EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — After a week punctuated by more news of players and their mind-altering substances, the forecast of a blizzard for their upcoming road trip and then life-support finally being pulled on their playoff hopes, the Falcons didn’t project for a real uplifting finish to this season.
Fortunately, they had two things going for them Sunday: 1) They were playing the New York Jets, opponent of opportunity (they botched three field goals); 2) Matt Ryan kind of has something to prove.
Ryan was not good for most of Sunday. One reason was the wind, which often turned passes into knuckleballs. The other reason was nearly three weeks of inactivity, which helped turn an already struggling quarterback into a pedestrian one. (Ryan’s numbers before the Falcons’ final possession: 10 for 25, 115 yards.)
But you can tell a lot about a guy by how he finishes when misery is all around him — and what we see from the Falcons and Ryan in these final three games will go a long way toward what we think about the team and their franchise centerpiece going into the offseason.
Ryan provided a memory Sunday. How long had it been?
He completed five of his first six passes in the final drive and later drilled a fourth-down, six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez with 1:38 left in the game, giving the Falcons a 10-7 win over the Jets in the Meadowlands.
Is it cause for a parade? No.
Does it make up for the losses at Carolina or Dallas or the Giants, or certainly that comatose showing at home against Philadelphia? Hardly.
But how much would you be wondering about Ryan and the Falcons right now if they looked as anemic on that last drive as they did for most of Sunday?
“You can tell a lot from a game like today about a guy’s character,” center Todd McClure said. “When you’re not playing for the playoffs, it’s easy to just mail it in. Nobody did that today.”
That wasn’t an option, not for the Falcons (who at 7-7 still have a shot at a second straight winning season) and certainly not Ryan. He missed the last two games with turf toe. He took only 25 percent of the snaps in practice last week. Factor in the lingering effects of the injury (he wore a walking boot again after the game), the weather and the Jets’ defense (ranked No. 1 in yardage and points allowed), and Ryan at times Sunday was giving Falcons’ fans Joey Harrington-flashbacks.
But he wasn’t Harrington in the end. On fourth-and-goal from the six, Ryan ignored a thrown snowball that fell just to his left and fired a laser to the open Gonzalez. The Jets inexplicably were in soft zone coverage near the goal line, giving the Falcons’ obvious No. 1 receiving option way too much cushion.
Gonzalez’s reaction to the defensive call: “Oh my God.”
It’s the ending Ryan wanted, and needed.
Coach Mike Smith decided after warm-ups that Ryan would start. “You could tell Matt was pumped,” McClure said. “He started head-butting everybody.”
Ryan said, “It’s tough when you’re out for a couple of weeks. There’s nothing like playing a game.”
Smith said he thought his quarterback looked “rusty.” But he expected that.
Ryan didn’t use that word. “Not too bad,” he said of his performance. “There were some throws I would’ve liked to have made better. But that’s every game. My rhythm felt good. My timing felt good.”
Actually, timing on the field looked like it could have been better, although the wind played havoc in the passing game. The timing in the big picture was perfect. The Falcons had lost four out of their last five to drop to 6-7. Jonathan Babineaux’s embarrassing arrest report for felony marijuana possession, and Eric Weems’ DUI arrest report, both became public during the week. Then Dallas upset New Orleans Saturday night, ending a long-shot playoff scenario.
McClure: “The one time we need the Saints to win, they lose.”
And how’s this for a drought? Ryan hadn’t started and finished a win since Nov. 8 against Washington. No wonder it seemed like a while.
Ryan and the Falcons finish up with Buffalo and Tampa Bay. The shot at a 9-7 record and at least some sense of accomplishment is real. It’s not nearly at the level anybody expected. But things looked a whole lot worse before that last pass.