ATLANTA – Matt Ryan masterfully delivered the death blow, foiling the Baltimore Ravens’ dramatic comeback attempt with one last painful cut executed with his scalpel of a right arm.
Ryan rolled out to his left and lobbed the game-winning touchdown pass to Roddy White in the final minute, capitalizing on cornerback Josh Wilson stumbling to the ground after being shoved to the ground during a controversial exchange with the Atlanta Falcons’ star wide receiver.
Wilson was helpless to stop White from dashing into the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown as the Falcons finally put away a scrappy Ravens team that nearly erased a big deficit in the second half.
"This one is hard to take," offensive tackle Michael Oher said. "This one hurts the most."
The Ravens absorbed a heartbreaking 26-21 defeat despite three touchdown passes in the second half from quarterback Joe Flacco following an ineffectual start and an interception early in the third quarter.
Ryan improved to 18-1all-time at the Georgia Dome.
He outdueled his fellow rookie class member Flacco by completing 32 of 50 passes for 316 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 101.8 passer rating.
"We let them off the hook," free safety Ed Reed said. "We let them off the hook."
A furious Wilson bashed his fists into the turf and lobbied an official for an offensive pass interference call to no avail.
"I just asked him if anything happened," Wilson said. "He didn’t say nothing."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh declined to elaborate on what happened during the play where White appeared to push off and sent Wilson flailing to the ground.
"Yeah, I saw it," Harbaugh said. "I’m not going to give an opinion on it because I think all you guys saw it and can make your own opinion. We were fighting like crazy to try to cover him and try to get there and get him stopped."
Harbaugh also had no interest in discussing a 24-yard Ryan completion to wide receiver Michael Jenkins that was reviewed by instant replay with the catch upheld after officials determined that he got both feet in bounds.
Five plays later, Ryan won the game on his 52nd throw of the night.
"I’m not going to comment on that stuff," Harbaugh said. "They’re in the booth and they do the best they can. They make the decisions they make and that’s that."
Despite entering the game with a supposedly gimpy knee, White wound up catching a game-high 12 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
Flacco’s nine-yard touchdown pass with just over one minute remaining in the fourth quarter staked the Ravens to their only lead of the game after falling behind 13-0 in the third quarter and 20-7 in the fourth quarter.
The Ravens’ towering quarterback calmly uncorked a perfect strike to tight end Todd Heap over the middle for a brief lead.
Ryan immediately answered, though, with an outstanding drive of his own to put the game away. He marched the Falcons 80 yards in seven plays and 45 seconds to win the game.
"They did a good job," Flacco said. "Matt did a great job the whole game of leading those guys down. We left them a little too much time. We really came alive at the end."
The Ravens (6-3) fell to the Falcons (7-2) as they struggled in time of possession with Atlanta holding the ball for 35:09 to their 24:51.
Atlanta improved to 5-0 at home this season.
"It was a hard-fought game," Harbaugh said. "It was exciting to play against a playoff-caliber football team. I like the way our guys fought and fought back from a second half deficit. We’re obviously disappointed with the outcome."
It was trademark poise from Flacco in the second half after a slow start.
He connected with Heap, Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason for touchdown passes.
"Obviously, we were excited," Flacco said. "Our emotions were pretty high when we scored."
The Ravens got off to a painfully slow start, though.
Dominating time of possession and the air behind Ryan’s precision, the Falcons built a 10-0 halftime lead.
"We didn’t have the ball a whole lot in the first half," Flacco said. "They did a good job finishing drives and keeping the ball away from us."
To the Ravens, it probably felt like a much larger margin.
They never even crossed midfield, playing the entire first half on their side of the 50-yard line.
"We had to fight an uphill battle," said Mason, who said he broke his surgically repaired right pinkie finger. "We have to start coming out and playing a little bit faster. Atlanta is a very good team and we can’t get caught in situations like this anymore."
The Falcons gained a dozen first downs in the first half. Conversely, the Ravens could only manage four of their own.
The Falcons piled up 184 yards of total offense. The Ravens mustered only 76 yards in the first half.
