TAMPA — If recent history is a guide, the NFC South opener for the Falcons and Buccaneers will come down to a fourth-quarter stare down.
While the Falcons have won the past five contests, the games have been excruciatingly close. The division foes, both off to 1-1 starts, will meet at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The contest will pit two of the up-and-coming quarterbacks in the NFL. Both are building solid resumes for leading their teams to victory with fourth-quarter magic.
On Sunday, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman rallied the Bucs from a 17-0 halftime deficit to defeat the Minnesota Vikings 28-24. That night, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan marched his team down the field on two 80-yard drives to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 35-31 at the Georgia Dome.
For Ryan, it was the 14th time that he has led the Falcons to victory in the fourth
quarter or overtime. For Freeman, it was his eighth such dramatic conquest.
“We are talking about two dynamic quarterbacks in this league that are going to create a great rivalry for years,” Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris said.
As a rookie Ryan rallied the Falcons to victory in Green Bay and then followed that by pulling out a victory over Chicago in the final 11 seconds. He has exhibited a Gandhi-like calmness in pressure situations.
“I just think he has so much confidence,” Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. “Everybody on our sidelines believe it’s going to happen. Regardless of the score, we always have a chance to come back.
“It’s in his body language and his demeanor on the sideline. It’s happened so many times that it’s hard not to believe that the guy has a chance to come back in any situation. It’s just amazing.”
The Bucs have not been Ryan’s only victims, although they appear on his comeback list three times. Last season, the Falcons won seven games in the fourth quarter or overtime on their way to the NFC South title.
“There is nobody on our sidelines or up in the box that doesn’t believe that he’s got the ability to get us in the right situation and get us back in the game,” Mularkey said. “Half of the battle in those situations is believing that you can do it.”
Things were looking pretty bleak for the Falcons against the Eagles, who scored three touchdowns in video game-like fashion in the third quarter.
“We don’t flinch,” Mularkey said. “We had three [consecutive] three-and-outs, and none of our guys came to the sidelines and said, ‘we can’t move the ball.’ There wasn’t one bit of that over the headsets or on the sidelines.”
The Falcons didn’t get frustrated because they had been in so many similar situations with Ryan against a number of good defenses. Two of his fourth-quarter victories are over Green Bay.
“Matt has somehow found a way to lead us to touchdowns when we need them,” Mularkey said. “I think a lot of this is that our guys just believe in him.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith believes that Ryan’s work against the Eagles was superb.
“We got some plays out of Michael Turner on those drives as well, but Matt was at his best in the fourth quarter,” Smith said. “It would be hard to even think of him playing [any better] in those two drives.”
Ryan is reluctant to take credit for the late victories.
“There are so many good football teams and seemingly each game comes down to what you do in the fourth quarter,” Ryan said. “It’s not just me with the 14 wins though. We’ve had a lot of guys making plays in that fourth quarter to help us get on top. It’s fun to be around that.”
Ryan was the third player taken in the 2008 NFL draft. Freeman was selected with the 17th pick of the 2009 draft.
Since Freeman broke into the lineup, he has had a flare for pulling off the dramatic victory, too.
“The confidence that surrounds Josh Freeman just carries throughout the team,” Morris said. “He’s calm, he’s poised and he’s clutch. His teammates feel that. They know if they give him a chance, he’ll go out there and win it for them.”
Like Ryan, Freeman’s first fourth-quarter comeback victory came over Green Bay.
“I can’t really attribute the wins to one thing in particular, but we really just think it’s a mentality,” Freeman said. “We try to play as well as we can and we’re never out of the game.”
Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder likes how Freeman operates.
“He’s smart and runs their offense in a calm and effective way,” VanGorder said. “His leadership and calmness, you can feel it throughout the offense.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog