By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Matt Ryan hardly resembled a quarterback who can’t win the big games.
No, this looked more like an MVP.
Returning to the postseason for the first time in four years, Ryan threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Atlanta Falcons past the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 in the divisional round Saturday.
The Falcons are headed to the NFC championship game for only the fourth time in their 51-year history, and they’re on quite a roll with Matty Ice at the helm.
He finished up to chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP” from a raucous Georgia Dome crowd that gave the Seahawks a dose of what it’s like for opposing teams at CenturyLink Field.
“It was pretty cool considering the circumstances, too, with the game in hand,” Ryan said. “That’s got to be as loud as it’s ever been in here.”
Ryan turned in another dynamic performance in the best season of his career, shaking off a 1-4 record in his previous playoff appearances.
In an interesting twist, his lone postseason victory before Saturday was a 30-28 thriller over the Seahawks in the divisional round of the 2012 season.
Make it 2-0 over Seattle.
After the Seahawks zipped down the field for a touchdown on the opening possession, Atlanta’s young defense largely shut down Russell Wilson & Co. the rest of the way.
Ryan and the high-scoring Falcons took it from there — getting a huge boost from a holding penalty that wiped out an 80-yard punt return by Devin Hester.
Ryan hooked up with Julio Jones on a 7-yard touchdown and Tevin Coleman for a 14-yard score before finishing off the Seahawks with a 3-yard toss to Mohamed Sanu in the corner of the end zone with just under 4 minutes remaining.
Atlanta (12-5) moves on to face either the Dallas Cowboys or the Green Bay Packers, who meet Sunday in the NFC’s other divisional-round game.
After a 26-24 loss at Seattle during the regular season, the Falcons showed off all their offensive weapons against the Legion of Boom.
Eight players caught passes from Ryan, including running back Devonta Freeman on a 53-yard play that included a dazzling fake on replacement free safety Steven Terrell right in the middle of the field.
The Seahawks (11-6-1) sure missed Earl Thomas, out for the season with a broken leg.
“It’s just really hard to think it’s over,” said coach Pete Carroll, whose team couldn’t follow up a dominating win over Detroit in the opening round.
The game turned dramatically on a holding penalty in the second quarter that negated Hester’s return to the Atlanta 7.
Instead of having first-and-goal and a chance to extend a 10-7 lead, Seattle was backed up to its 7.
“Just a ridiculously large play in the game,” Carroll said.
Especially with what came next. After Thomas Rawls was thrown for a 3-yard loss, Wilson dropped back to pass. One problem: rookie right guard Rees Odhiambo, taking over after Germain Ifedi was injured, stepped back onto Wilson’s foot, sending the quarterback tumbling down in the end zone for a safety.
The Falcons did much better when backed up at their 1, closing out the first half by going 99 yards to make it 19-10. The drive was extended by Sanu’s brilliant, one-handed catch for 22 yards with Jeremy Lane grabbing at his arm.
“They’ve got a lot of momentum,” Carroll said of the Falcons. “This is what they looked like the last four weeks, and they carried that into this game against us.”
With 2 minutes to go, the Falcons had first-and-goal at the Seattle 2.
But Falcons coach Dan Quinn called for Ryan to take a knee, not wanting to pile it on against the team he previously worked for as defensive coordinator.
“It was a very classy way to end the game,” Carroll said. “I thought it was just another great statement on what a great dude he is and what a great coach he is and what a great job he is doing.”
Added Quinn: “I likely would’ve done it other times, but especially with my respect for him.”
Facing his former team, Hester certainly had quite an impact on special teams.
Even though his longest play was wiped out, he had five kickoff returns for 194 yards, including a 78-yarder.
Hester, who played for the Falcons in 2014 and ’15, signed with the Seahawks just before the playoffs.
The Seahawks lost cornerback DeShawn Shead to what looks like a serious left knee injury. He may have torn his ACL, according to Carroll.
Seattle’s tight ends also took a beating. Brandon Williams went out with a concussion, and Luke Willson was evaluated for a possible concussion.
The Falcons lost defensive end Adrian Clayborn with a biceps injury on Seattle’s opening drive.
If Green Bay upsets the Cowboys, the NFC championship game would be next weekend at the Georgia Dome, extending the 25-year-old stadium’s tenure one more game.
The Falcons are moving to $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
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