Sports

December 23, 2012

Falcons clinch home-field advantage with win vs. Lions

DETROIT — Matt Ryan got what he wanted.

Calvin Johnson was forced to settle for what he could get.

Ryan matched a career high with four touchdown passes, two to Roddy White, to help the Atlanta Falcons beat the Detroit Lions 31-18 Saturday night and earn home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

“It’s great,” Ryan said. “Our confidence is high and our experience — good and bad — has helped us. The key is to keep the focus where it’s been.”

In yet another loss, Johnson had a record-breaking night.

Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s NFL single-season yards receiving mark of 1,848. After making the record-breaking catch in the fourth quarter, Johnson jogged over to the sideline and handed the football to his father.

“That was a very special moment,” he said.

Johnson also became the only player with 100 yards receiving in eight straight games and the first with 10 receptions in four games in a row in league history. He had 11 receptions for 225 yards, giving him 1,892 this season.

“I’ve been an NFL fan my whole life, dating back to watching Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry as a kid, and I’ve coached in this league for 19 years,” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. “I’ve seen a lot of Hall of Famers, but I’ve never seen a better player than Calvin Johnson.

“He just broke a record set by Jerry Rice, who is arguably the best player in this history of this league.”

The Falcons (13-2) pulled away with Ryan’s fourth TD pass to wide-open tight end Michael Palmer in the fourth quarter and Matt Bryant’s 20-yard field goal with 3:05 left that gave them a 15-point lead.

Ryan was 25 of 32 for 279 yards without a turnover.

The Falcons hope playing at home, potentially throughout the conference playoffs, helps them more than it did after the 2010 and 1980 seasons. The Falcons failed to win a game in either postseason, getting routed by Green Bay two years ago and blowing a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead to Dallas three decades ago.

Atlanta advanced to its only Super Bowl with a win at Minnesota after winning a franchise-record 14 games during the 1998 season.

The Falcons won’t have much incentive to match that mark next week at home against Tampa Bay, when they’ll have nothing to gain and something to lose if a key player or more gets hurt.

Detroit (4-11) has been relegated to playing for pride this month and that hasn’t been going very well.

The Lions, whose seven-game losing streak is the longest skid in the league, haven’t struggled this much since the laughingstock of a franchise became the league’s first to go 0-16 in 2008.

The Falcons led 21-3 at halftime before letting the Lions pull within five points early in the fourth quarter.

Ryan dashed Detroit’s comeback hopes.

Facing intense pressure, he converted a third down in Atlanta territory with a pass to White, picked on rookie cornerback Jonte Green by throwing to Jones to pick up more first downs and found Tony Gonzalez open to convert another third down to set up his fourth TD pass.

“We didn’t play well in the third quarter,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “Matt made some big throws on that drive.”

Stafford was clearly trying to get the ball to Johnson on the next drive and cornerback Asante Samuel figured that out, stepping in front of the receiver for an interception to set up Bryant’s field goal.

Atlanta running back Michael Turner was tackled in the end zone, after Detroit turned the ball over on downs, to give the Lions two meaningless points.

Ryan went deep to White for the first score, connecting with him on a 44-yard TD strike with 5:50 left in the first quarter. Ryan threw a short pass to him early in the second quarter and the standout receiver did the rest on a 39-yard sprint down the sideline.

Ryan put his third TD pass where only Julio Jones could catch it a corner of the end zone, and he did on a 16-yard reception that put Atlanta up 21-3.

Detroit didn’t give up, a game after being accused of doing just that in a 38-10 loss at Arizona.

Jason Hanson kicked a second field goal late in the first half to make it 21-6.

After Atlanta opened the second half with a three-and-out drive, Mikel Leshoure scored on a 1-yard run midway through the third quarter to pull the Lions with eight points.

Hanson’s third field goal made it 21-16.

Stafford finished 37 of 56 for 443 yards with an interception and the Lions say he set an NFL record for the most yards passing in a game without throwing a TD pass.

Detroit dug a big hole because the Falcons scored two TDs off turnovers in the first half.

Defensive end Kroy Biermann forced running Leshoure to fumble, giving the Falcons the ball at their 31 and they took advantage. Ryan’s perfectly lofted pass to White’s fingertips converted a third-and-1 in a big way, putting the Falcons ahead.

The Lions responded with another drive into Atlanta territory, but stalled and had to settle for Hanson’s 34-yard field goal in the final minute of the opening quarter to pull within four points.

Atlanta earned a double-digit lead on the ensuing drive.

Ryan threw a screen pass to his left to White, who got a great block from tight end Gonzalez, and the receiver raced untouched for a score that put the Falcons ahead 14-3.

White finished with eight receptions for 153 yards and two TDs. Jones had seven receptions for 71 yards and a score.

Ryan completed his first 12 attempts and, after his first incomplete pass, he converted a third-and-10 with an 11-yard toss to Jacquizz Rodgers. Two plays later, Ryan matched a season high with a third TD pass on the connection with Jones. Prior to the game, Ryan hadn’t started a game with more than 10 consecutive completions, according to STATS LLC. He started 10 for 10 last month against Tampa Bay.

Johnson had three receptions for 70 yards in the first quarter, breaking Herman Moore’s single-season franchise record for yards receiving.

By halftime, Johnson had 117 yards receiving. He had 100 yards receiving for an eighth straight game, breaking a record set by Charley Hennigan in 1961 and matched by Michael Irvin in 1995. It was Johnson’s 11th game with 100 yards receiving this season, tying Irvin’s NFL mark.

“Calvin is one of the best players in the game and I think everybody is a big fan of his,” Ryan said. “He’s one of the most genuinely nice people you could meet.”

Stafford connected with Johnson on a short crossing route and the receiver did the rest, outrunning Falcons on a 49-yard gain. Fittingly, the Lions turned the ball over on the next snap in the latest lowlight in a season full of them.

The Lions, Falcons and fans at Ford Field in Detroit honored the victims of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School before the game. Players had memorial decals on their helmets that read “S.H.E.S.” in white on a black background, and Detroit’s coaches wore pins with a similar design. There was also a moment of silence before the national anthem while the names and ages of each victim were shown on the videoboards. Twenty children and six adults were killed in the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza killed his mother, shot students and staff, then killed himself.

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