FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Matt Ryan finds himself locked in the middle of a paradox, but one that has an easily discernible exit strategy. All he has to do is win a playoff game, and poof, it begins to evaporate.
For now, however, you have a quarterback with split personas. In the regular season, he’s Matty Ice, renowned for his poise — this is a guy who threw a touchdown on his first NFL pass — and his ability to rally the Falcons from the brink of despair. In five seasons, Ryan has engineered 15 fourth-quarter comebacks and 22 game-winning drives.
This year, Ryan has received MVP chatter for leading the Falcons to the best record in the NFC. His coach, Mike Smith, said Wednesday that “individually, it’s been his best year in terms of most of the markers you look for in a quarterback.”
Except one, and therein lies the paradox. In three playoff games over the previous four seasons, Ryan has yet to produce a victory. He has thrown for less than 200 yards in all three of those games, and has more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three). His playoff QB rating of 71.2 pales in comparison to his regular-season mark of 90.9.
It’s getting dangerously close to being a legacy-killer for the quarterback selected third overall out of Boston College in the 2008 draft (15 spots ahead of Joe Flacco, who already has six playoff wins with the Ravens).
But rectify that omission to his resume, and Ryan will be celebrated both as the man who led the Falcons out of the wilderness of a 4-12 record the season before he arrived, and the one who can take them to the next level.
On Wednesday, with a large media contingent crowded around him in the Falcons’ locker room, Ryan appeared relaxed and congenial. If he’s lugging around the burden of validation, it wasn’t evident.
When a reporter pointed out Atlanta’s pivotal lapses in each of their previous playoff losses, Ryan replied, with mock gravity, “I hadn’t thought about any of the three until you brought them up.” Then he laughed and said, “I’m kidding.”
Ryan has reasons to believe that things will be different this year. The Falcons have a new offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter, the former Arizona State coach, who is credited with energizing the offense. Ryan says he has employed a new method of preparing for both the regular season and playoffs, upon which he declined to elaborate other than to say, “I think that’s helped me.”
He says the three playoff losses (all to Super Bowl-bound teams: Arizona in 2008, Green Bay in 2010, the New York Giants last year) have taught him “tons” of lessons. And the familiarity factor with his dynamic offensive weapons continues to grow, to the point where Ryan says he has more confidence in Atlanta’s offense than ever. Even against a Seattle defense that warrants nothing but raves from the quarterback.
“I’m confident in the guys around us,” he said. “We’ve proven we can go out there and be successful. You have to buy into that. You have to believe that.”
The Falcons are a challenge to any defense, with two standout wide receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, and a Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez.
“I feel more comfortable with the guys around me,” Ryan said. “Having been in my second year with Julio now adds to that confidence level. Knowing Roddy and having played with him for five years, understanding him inside and out, and he understands me the same way, I think that helps.
“Playing with Tony now four seasons, to where we’re at a different place, I think, than we’ve ever been. Those kinds of relationships, those kinds of things, help. Especially when you’re in the heat of battle. Guys can talk to each other, we trust each other. I think that trust has shown up on the field.”
And yet, it must show up Sunday, or the criticism of Ryan’s inability to win in the postseason will only grow. Last year at this time, before the first-round game with the Giants, Ryan pointed out that Eli Manning had lost his first two playoff games before winning a Super Bowl in his third try. But Manning’s Giants pulled out a 24-2 victory en route to Manning’s second title. Ryan had to live another year with a lackluster playoff showing (199 passing yards, no touchdowns).
“I don’t worry about it. I don’t think about it,” he said of past disappointments. “My focus is for this locker room, for the guys and the coaching staff who are all together. We’ve worked really hard during the course of the offseason and through training camp and OTAs to give ourselves the opportunity to be playing this time of year, and we want to play our best football.
“Really, that’s the only thing I’m worrying about. Trying to do whatever we can do to play our best football Sunday.”