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Can Matt Ryan ride this season to a Lombardi trophy?

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Falcons' success no surprise to Matt Ryan (1:19)

Even when he was fending off rumors of a rift between himself and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Matt Ryan knew that the Falcons' offense had the capability to be a high-powered success. (1:19)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 6 Super Bowl Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

HIS MIND'S INTERIOR monologue is an eruption of profanity. He's just thrown another interception. In the artificially placid room temp of Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Matt Ryan is watching the safety recede into the distance. Ryan too is running as fast as he can. Dutifully, instinctively, he's giving chase, but he has no chance of catching the thief. In the instant of the error, everyone knows the safety will take the ball 100 yards into the opposite end zone. The crowd groans. Moments earlier, Ryan had engineered an electric comeback -- an 80-yard drive capped by a quarterback scramble for first down on third-and-9, then a quick toss for the go-ahead touchdown, 28-27. Victory over the Chiefs in Week 13 seemed assured. But to put the Falcons up by a field goal, to seal the game and improve the team's record to 8-4 and move into the final stretch of the season as a playoff favorite, Falcons coach Dan Quinn had decided to go for two. Then Chiefs safety Eric Berry stepped in front of Ryan's throw, intended for a crossing tight end, and scored the first "pick-two" in NFL history. Later, Ryan will take the blame. He will say that he "peeked" at Berry before the snap, tipping him off.

Regular-season stats for 2016: 117.1 QB rating, first in the NFL. Total QBR: 83.3, first in the NFL. Nearly 5,000 yards passing, a 69.9 percent completion rate, 38 touchdowns -- all top-three in the league. His 9.26 yards per pass attempt is the highest in NFL history (minimum 500 attempts). Thirteen different Falcons players caught passes for touchdowns from Ryan in the regular season; no quarterback has ever thrown for TDs to as many targets. In measures both familiar and obscure, football fans in 2016 have witnessed an unprecedented flourishing of offensive production from Matt Ryan.

And yet, the skull-clutching nature of that KC pick-two was, in a sense, emblematic of Ryan's career. For the past eight seasons, he's lived on greatness's verge. But at the worst possible moments, Ryan has displayed a propensity to do the worst possible thing. There was the pick-six that helped seal the Falcons' fate in a playoff game against the Packers in January 2011. There was the crushing last-second defeat at the hands of the 49ers two years later in the NFC championship game, when an interception and a fumbled snap helped blow a 17-point lead. There was the entirety of last season, during which Ryan threw four red zone picks.

Every quarterback goes through rough patches. Every quarterback commits heinous turnovers that lead to losses. But quarterbacks who've never won titles are not often forgiven for their sins. In an era of Mozarts -- Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Roethlisberger -- Ryan has been a Salieri, striving to rise to the level of the maestro. And as he entered this postseason, at age 31, he was the living embodiment of a question: Can the mortal will himself to immortality?


THE FALCONS' COMPLEX is situated 50 miles north of downtown Atlanta, in an exurb called Flowery Branch. It boasts a vaguely militaristic aspect. An enormous earthen berm 30 feet high shields the compound on its southeastern flank, as if from possible assault. Matt Ryan's weekly Q&A with the media takes place in a windowless cinder block room with dropped ceilings and blue-gray industrial carpet and a blank whiteboard along one wall. You could plan a squadron's sorties in there.

On practice days, Ryan is dutifully the first to arrive and last to leave here. An aura of acute competence surrounds him. His capacity for work is not that of a normal person. He hails from the kind of upper-middle East Coast suburbs (specifically, Main Line Philadelphia) where the offspring of lawyers and corporate managers agonize about SAT scores and do battle for collegiate admission. Were he not a football player, one has the sense that Ryan would have been the sort of overachieving wonk who clerks for a Supreme Court justice and makes partner before 30 -- and also competes in triathlons.

This week media attention is high. The Falcons are preparing to host the Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs. At the podium now, Ryan fields questions, but only in a manner of speaking. If there is one thing he has mastered other than quarterback play, it is the ability to be almost completely nonresponsive to media questions without quite appearing to be nonresponsive -- a kind of Pentagon skill.

