Time to give Matt Ryan his due
Ashley Fox [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
January 18, 2013
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Matt Ryan doesn't get enough respect. What's it going to take to validate an already impressive career? A win Sunday over San Francisco? A Super Bowl victory?

The guy is a winner. Ryan has the whole package: size, smarts, work ethic, arm strength and experience. Since entering the NFL as the third overall pick in 2008 out of Boston College, Ryan has won 56 regular-season games -- the most in a player's first five seasons in NFL history. His .718 winning percentage over the past five seasons trails only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

And Ryan has the quintessential characteristic quarterbacks must have to be successful: He is clutch.

Ryan proved that, once again, last Sunday against Seattle, when he orchestrated his seventh game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. When the pressure was the greatest, Ryan didn't have the wrong look in his eye. His team had just blown a 20-point fourth-quarter lead and trailed the Seahawks by one point. The Falcons had seemingly collapsed under the pressure of having to win their first postseason game in four tries under coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Ryan.

With 31 seconds left in the game, Ryan gathered his teammates in the huddle and told them they were going to win. Three plays later, after Ryan threw lasers to Harry Douglas for 22 yards and Tony Gonzalez for 19 yards, Matt Bryant kicked a game-winning, 49-yard field goal.

The win was Ryan's first in the postseason in four tries and helped him avoid the ignominy of joining Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to lose their first four playoff starts. It took Manning until his fourth playoff appearance to notch his first victory. His career turned out all right.

It took Manning nine years to win his first Super Bowl to validate his career. Maybe that's what it will take for Ryan. Maybe then we will look at him differently. Maybe then Ryan will be the headliner going into big games. Last week the story was Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and the pistol offense. This week the story is Colin Kaepernick and the wicked athleticism he showed slicing up Green Bay last week.

Maybe it should be Ryan's ability to be clutch when it counts.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since his rookie season, Ryan leads the NFL with 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. This season, including the playoffs, he has completed 70.1 percent of his passes in the final two minutes of either half.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan's numbers in those situations are up significantly over the first four seasons of his career. His completion percentage is better (70.1 percent this season versus 50.0 the first four seasons). His yards-per-attempt average is better (8.5 this season versus 5.1). He has four touchdowns and zero interceptions versus 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

And Ryan's Total QBR, the measure ESPN uses to grade a quarterback's complete performance, in the last two minutes of either half is 87.2 this season versus 59.3 in his first four seasons.

"He's done this," Gonzalez said after the Falcons beat the Seahawks 30-28. "It's part of his M.O."

Standing near the showers long after his Falcons teammates had scattered to celebrate, Ryan shook his head at the absurdity of having to overcome so much adversity to finally get his first playoff win. He had joked with Gonzalez that he kind of liked winning his first playoff game in that fashion, a feeling Gonzalez dismissed by saying, "You like it because you're winning."

"Yeah, there were a few 'holy s---' moments, that's for sure," Ryan said. "But I think it's how you respond to those moments. They're going to happen. You're going to have stretches. I mean, Seattle's a good team, and they were as hot as anybody coming into the game. You knew they were going to make some plays. It's how you respond. And the way we responded [against Seattle] has been consistent with the way we've responded all year."

With Ryan under center, the Falcons have had five consecutive winning seasons, with two NFC South titles and three consecutive postseason appearances. They have been almost unbeatable at the Georgia Dome, where Ryan has a 34-6 record. According to ESPN Stats & Information, among quarterbacks to make at least 20 home starts and begin their careers in the Super Bowl era, only Brady has a better home winning percentage (.851 with an 86-15 record versus Ryan's .850).

This season, Ryan set Falcons season records for passing yards (4,719), pass attempts (615), completions (422), consecutive passes without an interception (272), completion percentage (68.6), touchdown passes (32) and 300-yard games (seven).

Ryan was steady as a rookie, with a 74.1 Total QBR, the highest for a rookie among qualified passers since 2008. He was even better this season with a 74.5, trailing only Manning (84.1) and Brady (77.1). (Kaepernick registered a 76.8 but fell six pass attempts shy of qualifying under ESPN's Total QBR guidelines.)

It is time to give Ryan his due. He wins. He's sharp. He's consistent. He's professional. And he's clutch.

If Ryan leads the Falcons past San Francisco this weekend, maybe people will start to notice.

INSIDE SLANT

While we're on the topic of quarterbacks not getting enough respect, the idea that Joe Flacco can go to the next level with a win over New England is ridiculous. For whatever reason, Flacco is massively underrated. And he has the one thing Ryan is trying to get: proven playoff success.

Flacco is 7-4 in the postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information, during the Super Bowl era, only Ben Roethlisberger (8-2) and Brady (9-0) won more playoff games in their first five seasons. Flacco also is 5-4 in nine road playoff games. These statistics are significant.

Sure, finally reaching a Super Bowl and possibly even winning it would elevate Flacco into the next stratosphere. But he is already there. It's why Baltimore will open up the bank for him. And Flacco's self-confidence is unwavering. The Ravens put an attractive offer on the table this past offseason. Flacco wanted more and was willing to prove he deserved it. And then he did.

-  -  -

Jim Harbaugh doesn't want his San Francisco players to buy into the hype about their team. After his jaw-dropping performance against Green Bay, Kaepernick has become more popular than the iPhone. He is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And Las Vegas has San Francisco as a four-point favorite even though it is playing the No. 1-seeded Falcons in their building.

Harbaugh's advice?

"Our advice has always been, 'If people are saying nice things about you, kick them in the shins and get back to work,'" Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh, as they say, is a different cat....
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