ATLANTA- When you're down a single point with 59 seconds to play, 99 yards from the end zone and out of timeouts, even the matrix-like complexities of professional football can become remarkably simple.
Just ask Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, who faced just such an obstacle Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers.
Down 28-27 with one tick under a minute to play inside their Georgia Dome home, White and the rest of the Falcons offense huddled around quarterback Matt Ryan, hoping he had at least one silver bullet left in his holster.
"Matt said he was just going to throw it up there and [we should] try to make a play," White said of the receivers. "'Just go up and get it,' he said."
Because the boss, um, quarterback is always right, White raced down the right sideline as Ryan waited as long as he could, then threw the football as far as he could, more than 60 yards in the air - a high, hanging rainbow in search of golden hands.
"I saw it in the air, then I heard the crowd," said Falcons center Todd McClure, whose perfect blocks on the play allowed Ryan to avoid being sacked for the eighth time this day.
"I figured we'd made a great catch. Maybe the best non-touchdown pass I can remember around here."
Indeed, somehow, some way, the veteran White became the football version of that basketball guy who used to be known as the Human Highlight Film around the Big Peach, one Dominique Wilkins.
Grabbing the pass at least nine feet above the turf, he outdueled the Panthers' Josh Norman for the ball, then crash-landed at the Panthers 40.
"You're trying to track the ball at its highest point," said White as he described his mental preparation on such a play. "We want to jump before the defender does. I could see as it started coming down that it was a catchable ball."
How fast can expectations change?
As White walked onto the field, the Falcons 99 yards from victory, he remembered thinking that he and his teammates were about to lose their first game of the season.
After his catch?
"I knew we just needed 10 or 15 more yards to kick a field goal and win this thing."
And that's just what happened. Two passes to Julio Jones fell incomplete, but Carolina was whistled for pass interference on the second, which gave Atlanta a first down at the Panthers 35 with 19 seconds on the clock.
Ryan then hit tight end Tony Gonzalez for seven yards before he ran out of bounds. Matty Ice connected with Harry Douglas for six more yards before he ran out of bounds on the next down, stopping the clock with 10 seconds left and setting up Matt Bryant's 40-yard field goal attempt.
The Panthers burned their last time out a half-second before Bryant booted a kick that wouldn't count down the middle. His second, official kick was just as clean.
Ninety-nine yards and 59 seconds from defeat, the Falcons now stood 4-0 heading into next weekend's trip to Washington, D.C.
"In terms of our play, we've got a lot of improving to do," said Ryan. "We made a lot of mistakes today, but we made enough big plays to win."
Every team makes mistakes. The best teams, the teams eventually branded special overcome them. Then there are teams like the Panthers, now 1-3 on the year, who seem to be flattened by them.
Carolina's second-year quarterback Cam Newton made just such a play two plays before Ryan found White. The former Auburn QB and 2010 Heisman Trophy winner fumbled on a run that would have given Carolina a game-clinching first down.
"I failed," he said afterward. "I dropped the ball."
The thing is, the Falcons offensive line failed at least seven times on Ryan sacks. Ryan threw one more touchdown than Newton, but he also threw one more interception. The Panthers rushed for 78 more yards than Atlanta, but couldn't hold onto the football on the yard they needed most.
A stunning stat four games into this Falcons season: When the Panthers scored first, it was the first time all season Atlanta had trailed on the scoreboard.
"We weren't naïve enough to think we would play every game with the lead," said a smiling Atlanta coach Mike Smith. "But it's nice to know we can handle the ebbs and flows of an NFL football game."
As Newton wrapped up his postgame remarks, he said of the game's final, crazy minute: "Everybody knows the game does not come down to one play, but one play can open opportunities to win the game."
Especially when you've got talents such as Ryan and White to capitalize on those opportunities when it matters most.
Email Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org