It was the waning seconds of the third quarter in Sunday night’s marquee game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Atlanta Falcons were on the move. They’d controlled Philly in much the same way a five-year-old controls a three-year-old — with brute force and little finesse — but now, they had a chance to crack it open.
Ito Smith had just carved out a jagged 28-yard run through the heart of the Philly defense, the kind of run that breaks spirits as well as ankles. And now Matt Ryan was set up at the Eagles 8, a Vegas buffet of weapons at his disposal. All he had to do was find one man open amongst his array of legends and Pro Bowlers. He took the snap, stepped back, fired …
… and zipped the ball right into the hands of Philly’s Nate Gerry, who stood waiting in the end zone like he was the open man.
It was the summation of Matt Ryan’s career — indeed, that of the Falcons under his tenure — a rousing, well-orchestrated game plan that somehow manages to go south — and not in a good way — at the very last instant.
Julio Jones bailed out Ryan a few minutes later, running a fishhook route and taking advantage of a crushing Jake Matthews block to score what would end up the winning touchdown. But the 24-20 victory couldn’t erase that third-quarter image of Ryan yet again lifting the team on his shoulders, and yet again letting them fall backward onto the ground.
Nobody ever puts Matt Ryan in the highest echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Every power ranking includes Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and now Patrick Mahomes. Ryan’s in that good-to-have-in-uniform class, the same space occupied by Joe Flacco in the past and Kirk Cousins right now. Sure, the thinking goes, he’ll lose you a few games, but at least he’s better than facing the night with some jittery replacement-level quarterback. Usually.
All that sells Ryan way short.
He’s led Atlanta to the playoffs in six of his 11 full seasons, and given the woeful state of the franchise in the four decades prior to his arrival, that alone ought to qualify him for mayor. He won a well-deserved MVP in 2016, the Super Bowl year, but his marks last year in total yardage, touchdowns and quarterback rating were nearly identical.
The difference is exactly why Ryan rarely tops power rankings: last year, the Falcons bumbled to a 7-9 record. Ryan somehow manages to gag on an epic level when the spotlight is the brightest — yes, we’re all thinking about the same thing — and his facial expressions in these moments would seem to reveal a man overwhelmed by the moment.
He’s not. You don’t last as a starting quarterback for a decade and a half if you get flustered by big moments. When he’s got time and space, he’s not just among the league’s best, he can be the best.
Pro Football Focus notes that Ryan, in 2016, posted one of the best deep-passing seasons in recent memory. In the regular season, Ryan completed 32 of 63 deep pass attempts for a total of 1,149 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. A full 24 of Ryan’s throws won PFF’s “big-time throw” designation, the kind of play that ends up in slow-mo highlight reels and best-of compilations. In short, Ryan spent 2016 playing full-out Uncle Rico ball — everybody go long and get open, I’ll find you — and yet he pulled it off.
And the way things are shaping out now —with Jones and Calvin Ridley streaking downfield like they’re at a Thanksgiving family ballgame, with Ryan sailing up passes for them to pull out of the air — 2019 could turn out to be a repeat of that MVP season.
That’s good news for Ryan, because it’s never again going to be better for him than it is at this moment. Every excuse is now invalid. Lining up behind him are Devonta Freeman and Smith, who run like bowling balls thrown down a mountain. Out wide are Jones, one of the league’s best, and the surprising Ridley, who’s already becoming a Ryan go-to favorite.
Plus, the Falcons are investing on both sides of the ball. They used two first-round picks on offensive linemen. They threw big extensions at defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (four years, $68 million) and linebacker Deion Jones (four years, $57 million). The hope, of course, is that the Falcons won’t need to win every game 45-42.
Beyond that, consider the framework of the season. Over the next four games, the Falcons tour the AFC East and visit Arizona. A 5-1 record after six games isn’t just possible, it’s realistic.
That, in turn, means the NFC South is sitting right there for the taking. Drew Brees is going to miss at least several weeks for New Orleans. Carolina’s Cam Newton isn’t close to the Cam of old. Tampa Bay is, as always, an ever-ripening shade of terrible. Beyond that, the Falcons grabbed a win off one of the potential NFC champions Sunday night, and even though Atlanta did help Philly up off the mat in the second half, dust ‘em off, and give them a free shot, the final score nonetheless broke Atlanta’s way.
Ryan’s got the ability to rewrite the entire narrative smothering him and the Falcons. It’s all right here, right in front of him at this moment. It’s now up to him and the Falcons to come through. No more excuses. No more motivational slogans. No more we’ll-get-’em-next-years. Win or don’t.
Which brings us back to Sunday night. Ryan had three interceptions on the evening — bringing him to five on the year — meaning that even as the Falcons were punching the Eagles in the teeth with one hand, they were punching themselves in the jewels with the other. If Atlanta can get both fists going the same direction — preferably, in their eyes, away from themselves — this could be a dangerous team. But you’d be right to wait until we see a Lombardi Trophy on Peachtree Street before you believe in them.
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