Throughout his nine-year NFL career, Atlanta Falcons’ starting quarterback Matt Ryan has been overshadowed by big-name quarterbacks who’ve proven themselves in the post-season such as New England’s Tom Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, and both Manning brothers. This season however, not even a trio of future hall-of-famers have managed to out-shine Atlanta’s star signal-caller.
In his first playoff appearance in four years, Ryan came through with another M.VP.-like performance to guide Atlanta past the Seattle Seahawks 36-20 in last Saturday’s NFC divisional showdown, finishing with 338 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a passer rating rating of 125.7. Following what was easily one of the most significant wins of his career, Ryan told reporters that the entire offense deserved credit for dropping 36 points on Seattle’s defense.
”I thought we played well today,” said Ryan via ESPN. ”I did. I thought we had a really good plan all week. [Offensive Coordinator] Kyle [Shanahan] did a good job of letting us know what he expected from us, and what he wanted us to do, and how we could win the game. I was proud of how the guys went out there and executed.”
Prior to the Falcons’ first playoff win since they ended Seattle’s season following the 2012 campaign, the knock on Ryan had been his inability to win when it matters most—evidenced by the 1-4 playoff record that followed him into last weekend’s start. But Ryan wasn’t fazed by Richard Sherman and Seattle’s often-stout secondary, and he’s the reason that Atlanta will play in its fourth NFC Championship game in franchise history when it hosts the Green Bay Packers on Sunday afternoon.
Recently chosen as the NFC South Comeback Player Of The Year by ESPN’s NFL Nation, Ryan recovered from an off year in 2015, in which the Falcons finished just 8-8, to lead Atlanta to its first wining season since 2012. However, Ryan was rarely the problem during those losing efforts, and now that the Falcons have shed the majority of their shortcomings there’s reason to believe that this is his best shot at a Super Bowl.
Unfortunately for Ryan, the other three remaining playoff quarterbacks—Rodgers, Brady, and Pittsburgh’s Ben Rothlisberger, are also potential post-season nightmares for any opponent. For now, Ryan only has to worry about out-dueling Rodgers, and statistically speaking, he out-performed Rodgers in passing yards, quarterback rating, completion percentage, passer rating, and average completion during the regular season.
None of that will matter when these two teams square-off on Sunday. In fact, on top of entering the playoffs as football’s most feared quarterback, Rodgers managed to throw for 356 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last week’s win over the Dallas Cowboys without the services of lead receiver Jordy Nelson by connecting with six different targets. Even with the injured receiver expected to miss a second straight week, Rodgers’ most recent performance was more than enough to ensure that Falcons’ defensive coordinator Richard Smith won’t sleep this week.
In Week 9, Ryan ended Atlanta’s two-game slide by leading his team to a 33-32 win over the visiting Packers with a last-second touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu. Rodgers torched Atlanta’s defense for four touchdowns and registered a passer rating of 125.5 in the loss, but that victory was extremely significant for a Falcons’ defense that currently consists of 18 players with zero playoff experience, and it should give the youngsters some added confidence entering round two.
Realistically, as impressive as Ryan’s regular season was, it won’t mean much of anything unless he leads Atlanta to the Super Bowl—the one thing that could grant him a spot alongside those previously-mentioned quarterback greats. And while you’ll probably hear folks arguing that Atlanta’s young defense is in trouble, or claiming that Green Bay can’t stop the run ahead of Sunday’s NFC slug-fest, we already know that the fate of these Falcons rests solely on the shoulders of Matt Ryan.