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Yasinskas: Matt Ryan Takes Step To Elite Status


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Matt Ryan takes step to elite status

Jan 13 6:56 PM ET

By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- When the history of Matt Ryan's career is written -- and that probably won’t happen for at least another decade or so -- what happened Sunday will mark a significant turning point.

In thrilling fashion, Ryan finally won a playoff game, leading the Atlanta Falcons to a 30-28 victory against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round at the Georgia Dome.

It was the day that Ryan shed two labels: the guy who couldn't win a playoff game and "choker." And, at long last, he officially earned another.

“I feel very strongly that Matt is an elite type of quarterback,’’ Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.

Let’s go ahead and give Ryan the elite label. With his game-winning drive, Ryan earned the right to be called elite, even by those who doubted him.

The sad part is I thought Ryan had earned elite status much earlier in his five NFL seasons. The guy has won a lot of games -- regular-season games. But the world was not going to believe in Ryan until he won a playoff game.

His first three postseason appearances didn’t go well. As a rookie in the 2008 season, Ryan and the Falcons lost at Arizona. Despite having the No. 1 seed in the 2010 season, they lost at home to Green Bay. Last season, Ryan and the offense were dismal and they lost, 24-2, to the New York Giants. The two points came on a safety by the defense.

With each loss, the chorus of doubters grew louder. The critics kept pointing to the fact that Ryan never had passed for more than 200 yards in a playoff game.

“The one thing I've learned specifically is, in the postseason, it’s hard [to win],’’ Ryan said. “It’s difficult to do.’’

The pressure this time around was intense on Ryan and coach Mike Smith, who arrived the same year as his quarterback. Another loss could have put both on the hottest of seats heading into the 2013 season. But the pressure broke with a victory against the Seahawks. That’s why Ryan was smiling more broadly than I’ve ever seen him as he walked through the tunnel toward the locker room after the game.

“I hugged him several times,’’ Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “I’m happy for every guy in that locker room. But I’m especially happy for Matt because he’s the quarterback and all eyes are on him and everybody kept pointing to the past, which I don’t think was very fair.’’

Matt Ryan's Game-Winning Drives

Here is a list of the game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since Ryan joined the Falcons in 2008.

Date Opponent Score

10/05/08 Green Bay 27-24

10/12/08 Chicago 22-20

12/14/08 Tampa Bay* 13-10

12/28/08 St. Louis 31-27

10/18/09 Chicago 21-14

12/20/09 NY Jets 10-7

01/03/10 Tampa Bay 20-10

09/26/10 New Orleans* 27-24

10/03/10 San Francisco 16-14

10/24/10 Cincinnati 39-32

11/11/10 Baltimore 26-21

11/28/10 Green Bay 20-17

12/05/10 Tampa Bay 28-24

09/18/11 Philadelphia 35-31

10/16/11 Carolina 31-17

12/11/11 Carolina 31-23

9/30/12 Carolina 30-28

10/7/12 Washington 24-17

10/14/12 Oakland 23-20

11/18/12 Arizona 23-19

11/25/12 Tampa Bay 24-23

1/13/13 Seattle^ 30-28

*Game-winning drive in OT.

^Game-winning drive in postseason.

Source: Atlanta Falcons

The pressure might not have been fair, but it was understandable. Until Ryan won in the postseason, a lot of people were going to continue to overlook the fact he’d spent five years showing he could handle pressure situations quite nicely.

Coming into Sunday, Ryan had 21 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including six this season. He long ago earned the nickname "Matty Ice."

But the 22nd game-winning drive of Ryan’s career forever will be frozen in Atlanta history. It came after the Falcons, largely because of a defensive collapse, had squandered a 20-0 halftime lead and fallen behind, 28-27.

Atlanta got the ball back at its own 28-yard line and 31 seconds remaining. Ryan promptly hit Harry Douglas with a pass that gained 22 yards. He followed that with a 19-yard gain to Tony Gonzalez.

With 13 seconds left, kicker Matt Bryant trotted onto the field and hit a 49-yard field goal.

“Our quarterback, guys and ladies, is a special player,’’ Smith said. "He did a great job there on that last drive. I know his nickname is 'Matty Ice.' I feel like we have two 'Matty Ices.' We’ve got Matty Ice Ryan and Matty Ice Bryant. Matt Bryant has done some really big things for us."

There’s no doubt Bryant is one of the league’s best clutch kickers. But he would not have gotten the chance to win the game if it wasn't for Ryan.

The quarterback simply did what he’s done throughout his career.

“I’ve been in these situations throughout the year and the last few years,’’ Ryan said.

The only difference was that this was a playoff game and that’s a big difference. The questions about having never won a playoff game now will cease.

“It’ll be nice,’’ said Ryan, who completed 24 of 35 passes for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Falcons now host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.

“We’re in a spot right now where, with Matt at the helm, we always know we have a very good chance,’’ Dimitroff said.

That finally rang true on a playoff stage. Maybe postseason wins come easier once you get the first one. Or maybe the 49ers will present an even bigger challenge than the Seahawks.

Ryan may have looked relieved as he was hugging Blank and Dimitroff, but that doesn't mean he is satisfied.

“Our goal isn’t to win one playoff game,’’ Ryan said. “Our goal is still in front of us. We’ve got two more games to go.’’

There’s no reason the Falcons can’t win the NFC Championship Game, as long as Ryan plays the way he almost always has in the regular season.

Ryan’s been an elite quarterback for a long time. Now, it’s time for him to keep proving it in the postseason.

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“I hugged him several times,’’ Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. “I’m happy for every guy in that locker room. But I’m especially happy for Matt because he’s the quarterback and all eyes are on him and everybody kept pointing to the past, which I don’t think was very fair.’’

i am happy for Mr. Blank. He deserved it after suffering through years of Smith ownership.

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I honestly don't believe this will change anything as far as how the media and other fans view the falcons, and Ryan. Had he done this his first season, it would be there, and if he can keep it going, it will be there, but it's different now than it was with Peyton. When he came into the league, the QB supply was garbage, and he shined easily. These days, there's alot of great QBs, and one playoff victory, regardless of what "they" say probably won't change much, if the falcons get smoked next week, and fail next year. The one and done talk has reemerged with Peyton, so it'll never go away

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If that game gives Matt elite status then we need a new moniker for what Russell Wilson did.

Ultra elite? Seriously cant let go of what Matt did on the previous drives that put us in that situation in the first place. Not elite in my book. Just a good qb. Nothing wrong with that. Go Falcons!

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It does. Just one girl's opinion.

It takes a team.... He's put up beyond solid #s for awhile now. Marino never won the big one and he was elite.

Agree 100%, haters only had the playoff thing to hold against Ryan, and now they don't have that, they are just flat out hating.

it's their loss

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You think Matt Ryan is on the same level as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, yet I'm the idiot?

Wow!

He's not that far off. Quit hating. If he wins a Super Bowl this year going through 2 of the best Ds in the NFL, he's absolutely closing in on their level.

This wasn't a cupcake we just beat guy. That was the best secondary in the NFL. Rodgers and Brady didn't have much luck against them this year.

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Elite doesn't mean he has to be BEAST MODE as good as arguably the best QB to play the game in history(Brady).

Rodgers couldn't overcome a terribad defense yesterday and today our's nearly lost the game.

Ryan wasn't 'perfect' but WAS the MVP today.

That and our coaching staff improving, finally getting this team over the hump into the NFCCG.

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