It was Ryan who spearheaded the Falcons’ cause. He carved up the Ravens’ secondary, in the first half completing 20 of 28 passes for 160 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 97.3 passer rating.
Flacco wasn’t nearly as prolific or effective, completing 5 of 8 passes for 31 yards. He was rarely on the field, though, because of the Falcons’ commanding time of possession advantage.
The Falcons held the football for a staggering 21 minutes and 14 seconds to the Ravens’ eight minutes and 29 seconds. Although the Ravens shut down bruising Falcons running back Michael Turner as they limited him to only 39 yards on 17 carries, they had no answers for Ryan.
In the first half, he distributed the football to seven different receivers. Although White was questionable on the final injury report, he wound up catching six of seven passes thrown in his direction in the first half.
The Falcons struck first in the second quarter, marching 14 plays for 91 yards.
The Ravens looked dazed and confused during this sequence.
Backup running back Jason Snelling spun out of the backfield on a short pass route to the flat. He was all by himself as the Ravens neglected to cover him. Snelling hauled in a pass from Ryan and steamrolled through strong safety Dawan Landry.
It was an extremely poor effort by Landry. He went low to try to bring down Snelling, and got trucked as the former University of Virginia standout dragged him as he busted into the end zone.
"I didn’t get a good wrap on him," Landry said.
The touchdown staked the Falcons to a 7-0 lead.
They weren’t done, and the Ravens weren’t done committing miscues.
Punt returner Lardarius Webb lost a fumble when Brian Finneran ripped it out of his hands and Coy Wire recovered. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was flagged for an illegal block, but the penalty was declined and the Falcons took possession.
"I fumbled, man," Webb said. "I played bad."
Although the Falcons didn’t capitalize on this turnover, they did manage to score once more before the half ended.
With Ryan orchestrating the offense, the Falcons worked the clock and slowly got into prime scoring position with the drive boosted by a flagrant illegal contact penalty by Ellerbe when he grabbed tight end Tony Gonzalez’s jersey.
Plus, Ryan scrambled for a first down.
Four plays later, Bryant connected on a 28-yard chip shot for Atlanta to go up 10-0 at halftime.
"I thought Matt played well," Harbaugh said. "I thought Joe matched him at the end there. That’s going to be a team to be reckoned with for the rest of the season."
The Ravens endured some pain, too.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis sprained his right foot on the first series of the game, but returned.
And Reed seemed to hurt his knee or leg when he landed awkwardly while trying to tackle Ryan in the first half.
"Yeah, I’ve been hobbled a bit ever since I returned to the game this year," said Reed, who underwent offseason hip surgery.
In particular, the Falcons were effective on third downs as they converted 12 of 20 of them.
Ryan made sound decisions and distributed the football where he needed it to go.
Sacked twice by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, Ryan seemed immune to pressure as he orchestrated the no-huddle offense.
"We knew they would do that," Suggs said. "We adjusted to that and a lot of what they did, but we didn’t do enough to win."
Flacco completed 22 of 34 passes for 215 yards, three touchdowns and one interception for a 99.5 passer rating.
He was picked off by cornerback Brent Grimes in the third quarter when he forced the ball into heavy coverage while trying to find T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Flacco hadn’t been intercepted in his previous 137 throws.
However, Flacco rebounded by completing 6 of 7 throws for 60 yards and capped a drive with a six-yard touchdown pass with 5:42 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"We really came alive at the end of the game, but it wasn’t enough," Flacco said. "You think it’s your game to have, and you think it’s kind of over, but it didn’t work out that way."
The game ended after Flacco hit Houshmandzadeh for a reception, but an attempt to lateral the ball was fumbled out of bounds.
The Ravens hadn’t lost a game since an Oct. 17 overtime loss to the New England Patriots.
"This is one of those ones where you look at the film and you say, ‘Look how bad we played and we were still right there with a good team,’" running back Ray Rice said. "We’ve just got to start faster."
Now, the Ravens will get the weekend off to regroup before getting ready for next week’s road game against the Carolina Panthers.
"It’s a devastating one," Heap said, "but it’s not going to affect the morale of this team."