York got a 33-yard return on a short kickoff and moved to the 49ers’ 23-yard line. But, once again, Junkin botched the snap, leaving Allen to throw a desperation heave downfield to offensive lineman Rich Seubert, who was flagged for being an illegal man downfield.
What the referees ignored was that Seubert was mauled before the ball arrived, and the offsetting penalties that weren’t called would have allowed Bryant yet another chance that never came. The NFL later admitted that it blew the call, something that didn’t help the Giants at all.
Since that time, after bouncing around between Dallas, Indianapolis and Miami in 2004, Tampa Bay (2005-2008), the UFL’s Florida Tuskers in 2009, and finally to Atlanta later that same year, where he has remained, Bryant had waited his whole career to reach the stage he’s at now, just a game from the Super Bowl.
He didn’t have any field goal attempts in Tampa Bay’s 24-14 wild-card loss that spawned the Giants’ unlikely march to s Super Bowl victory five years ago, nor in the Falcons’ 48-21 home divisional playoff loss that sparked Green Bay’s equally surprising run to its own Super Bowl title two years ago, nor in Atlanta’s 24-2 wild-card loss in New York last year, which again started the Giants on their way to another NFL title.
Last year, Bryant was a very accurate 27-for-29, and in his 11th year this season, he’s 36-for-41, including a perfect 2-for-2 in the Falcons’ 34-0 thrashing of the Giants Week 15, and making all three kicks to beat Seattle on Sunday — that is, once Carroll allowed Bryant the opportunity to avoid the biggest miss of the Falcons’ season.
For foolish reasons, icing the kicker has become a popular last-second thing to do among NFL head coaches over the past few years.
The idea, of course, is to discount a made kick with the hopes that the second one would be missed. But, all too often, as it did with Carroll in Atlanta, that strategy has backfired, wiping out a miss while opening the door to lose on a made kick as the Seahawks did.
Like most NBA players who’ll make a second free throw after a miss, NFL kickers are too generally too good to miss twice in a row from a makeable distance, which makes the approach of using the late time out, often too risky to try. And yet, in the copy-cat NFL, coaches continue to employ that practice at the ends of games.
Sure enough, after Carroll’s time out, Bryant, lined up down the middle, between the hash marks, and pushed his first attempt at a game-winner wide to the right. But, with a Carroll-induced clean slate, Bryant easily made his next kick to touch off a celebration throughout the Georgia Dome.
The alternative would have been tough for the Falcons to take.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has earned the nickname “Matty Ice” for being cool under pressure while leading Atlanta to many regular season victories in the final moments, but until Bryant put the stamp on Ryan’s latest occurrence of last-minute heorics, Ryan, head coach Mike Smith, and the rest of the Falcons would have simply been labeled underachievers even more than they already had been, after several years of coming up short in the postseason despite having good regular seasons.
Only this time, it would have been far worse, as the fifth-seeded Seahawks, behind rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, erased a 20-0 halftime deficit to lead the top-seeded Falcons, 28-27, with just 31 seconds left. The 49ers’ win over the Giants and Buffalo’s rally from 32 points down to beat Houston (in 1992) would have been the only NFL postseason comebacks to surpass what Bryant kept Seattle from completing.
Ryan, however, took the Falcons 41 yards on just two passes to get Bryant in range for the win.
And, thanks to Carroll, Bryant was able to, in a sense, come full circle – from being a part of the Giants’ heartbreaking loss in San Francisco, to joining the Falcons for their playoff loss to the Giants last year, to weeks later, seeing New York reach another Super Bowl on an overtime kick (by Lawrence Tynes), ironically in San Francisco, to now facing the 49ers again next week.
Wouldn’t it be fitting again, if in that game, Bryant reaches his first Super Bowl on a kick to beat the 49ers?
Photo credit: Jack Gruber, USA TODAY