On the day following the Falcons’ loss at Carolina, Matt Ryan stood up in a team meeting and issued a mandate to his teammates.
“He told everybody, ‘I want an extra 30 minutes from everybody this week,’” Roddy White recalled. “In the film room, on the field, everywhere. And he said, ‘If you give me an extra 30 minutes, I’ll give you an extra hour.’”
Now, it would be presumptuous to suggest that one moment from this team’s leader is going to propel the Falcons to the postseason success that has been missing from the team and the quarterback’s respective resumes. But Sunday’s game has to count for something.
The Falcons saved their best performance of the season for when it mattered most — in December, against the defending Super Bowl champion and a week after they went splat in Charlotte. They body-slammed the New York Giants 34-0, moving a little closer to clinching home field through the NFL playoffs and, presumably, at least a smidgen closer to acceptance in the eyes of critics.
When a score is this lopsided, there are a lot of reasons for it. The defense had two early interceptions that were turned into 10 points and blanked an opponent for the first time since 2008. The offensive line dominated one of the NFL’s best front four. But at the center was Ryan, who outplayed Eli Manning. He completed 23 of 28 for 270 yards for three touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed a 12-yard laser to Tony Gonzalez in the end zone for one score, a 40-yard bomb to Julio Jones streaking down the left side for another.
Contrast that with Manning, who was held to 13-of-25 passing with two interceptions and was shut out for the first time in his career. (The Giants’ hadn’t been blanked since 1996.)
What will this mean for how Manning and Ryan are viewed in a few weeks when the playoffs open? Probably little. It’s no secret quarterbacks are defined by postseason success. A Ryan fan is going to lose a debate to a Manning fan every day on who’s the better quarterback for one simple reason: the ring finger.
But consider this comparison: Ryan is now a remarkable 55-21 (.724) in his NFL career in regular season. Relatively speaking, Manning is good but unremarkable at 77-56 (.579). Ryan has a better quarterback rating and a superior touchdown-to-interception ratio (Ryan: 122-60; Manning: 205-144). But in the playoffs Ryan is 0-3 and Manning is 8-3, including two Super Bowl titles, two Super Bowl MVP awards and last year’s 24-2 victory over Ryan and the Falcons in the Meadowlands.
No regular season game can make up for a playoff loss. But Ryan admitted that January game drove him “a little bit” this week. It also, at least in part, motivated him to issue the extra-30-minutes mandate to teammates.
“Roddy was listening?” Ryan said, laughing, when told about White’s comments.
Had Ryan ever made such a request before?
“I think that’s the first time. I’m learning. I’m getting old.”
Later, he added: “It was important for us as a team and in the locker room how we rebounded from last week. As coach [Mike] Smith preaches all the time, it’s how you respond to these situations [that defines you].”
The entire team did that. Center Todd McClure, a 13-year veteran, felt an edge all week, and called this “one of the best wins I’ve ever been a part of.
“There was a little bit of pressure — I’m not going to lie to you. But sometimes that causes you to play your best football. It means a lot for this team and it meant a lot for us on the line. And you see what happens when we can give Matt some time.”
Ryan was locked in. He looked it and felt it.
White again: “You can tell when he’s on. because he starts calling plays really fast, trying to get to the line of scrimmage because he’s in a groove and he wants to put pressure on the defense.”
This is what Ryan and the Falcons can look like when everything clicks. This is what they hope it looks like in a few weeks.
By Jeff Schultz