This was as good a time as any for Matt Ryan to prove whether all the good that had come from an MVP-caliber regular season was good enough when it mattered most. When a chance at a Super Bowl run was on the line, when you’re playing against a team that has won a championship and gotten back there the year after.
When you’re at your own 1-yard line, with the game potentially hanging in the balance depending on what happens here.
Ryan faced that test late in the second quarter of Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Seahawks. It was a game-defining drive and in many ways a career-defining drive for a quarterback who has done wondrous things in the regular season but had been a playoff disappointment.
What do you do?
Well, for starters, you worry about your punter.
“Your first job as an offense in a backed-up situation is to make sure if you need to punt, to give the punter enough room to get a full-length punt,” Ryan said.
Ryan took care of that on the first play, finding Julio Jones for an 8-yard gain. “I think the drive start is really important to us,” Ryan said. “It just gives you some breathing room.”
And then it became much, much more. It became a defining moment for a player looking to stake his claim to playoff brilliance after losing four of his previous five postseason games.
A short pass to Tevin Coleman to the Falcons’ 14. A 22-yarder to Mohamed Sanu and one to Taylor Gabriel for 18 yards and into Seahawks territory. Three more passes — the last a 14-yarder to Coleman for a touchdown — and Ryan had offered definitive proof that he can be just as good in January as he is from September to December.
Ryan WAS that drive, completing 7 of 9 passes for 99 yards and the score to give the Falcons a 19-10 lead.
Ryan, who looks as if he is truly coming of age at 31 and in his ninth NFL season, said, “That drive was kind of a synopsis of what we did the entire day. We executed really well.”
It also was a synopsis of what Ryan has done all season, but now it was in one of the biggest games of his life. He is one win away from going to his first Super Bowl.
The Falcons will play the winner of Sunday’s Cowboys-Packers game. If Dallas wins, Ryan must play at AT&T Stadium; if the Packers win, Ryan gets one more home game at the Georgia Dome, which is scheduled for demolition next year as the Falcons move to a gargantuan new stadium just next door.
“Matt and his preparation, he stayed on exactly the same path that he had been on during the regular season,” second-year coach Dan Quinn said. “He was on it like he has been the entire year.”
Quinn set the right tone by making certain Ryan didn’t deviate from his regular-season schedule. “It’s still going to be the same ball, we’re still going to play the same style, and we wanted to make sure our identity of how we played was going to be really clear, whether it’s the regular season or in the postseason,” Quinn said. “We’re not going to go outside our routine of changing up how we prepare or play.”
It worked. Especially for Ryan, who is the favorite to win the honor that Falcons fans were screaming during the game, particularly during a cacophonous rendition in the final minute: “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Ryan is humbled by and appreciative of the adulation, but there is a higher purpose than football’s top individual honor.
“When you’re playing, you’re focused on trying to do your best this week,” he said. “If you start thinking about other things, it distracts you from what’s important.”
The only thing that’s important right now: winning next week.
And two weeks after that, when Ryan can cement his legacy with a Super Bowl championship.