This season has been about comebacks.
This season has been about the Falcons making plays at the end of games to win.
This season has been about Matt Ryan engineering winning drives against New Orleans, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Green Bay and Tampa Bay.
Whether that magic carries over into the playoffs remains to be seen. But it ran out Monday night. One reason: a bad decision by coach Mike Smith.
With the Saints leading the Falcons 17-14 at the Georgia Dome and less than three minutes remaining, Smith pulled Ryan and the offense off the field. The team faced a fourth-and-6 from the Falcons’ 43 and the head coach went the conservative route.
Smith’s mindset: A good punt could pin New Orleans deep in its zone, the defense looked strong most of the evening and the Falcons could get the ball back in good position.
But that same defense had just allowed Drew Brees and the Saints a go-ahead, 90-yard touchdown drive.
Strategy: Epic fail.
The Saints got the ball back with 2:44 left. They made two first downs and ran out the clock.
Smith has made a lot of good decisions over the past three seasons. This was a bad one.
How do you pull Ryan off the field? The quarterback has been nothing but clutch. He excels in the two-minute offense. He excels in no-huddle. Actually, a case could be made that Ryan often is better in pressure situations and in the fourth quarter than in other situations.
Also worth noting: The Falcons went into the game with the NFL’s best fourth-down percentage (84.6 percent, 11 for 13).
Granted, Ryan wasn’t necessarily at his best Monday night. He completed only 15 of 29 for 148 yards and a touchdown.
But do you know what he didn’t do? He didn’t melt down. Even his counterpart, Brees, did that early in the fourth quarter.
With the Saints leading 10-7, it was Brees who threw a foolish shovel pass as he was being sacked by Jonathan Babineaux in the fourth quarter. The pass was intercepted by Chauncey Davis and returned 26 yards for a touchdown and a 14-10 lead Falcons lead. It was Brees who, on the ensuing New Orleans drive, was pressured and ultimately intercepted by John Abraham.
But in the end, it also was Brees who led the Saints to a 13-play, 90-yard touchdown drive, capped by a six-yard pass to Jimmy Graham.
The Falcons trailed 10-0. But that wasn’t all about Ryan. The Saints’ touchdown was set up by a bad snap by center Todd McClure — the ball never making it to Ryan’s hands. To open the second half, Ryan drove the offense down the field to the New Orleans’ one-yard-line, completing four of five attempts and throwing two passes that led to a pass interference penalty. But Michael Turner was stopped on first down and fumbled on second down.
Two turnovers — a 14-point swing.
Ryan’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White in the second quarter had closed the score to 10-7. Then came the Turner fumble drive in the third.
In September, Ryan led a comeback win at New Orleans. With the Falcons trailing 21-17 in the fourth quarter, Ryan took them on a nine-play, 85-yard touchdown drive, finishing with a 22-yard score to Roddy White to give Atlanta a 24-21 lead. The Saints rallied for a game-tying field goal, but the Falcons won the game with a field goal in overtime. It was a run-dominated, field goal drive but it was Ryan who set the tone with his calmness.
He wasn’t given that chance Monday night.
If the Falcons win next week over Carolina, their regular season goals will be achieved. They can clinch the NFC South Division, a first-round bye and the top seed in the conference. The memory of this loss will fade quickly.
The Falcons have proven themselves this season. They’re 12-3, still the best record in the NFC. But we know teams and quarterbacks are defined by the playoffs, not regular seasons. That’s not meant at a knock on Ryan. Fact is, everything about him — from his talent to his makeup and his leadership — suggests he will succeed in the playoffs. But consider it the unchecked box on his resume.
Thus far, Ryan has had only one chance. Two years ago as a rookie, he led the Falcons to an 11-5 regular season record but looked average in a playoff loss at Arizona, losing 30-24. Ryan threw two touchdown passes but was intercepted twice, sacked three times and fumbled once during an attempted handoff (leading to a 27-yard return for a touchdown by the Cardinals’ Antrel Rolle).
I remember thinking during and after the game that Ryan didn’t look the same and something must be wrong with him physically. I asked a couple of team officials about him, but the response I got was: Ryan was healthy. It’s just that the playoffs are a step up and the rookie quarterback wasn’t ready for that moment.
This season, Ryan has outdueled four of the league’s top quarterbacks: Brees (New Orleans), Carson Palmer (Cincinnati), Joe Flacco (Baltimore) and Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay). He has the best touchdown-interception ratio (26-9) of his career. He looks ready for the postseason.
It just would’ve been nice to see him get one more chance Monday.