When Falcons' Matt Ryan reaches 50,000 yards, fantasy will become reality

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There will be at least one Manning rooting hard for Matt Ryan to reach 50,000 career passing yards Thanksgiving night, and it won’t necessarily be Peyton or Eli.

Peyton’s 8-year-old son, Marshall Manning, has a vested interest in how the Atlanta Falcons quarterback performs on a weekly basis. Ryan is well aware of it.

“I guess Peyton’s son, Marshall, I’m his fantasy quarterback," Ryan said with a laugh. "I’ve heard more from his son than I’ve heard from Peyton during the season. He said, 'Stop throwing picks!' at the beginning of the year."

Unlike fantasy owners, Ryan’s not keeping track of individual statistics. But the former MVP isn’t oblivious to being on the verge of joining Peyton, Eli and seven others in a prestigious club: 50,000-yard passers. He's 346 yards away from the mark going into Thursday night’s matchup with Drew Brees and the visiting New Orleans Saints (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

“To be able to hopefully get to 50,000 yards is something that, playing at Penn Charter when I was in high school running the triple-option and throwing the ball six times a game, did not seem realistic," Ryan said. "So to kind of be in this position now, it goes so fast. It would be very special for me, personally.

"Anytime you’re on a list with those other guys, that’s pretty cool. You have images of [some] of those guys in your head from when you were a kid, and that’s who you grew up idolizing."

Although he has tremendous respect for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Brees for continuing to perform at a high level into their 40s, the 34-year-old Ryan singled out another quarterback as the one he always wanted to emulate.

"Brett Favre was probably my favorite," Ryan said of the Hall of Famer, who spent the majority of his career in Green Bay. "He was kind of in his prime when I was growing up. It was like what you wanted to do in the backyard, but you couldn’t do it because you didn’t have his skill set."

For Favre, the respect is mutual.

"Matt is a great player, first off, and very consistent, durable, and calm under pressure," Favre told ESPN. "He plays well regardless of how the team is playing. The team seems to respond well to his leadership, not to mention love playing for him. That’s the best compliment a QB can ask for."

Ryan has done pretty well even without necessarily possessing a Favre-like gambling mentality. Ryan threw for more than 4,000 yards in each of the previous eight seasons, including a single-season high of 4,944 yards during his 2016 MVP campaign -- the same season the Falcons made it to the Super Bowl. Ryan recently surpassed Warren Moon to move into 10th place on the career passing list.

Ryan has thrown for 6,536 yards in 22 career games against the Saints (297.1-yard average). He threw for 182 yards in a Week 10 victory at New Orleans, but the Falcons rushed for a season-high 143 yards while pounding the Saints 26-9.

Brees has tremendous respect for Ryan, a guy he has faced more than any other quarterback.

"He’s very poised," Brees said of Ryan. “Like, when I watch him play, everything’s very disciplined. You can tell he’s a guy that, man, it’s attention to detail. You know, some guys you watch play and they’re very kind of like their footwork could look different on every play. But, man, he is disciplined with his footwork, he’s disciplined with his timing. The ball is coming out on time with trust and anticipation.

“He’s a good decision-maker. He’s very poised under pressure, like the pocket collapsing around him. He’s a good deep-ball thrower. He’s good outside the pocket for a guy who’s a big guy, 6-5 and change. Typically those guys aren’t known for being scramble-type guys, but he’s very effective when he gets outside the pocket. He does all the right things and makes good decisions. You can tell he’s a student of the game, that he puts in the time and the effort to be a great player."

A significant part of Ryan's drive to perfect his game has been time spent with Peyton Manning, assured to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2021. The two share the same agent (Tom Condon) and spend their share of time golfing in the offseason.

“He’s one of the most conscientious people of reaching out, whether it’s a note, a text, or an email," Ryan said of Manning. “For different things throughout my career, he’s definitely reached out. And I have the opportunity to spend time with him away from football.

“I remember the night we won the NFC championship, he was incredibly helpful to me about all the other stuff that goes on Super Bowl week and how to compartmentalize things. He’s as good as it gets."

Ryan was the fastest to 40,000 yards in NFL history when he accomplished it through 151 games. He reached that mark in November 2017 in a victory over the Dallas Cowboys. Ryan hit 30,000 yards in October 2015 during a win over the Tennessee Titans, becoming the fourth-youngest to 30,000 at age 30, behind Marino, Peyton Manning and Favre.

"It’s always nicer to hit a milestone after a win because you can enjoy it a little bit,’’ Ryan said. “After a loss, you really don’t care because it’s tough. You’re just miserable after a loss."

Ryan emphasized how reaching any individual goal is meaningless if you’re not winning. The Falcons have a 3-8 record this season with little hope of the postseason despite not officially being eliminated from contention. Ryan, who started 154 consecutive games before missing this season's Seattle game because of a sprained right ankle, doesn’t want to put a limit on how long he will play. But winning a Super Bowl "is the No. 1 goal for me and what motivates me to get out of bed every morning."

Any individual accolades along the way are a bonus. And, sure, he’d love to finish his career as the NFL’s all-time leading passer.

"Everybody’s shooting for that," Ryan said with a smile. “Anybody that tells you they’re not is lying. Of course you’re shooting for that. Of course you’d want to be recognized that way. But at the same time, there’s a long time to go between now and then.

“You need a lot of luck, and I think all the guys up there on the list would say the same thing. You’ve got to work really, really hard, but you’ve got to be lucky, too, to be able to continue to play and not have things derail your career because every time you’re out there, something could kind of change that narrative. It could change in one play. So, I think you have to be lucky to get there, too. But I feel good, man. I feel like I’ve got a lot to go, a long way to go from here."

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this story.