ATLANTA — Matt Ryan said he feels exactly the same.
His life and his legacy never will be again.
After amassing nearly a de cade’s worth of stellar statistics and being among the most appreciated and admired players in the NFL, Ryan finally is a Super Bowl quarterback. It’s an accolade that has always eluded him. And assuming he wins this year’s MVP award, a championship will be the final crest needed for entrance into the inner circle of quarterback greats.
After Sunday’s 44-21 throttling of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, Ryan is poised to step onto the biggest stage, with a chance to lift himself in the hierarchy of players past and present.
“I mean, I’m happy,” Ryan said of the win, the confetti and the travel arrangements to Houston for Super Bowl LI against the Patriots on Feb. 5. “It’s hard to get to this point, I know that from experience. It’s really difficult to get to this point.”
Until now, he always was on teams that were not good enough or not balanced enough to make that final leap. This team, though, is the one. The Falcons are bringing Ryan to the Super Bowl as much as he is bringing them.
“I feel like this team this year has been the right mix,” said Ryan, who helped the Falcons take a 31-0 lead 69 seconds into the third quarter. “We’re starting to play our best ball now.”
The Falcons were overlooked for most of the season, afterthoughts in power rankings and rarely part of the national football consciousness. Even coming into Sunday’s game, which they hosted as the NFC’s No. 2 seed, they seemed overshadowed by the legacy of Aaron Rodgers and the almost table-running Packers.
“We weren’t worried about people trying to talk about us,” said cornerback Jalen Collins, who forced and recovered a key fumble in the second quarter. “We were just going out there and trying to play ball and letting people know that what we’ve got here is serious.”
Now they’ll be the Belles of the Bowl for the next two weeks, the fresh-faced newcomers vs. the been there, done that Pats.
At the end of it, they could be Atlanta’s first championship football team. Especially if the Falcons can keep up this pace.
“I would say so,” Julio Jones said when asked if they will win the Super Bowl if they play the way they did Sunday. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who we are playing or what they are doing. It’s all about us.”
It certainly was all about Ryan and Jones on Sunday. Ryan completed 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least three touchdown passes in four straight postseason games. He also ran 14 yards for a TD.
Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns to become the first player in the Super Bowl era with at least 150 receiving yards and two TDs in multiple conference championship games (he also did it in January 2013).
Jones had his big game despite not practicing for most of the week and playing with an injured toe. He said he knew he would be OK when he was able to run full speed for the first time in pregame warm-ups.
“I knew right then and there I was good to go,” he said.
Jones’ two touchdowns were the biggest in the game. With three seconds left in the first half, he caught a fade in the end zone and got both feet in bounds to make it 24-0. On the first possession of the second half, he caught a slant over the middle and outran two defenders for a 73-yard TD that made it 31-0.
That allowed the Atlanta fans to start their celebrations early as they enjoyed the final game ever at the Georgia Dome (the Falcons will move to a new stadium next season).
When Ryan took the field for the final time in the fourth quarter, they serenaded him with chants of “MVP! MVP!” It’s easier to do that than to get 71,127 to shout “Super Bowl quarterback!”
Ryan said he always thought this day — these two weeks — would come.
“You can’t lose belief or confidence,” he said. “It’s one of those things, I always felt like we’d get to this point where we’d have an opportunity to play in this game. I’m happy that we’re there.”
The Falcons’ opponent in the Super Bowl might not want to defer if they win the coin toss. Atlanta has scored a TD on its opening drive in eight straight games:
Week Opp. Plays Yards
12 Ariz. 11 72
13 KC 10 81
14 LA 1 3
15 SF 6 47
16 Caro. 8 75
17 NO 4 68
Div. Round Sea. 13 75
NFC Champ. GB 13 80
Matt Ryan is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least three TD passes in four straight postseason games:
Playoff Round Opp. TDs
Conf. Champ. GB 4
Div. Round Sea. 3
Div. Round Sea. 3
Conf. Champ. SF 3