Matt Ryan takes step to elite status

Matt Ryan earned the right to be called elite after rallying Atlanta in the playoffs. AP Photo/Dave Martin

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 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."

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 five 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.