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  1. ATLANTA — To appreciate the magnitude of what we saw Sunday in the last football game ever at the Georgia Dome, we must consider what was happening in this city the April day Matt Ryan was drafted in 2008. I was there that weekend. Michael Vick was not. He was in federal prison in Kansas, serving nearly two years for animal cruelty. But the city not only hadn’t forgotten him; many in the city were keeping his seat warm and wanted him as their quarterback when he finished doing his time. I remember the day before the draft walking through a mall and thinking, “All these people with Vick jerseys or T-shirts supporting him … amazing.” So when Ryan got picked third overall by new GM Thomas Dimitroff, it was a new start. But some locals seemed unmoved. An Atlanta TV sports anchor, Gil Tyree, told me on draft day 2008 that Vick “is a messiah here. … No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he’ll never be accepted.” Yikes. Now to Sunday, and the 44-21 beatdown of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, leading to the second Super Bowl appearance for the Falcons in their history. As Ryan compiled a four-touchdown, 392-yard game in the biggest game of his nine-year career, three times the crowd in the Dome rained down chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” Six straight games without an interception … Heavy favorite to win the NFL MVP on Feb. 4 … Crowd screaming for him as he left the field like New York screamed for the Beatles in 1964. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images Matt Ryan is headed to his first Super Bowl and the Atlanta franchise’s second overall. The screams and chants sounded a lot like acceptance to me. This seemed a cruel time to remind Ryan of that day and the words of the sports anchor in 2008, but in a quiet moment at his locker after the game, I did. This is not a topic Ryan wants to revisit. In nine years at the helm of this team, nobody’s ever seen Ryan sweat. He says the right things, does the right things, works the right way. But he understood the gravity of this day, and what he’d accomplished under such initial pressure. Vick electrified this town like few athletes have, but Ryan has taken the franchise farther than Vick ever did. No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he’ll never be accepted. Ryan said quietly: “Some things you don’t forget.” That was it. But others took up Ryan’s cause. “Matt’s created great memories in this Dome,” said Dimitroff, who made Ryan the first pick of his tenure. “Back then, when Matt was drafted, the doubts were there. But he’s evolved and stayed above it all.” “That’s a long time ago,’’ said receiver and returned Eric Weems, who was a Falcon when Ryan was drafted and who knew the tenor in the city. “If people are still holding grudges, and I doubt there are, it’s on them. I can tell you Matt’s my quarterback. Matt’s our quarterback. I love him.” The best teams are often forged through difficult times. Ryan was drafted the year after Bobby Petrino pulled one of the all-time classless coaching moves, quitting with two games left in the 2007 season to take a college job. Ryan had some shaky playoff games, but Dimitroff and Blank were unwavering in their support. Blank, wisely, held onto Dimitroff—a strong scout—when he fired Mike Smith two years ago and hired Dan Quinn as coach. Ryan has gotten excellent coaching from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan over the past two years, and Quinn’s definitive demands for every position on the field allowed Dimitroff and key personnel men Scott Pioli and Steve Sabo to know exactly what to scout. Two excellent drafts and good free-agent finds (Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu), and here we are—an Atlanta-New England Super Bowl. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images On Sunday, the Falcons defense was able to do what no other team could do the past two months: Keep Aaron Rodgers in check. Two things I notice about Ryan’s game under Shanahan: He’s more comfortable as an athlete—that 14-yard touchdown run against Green Bay, his first TD run since 2012, showed he’s not a lumberjng runner, but a competent one. “There was nobody to account for the quarterback,” Ryan said. “And everybody's backs are turned playing coverage, playing man‐to‐man coverage. Just saw a lane open up.” In the past, Ryan likely would have stuck in the pocket, looking at his third and fourth targets. “Matt’s been a grinder, getting his mental right,” is how Weems put it. Ryan is better at play-action and run fakes, a more complete player who doesn’t think being a pocket quarterback means you actually have to be in the pocket all the time, surveying the field seven steps behind center. I loved his first touchdown pass Sunday, which was a combination of Steve Young and Brett Favre. On Atlanta’s first drive of the game, from the Packer two-yard line, Ryan took off to his left near the goal line and it looked like he’d run it in. But then he threw a one-hand shovel pass to Sanu for a touchdown. I just don’t think that’s the kind of thing he’d have been comfortable doing pre-Shanahan. ADVERTISING inRead invented by Teads Against New England, the more multiple a quarterback can be, the better. You saw how Bill Belichick and defensive boss Matt Patricia began to neutralize Le’Veon Bell even before he got hurt in the AFC game by taking away those creases in the defensive front that Bell uses so wisely. The Patriots find what you do well and find a couple of ways to combat it. No doubt that Shanahan today and tomorrow will be all over New England tape trying to play Spy Vs. Spy, figuring what the Patriots will do if the Falcons do such-and-such. The last player you’d compare Ryan to is Vick. But in the next two weeks, he’d better get ready for it. During the run-ups to Super Bowls, long perspective stories are the order of the day. Vick, 2001: thrills and chills, a roller coaster, but didn’t work overall. Ryan, 2008: by the book, outworking everyone, in the Super Bowl. The Falcons, and Ryan, have been rewarded, and a date with Tom Brady is the result. * * * We Could Use a Great Game in No. 267 Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images The Pats and Falcons haven’t played since a Sept. 29, 2013, meeting at the Georgia Dome. After 256 regular-season games and 10 in the playoffs, the NFL season comes down to game number 267 in Houston, Super Bowl LI between Atlanta and New England. I love the game, because there’s so much new and interesting about Atlanta (particularly on defense, where seven of the 12 “starters,” including third corner Brian Poole, are first or second-year players), and because there’s so much historical stuff on the line for New England. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick could become the first QB-coach duo in history to win five Super Bowls. Brady could be the first quarterback in history to win five Super Bowls. It could be a momentous night in Houston 13 days from now. And it’s new for the teams too. Of Atlanta’s 53-man roster, 37 players weren’t Falcons the last time these two teams met, a 30-23 win for New England at the Georgia Dome in 2013. It’s fresh for them, fresh for the players and coaches. I loved Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s reaction when, just before I recorded a podcast conversation with him Sunday night in the Falcons’ equipment office at the Georgia Dome, I told him it looked like the Super Bowl foe would be New England. “Good,” he said. Not because he’s a cocky glutton for punishment, but because he wants to play the best. That sounds nuts, but what coach who considers himself a really good coach wouldn’t want to match wits with Bill Belichick and his staff in the game of the year? http://mmqb.si.com/mmqb/2017/01/23/super-bowl-51-matt-ryan-falcons-tom-brady-patriots-nfl-peter-king
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