In front of the cameras and voice recorders and notebooks, there is the habitual abhorrence of specificity. There is the refusal to dwell on the past. There is the relentless erasure of history. "I'm not going any further back than this past season," he says. Almost all pro athletes, quarterbacks especially, are to a degree like this. But even players like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers aren't totally able to suppress a certain amount of personality, even weirdness, which surfaces despite their efforts. Not so Ryan.

Four days later, in the Falcons' locker room, nearly two hours after the game clock has ticked to zero, after Atlanta has secured only its second playoff win of the Ryan era, he remains. His teammates are all gone. The room has been trashed. Tape and used gloves and bandages and shower sandals and what appear to be gauze pads caked with brown blood and food and plastic cups and towels are strewn across the floor. Ryan at his locker is showered and shaved and clean-cut. He's wearing a zip-neck gray pullover and black trousers. He looks like he just slept eight hours and is about to head off to the yacht club for lunch. A coven of sportswriters forms a semicircle around him.

"Any sense of relief, winning this game?" someone asks.

Ryan, who has just delivered a near-flawless 338-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception performance -- a harbinger of the incredible 392 yards and four TD passes he dropped on Green Bay in the NFC championship -- responds to the question as if from a textbook of cant: "You know, we've got some more business to take care of ... It's just the next step in our journey ... We've got a lot more work to do."

After about 10 minutes, the Falcons media handler standing nearby motions that that's it, end of interview.

"Aw'ight," Ryan says, almost yelling. "I'm out! I gave you the best I had!"


WHEN OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Kyle Shanahan arrived with Atlanta's new coaching regime in 2015, Ryan had to reinvent himself. Over the course of his seven previous NFL seasons, he had known only one system. In it, he dropped back and threw from the pocket. Now Shanahan's outside-zone scheme required Ryan to roll out, to bootleg, to move the pocket, to actually move. For the first time in his career, he taped his ankles as a precaution against ankle injury.

That season started in gangbuster fashion: five straight wins and talk of a deep playoff run. Then the offense stalled out, the team slumped with six straight losses and Ryan seemed to regress badly. Close observers understood that the Falcons were playing with an injured and patchwork offensive line. "The pocket would collapse, there was pressure all over the place," says one former Falcon. "Matt's lucky he didn't get killed. He could have been hurt and hurt badly."

As 2015 skidded to a close, there was much conjecture about a personality clash between the hypercompetent Ryan and the jittery hypercompetent Shanahan. That conjecture was heightened by Roddy White, the Falcons' all-time leading receiver, who criticized the clubhouse chemistry after being released by the team in the offseason. "I've been in buildings where you lose two games in a row and it feels like the building is burning down," Shanahan counters. "We lost six in a row after starting 5-0. I'm pretty proud of how we all handled it."

By his own account, Ryan was enamored with Shanahan's offense; he says he never lost faith in it. And perhaps for good reason. Shanahan's mentors have included Jon Gruden, Gary Kubiak and, of course, his father, Mike. The foundation of both Shanahans' schemes is an outside-zone running game, drilled into the players until it can be run like clockwork. And so it was that Ryan was engaging with a system that, almost genetically, had its roots with a Broncos team coached by Mike Shanahan 20 years earlier and led by a quarterback who had also experienced years of heartbreak before winning multiple titles: John Elway.

During a game early in the 2015 season, NFL Films captured a snippet of dialogue on the bench between Shanahan and Ryan. "I can't wait 'til I know the offense inside and out, though, bro," Ryan was saying, "because we are going to kill people with it."


IN MARCH 2016, Ryan invited 27 Falcons skill players to join him in Miami for three days of route-running. By day they commandeered the field at the nearby Catholic high school football powerhouse, St. Thomas Aquinas. They had fancy dinners on South Beach by night. This was the 2016 tone setter. Among Falcons players, there is much talk of culture, of "preaching the brotherhood." During the offseason, the entire team collectively composed a piece of inspirational text, dubbed the Falcons Standard, that is now inscribed on the inside of every player's locker. The team refuses to let outsiders read it, like scripture that only the converted can study. The Falcons realize that there's a corniness to this. But, says safety Ricardo Allen, "corny wins."

