Victory can validate Falcons QB Matt Ryan's MVP season

By Ron Clements 28 January 2017 230
Victory can validate Falcons QB Matt Ryan's MVP season

Matt Ryan has heard it every year since the Atlanta Falcons selected him third overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.

He doesn't perform in the postseason. He's not a big-game quarterback. He's not elite.

Ryan took a huge leap forward this season and led the Falcons to the second Super Bowl in franchise history. He will likely be named the league's MVP, and he has played like it in the playoffs.

Ryan completed 69.9 percent of his passes during the regular season for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns with only seven interceptions while leading the NFL's highest-scoring offense that ran up a franchise-record 540 points.

That's continued in the postseason with 80 points in wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

Ryan has thrown for 730 yards and seven touchdowns, while rushing for another, with no interceptions in the two playoff victories. The previous six quarterbacks to throw for at least seven touchdowns without a pick in the postseason also won the Super Bowl. 

Against the Packers, Ryan became the first player in the Super Bowl era to register at least four touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a rushing TD in a single playoff game.

That's a welcome change from Ryan's first six playoff games in which the Falcons were 2-4 and the QB averaged only 205 passing yards and threw nine touchdown passes to seven interceptions.  

"You can't lose belief or confidence," Ryan said after Sunday's NFC championship game. "One thing about this league is that you can get humbled very quickly. Learning what is best for you personally and what works best for our team has taken time for sure. I always felt like we would get to this point and have an opportunity to play in this game, and I am happy that we are there."

After the Falcons began the season 4-1, they lost two straight to the Seahawks and San Diego Chargers. Naysayers thought the Falcons would suffer another collapse like the one that cost them a playoff berth last season.

Following a 5-0 start in 2015, the Falcons limped to an 8-8 record and watched their NFC South foes the Carolina Panthers roll to a 15-1 mark and a conference championship.

The Falcons righted the ship after this season's overtime loss to the Chargers, rallying to beat the Packers the next week. Ryan threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in the 33-32 victory and followed with four touchdowns the next week in a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Despite a defense that ranked 25th in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed, the Falcons won seven of their final nine games to finish 11-5. They won the NFC South and earned the number two seed in the NFC playoffs.

In games the Falcons allowed 30 or more points, they went 4-2 thanks to Ryan's distribution of the ball to Atlanta's wealth of offensive talent.  

Fullback Patrick DiMarco said Ryan has learned how to "manipulate" the game.

"Getting everyone involved, that's how it goes in this offense," DiMarco said. "It's the way the whole team runs."

One thing that has helped Ryan is the addition of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2015. The Falcons were seventh in total offense last season, but those yards didn't translate to points as they were 21st in scoring at 21.2 points per game.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff said earlier this month that Ryan spent a lot of time in the offseason to "get everyone on the proverbial same page in Shanahan's system."

It worked as the Falcons saw an increase of 42 yards per game to rank second and averaged an additional 12 points per game.

"It really came together this year," Dimitroff said before Atlanta's win over the Seahawks in the divisional round. "It was really fun to see. This is a big year for him playoff-wise, and I think Matt has really continued to grow."

Like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco before him, Ryan can silence remaining critics with the Super Bowl victory that is missing from his impressive resume.

"We have worked hard to get to this point, but the challenge is still in front of us," the four-time Pro Bowler told reporters after Sunday's win over the Packers. "What we set out to accomplish is still in front of us. We will enjoy this because it is hard to get to this point. I know that from experience.

"It is really difficult to win one game in this league, it really is," Ryan added. "To string together [wins] and keep guys healthy and get the opportunity and play your best at the right time, there are a lot of things that come into it. This team we have had this year is the right mix."

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Ron Clements

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