Tony Gonzalez understands more than most what it would mean for Matt Ryan to finish off his remarkable season with a Super Bowl championship.
“I know for a fact, just like every player in the NFL, he wants to get to the Super Bowl. He craves the Super Bowl,” the All- Pro tight end said this past week. “It will absolutely change the national perception of him, and I think it will change his perception of himself, knowing he’s been able to bounce back after the season he had last year and have an MVP-type season this year and get to a Super Bowl.”
Gonzalez knows the heartache Ryan has suffered in past playoff losses, because the future Hall of Fame tight end lived through three of those empty playoff seasons with the Falcons’ quarterback. Gonzalez even delayed his retirement until he was 36 to try to get to the Super Bowl for the first time, but his final game was a 28-24 loss to the 49ers after the 2012 season.
Ryan didn’t get back to the playoffs again until this year, but he has made the most of it, advancing to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Packers and a showdown with Aaron Rodgers.
It’s the NFL’s two hottest quarterbacks in a dream matchup for the right to go to the Super Bowl and engage in another dramatic quarterback showdown. Either Ryan or Rodgers will face the winner of the Ben Roethlisberger-Tom Brady battle in the Steelers-Patriots AFC Championship Game.
Gonzalez has a pretty good feeling about Ryan getting to his first Super Bowl at age 31.
“He just has this different look, this different air of confidence,” said Gonzalez, now an NFL analyst for CBS Sports. “He has the confidence and the skill now, and the know-it-all to zing it to anybody. That’s what makes him so dangerous.”
Why the dramatic turnaround? Gonzalez thinks Ryan’s poor season in 2015 is one of the biggest factors. With only 21 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions, Ryan had his worst statistical season since coming into the league as the No. 3 pick in the 2008 draft. But he has been a different quarterback this season, finishing the regular season with a career-high 38 touchdown passes and a career-low seven interceptions.
Gonzalez goes back to his own struggles during his career and draws an interesting parallel.
“In my second year [in 1998 with the Chiefs], I led the NFL with 17 dropped passes,” he said. “It forces you to turn over every stone, and this past offseason, that’s exactly what [Ryan] did. When he’s in that huddle now, he’s in complete command. He’s in guys’ faces. He tells [offensive coordinator] Kyle Shanahan what plays he likes. This is the reason he’s become the player he is.”
Ryan’s former teammate says the change is permanent. “I expect the rest of his career will be like this,” Gonzalez said. “He’s peaking as a player right now.”
Ryan was at his very best against a Seahawks defense that can be one of the most dominant units in the NFL. In last week’s 36-20 win over Seattle, Ryan was 26-for-37 for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That included a brilliant sequence on a 99-yard drive in the second quarter, when he completed 7 of 9 passes for all 99 of those yards and the touchdown. It was an MVP performance from the player who is the odds-on favorite to win that award for the 2016 season.
But Ryan isn’t thinking about his legacy. He’s just thinking about the next game — even if that game is for a chance to play for pro football’s ultimate prize.
“I think one thing I’ve learned throughout my career is that if you sit there and you’re worrying about all these things that don’t make a difference for this week, your focus is not where it should be,” he said. “Would it be nice to do that? Absolutely, but it’s not going to help us Sunday. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is trying to focus all of my energy and my mental preparation toward what’s going to have us play our best Sunday.”
Gonzalez thinks Ryan is ready. So does Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who can get to the Super Bowl in only his second season in Atlanta.
“You know what I’m always happy about is when you see somebody really apply themselves and really go for it to get to a new level when you’re already at a really high level,” Quinn said. “So to take another step to break through a new ceiling, it’s really difficult. He totally owned that challenge to do that. That’s from on-field performance, that’s from leadership on and off the field, the connection he has with his teammates, the things he wanted to improve in his game. And then it’s kind of like a New Year’s resolution — do you stay with it or do you knock back off? And he’s had the grit to not back off and to keep striving to get to a new spot.”
His time is now, and there can be no better ending than to put himself in position to win it all in Super Bowl LI.
IN THE PLAYOFFS