SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Late in the second quarter of Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Falcons were losing 10-3, with the momentum in the 49ers' favor. The Falcons had already missed a golden opportunity to score points on their first drive of the game, failing to convert on the one-yard-line after forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff.
And in a game with significant playoff implications, the Falcons could not afford to fall behind.
On first down at San Francisco's twenty-yard line, Matt Ryan launched the ball downfield to Russell Gage. Gage wasn't exactly open; it was one of those 50/50 balls that seem to stay in the air forever, where the best athlete often wins, the kind of play that Randy Moss' last name became a verb for.
Gage went up and snagged the ball – a play worthy of making SportsCenter's top ten plays or ESPN's "You got Mossed" segment – over the outstretched white gloves of 49ers defensive back Ambry Thomas.
Gage celebrated by flexing and tapping his head to signify how he caught the ball on top of Ward. The play was not one that Gage typically makes. He has made a name for himself for being a route runner, fooling defensive backs with sharp cuts and crips routes. That touchdown was a different kind of highlight for him and one of his favorite moments of his career.
"It was definitely top five," Gage said of where the play ranks in the best plays of his career. "It felt good."
It was the play the Falcons needed. Points they had to secure to keep pace in the most important game of the season, and Gage stepped up. The touchdown silenced the crowd at Levi's Stadium, and the Falcons were back in the game. Their playoff chances still in sight.
"That brings energy to the team, and that was a heck of a catch," Duron Harmon said. "He had two heck of a catches when he went up there and got the ball today. It's good to see Russ steadily improving, getting more and more comfortable, and each week he comes up with a big catch every week."
But the momentum stopped there.
The Falcons' offense struggled to move the ball down the field, and Ryan was constantly under pressure, sacked three times on the day, including a strip-sack, in the Falcons 31-13 loss. Gage was a bright spot in the offense – along with Kyle Pitts, who had multiple big catches late in the game. Gage finished with eight catches, 91 yards, and a touchdown, including another "You got Mossed" worthy catch later in the game.
Sunday's performance continued a stretch of standout performances for Gage. He has caught at least six receptions and had over 60 yards in his last four games, including the best receiving game of his career, where he reeled in eleven catches for 130 yards against the Buccaneers, both career bests.
The season has not been all smooth sailing for Gage, however.
With Julio Jones traded in the offseason, many expected Gage to have a breakout year. In his first game, however, he didn't catch a pass, and then two weeks later he suffered a high ankle sprain forcing him to miss three games.
When Gage returned, the ups and downs continued.
He finished without a reception in two of the following four games, including one without a target.
But now, in the final stretch of the season, the tide has turned for Gage. He has become a go to target for Ryan and he has evolved into one of the Falcons' most consistent offensive weapons.
"I understand I play a big role in this offense," Gage said. "... So my confidence is already there. I'm just thinking about how we can win."
Falcons Final Whistle | A Postgame Podcast
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Welcome to Falcons Final Whistle – an Atlanta Falcons football postgame podcast during the season that shifts gears in the offseason to answer a pressing question about the team's future each week through free agency, the NFL Draft and the offseason program.