But it does not win alone. And the question of just what accounts for Ryan's resurgence continues to hover over this postseason. Perhaps the brotherly love helped. Perhaps too it was the arrival of All-Pro Alex Mack, the most talented center Ryan has played behind since 2013, when Cajun warhorse Todd McClure retired after 14 years with the Falcons.

Perhaps it was Ryan's summertime visit to the clinic of Tom House, a former MLB pitcher turned swami to professional throwers of balls of all kinds, including QBs. (Brady and Drew Brees are clients.) House's practice entails not just the curing of throwing mechanics but also deep consultations in the psychological pressures of highest-order athletics. Although Ryan declines to elaborate on his time there, it's easy to imagine that his House sessions involved an overhaul of his cognitive approach to the game itself. "He'd had the worst year statistically of his career," says retired tight end Tony Gonzalez, Ryan's friend and former teammate. "They call it the transformational power of crisis."

Or perhaps it was just a second year's worth of reps in Shanahan's system -- a system capable of creating the impression that defensive coordinators have never before seen a slant route. Now, after just one successful season with Ryan, Shanahan is likely on his way out, reportedly tapped to coach the 49ers. And if Ryan's transformation from Salieri to Mozart is complete, then he, like Peyton Manning before him, might well need to become, in essence, his own offensive coordinator. Gonzalez, for one, thinks he can: "He was always very good, but this year he took that last step toward mastery, and I don't see him looking back."


BETWEEN PRACTICES DURING the week before the Falcons' playoff game against the Seahawks, the atmosphere in the main locker room at Flowery Branch is loose, even joyful. Smooth R&B plays on the sound system. Three pingpong tables have been set up in the middle of the room. The Falcons have become obsessed with pingpong this season. The matches are hotly competitive. There is hooting and trash-talk. They have some elaborate ranking system. Julio Jones, evidently, is the Roger Federer of Falcons pingpong.

Matt Ryan is right now losing to wide receiver Nick Williams and not liking it. The quarterback drives a forehand into the net.

"Dick!" he yells across the table. He hunches down into a crouch, preparing to return serve. "Let's go!"

Fullback Pat DiMarco looks on as the match progresses. DiMarco is talking about Ryan's astounding performance in 2016. He says he was particularly impressed with his quarterback's play in the Falcons' Week 7 defeat at Seattle. Why? "Because he took a few big, nasty hits. Sat in there. Knew he was going to get hit but delivered the perfect ball." Both were on third-and-long. Both resulted in first downs. After each hit, DiMarco says, "he went back in there and said: Bring it."

In one of his preseason interfaces with the media, Shanahan spoke about Ryan's interceptions and the need to learn from them. It was a lesson that apparently took. From 2012 to 2015, Ryan threw 14, 17, 14 and 16 interceptions, respectively. This season: seven. Still, the idea of learning from the past has its limits. "You go over them to a degree, but what you don't ever want to do is make a quarterback scared to throw the ball," Shanahan says. "You've got to let it rip in this league."

Ryan is hyperaware of this too -- known among his teammates for his ability to not only shrug off physical pain but to shrug off the poor play, the bad mistake, the skull-clutching interception. He is as overachievingly zealous in this pursuit as he is in studying the week's game plan. And so at the podium there lives the Matt Ryan of radical noncontroversy.

Not long before the divisional game, at the end of an interview with Ryan, I raise the subject of the pick-two. It's a loaded question, given its many humiliations: the futile chase of Berry, the certain-victory-turned-loss, the recidivist blemish on his otherwise MVP-caliber year. At mention of the term "pick-two," Ryan studies me with a blank expression. "Hmm," he says, deadpan, as he rises to his feet, bottling the interview, smothering the very notion of this "pick-two" that I speak of, driving it 6 feet into the turf. "What is that?"