Matt Bryant and Matt Ryan have firmly established themselves as fourth-quarter players. Their resume of late-game heroics, comebacks and game winners is long.
But the Falcons have a guy on defense that is good with the game on the line as well, and he showed that in Sunday's win over the Raiders.
Cornerback Asante Samuel arrived in Atlanta with a brash style and an expectation to help turn the Falcons defense into one with attitude and a flair for making a play. His influence was noticed immediately once the season began, but he'd been a bit quiet with the play making of his own.
With the game on the line and the Raiders driving for a go-ahead score, Samuel took things into his own hands and stepped in front of a Carson Palmer pass and took it to the house. Interception. Pick six. One of the most exciting plays in football.
It was Samuel's first interception as a member of the Falcons, but far, far from his first. His 46 career interceptions is fourth among active players and he is ranked 16th in league history with six interceptions returned for touchdowns. To articulate how clutch Samuel is, add in his playoff record. With his four playoff interception returns for touchdowns he ranks fifth in NFL history.
One of the guys that Samuel has picked on during his career is Ryan. Atlanta's QB was vocal about his relief when Samuel joined his sideline. On Sunday, he reiterated what kind of player Samuel is and his value to the Falcons.
"I've seen plays like that develop all too much on the practice field and in game situations the past couple of years having played against him," Ryan said. "He's a great, he really is. He got a great jump on the ball. His timing on breaking on routes is as good as anybody I've ever seen. It was a huge play for us at the time; it put us ahead with the clock winding down towards the end of the game. I'm happy for him. He works extremely hard, he's a great teammate and that was a huge play."
Sunday's pick was Samuel's ninth in the fourth quarter with his team winning or losing by seven points or less. Samuel's teams are 37-7 when he records an interception and 27-1 at home with an interception.
Samuel's reputation preceded him on his way to Atlanta. His teammates were beginning to give him a hard time about his lack of returns for touchdowns. While he's played well for the Falcons this season, a big part of a vastly improved pass defense, the big play was still waiting in the wings. Fortunately for everyone, he picked a fine time to introduce Atlanta to the sight of No. 22 racing down the sideline, ball in hand.
"It was about time," John Abraham said. "We've played six games, and that's what we expect him to do every game. I told him before the game, 'It's about time for you to get a pick, right?' We really needed that turnover in that point of the game, and it was the deciding factor in getting the win."