The Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions starting quarterbacks were not initial picks to the 2015 Pro Bowl. When Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady pulled out, Stafford and Ryan earned selections. They became teammates and, within a week, friends.
Before the Pro Bowl, they would say "Hey" to each other after games, but that was it. The Pro Bowl gave them a week to learn they had mutual interests in golf and good food. That they lived close to each other in Atlanta during the offseason. Ryan's wife, Sarah, and Stafford's soon-to-be-bride, Kelly, got along, too.
They started hanging out in Georgia, and "your typical bromance" -- as Stafford's brother-in-law and mutual friend Chad Hall described it -- began.
"To be honest, it has grown quicker than any relationship I've seen," said Tyler Heyman, another mutual friend.
Months after the Pro Bowl, Matt and Sarah Ryan were guests at Matthew and Kelly Stafford's wedding. The couples vacationed together and became frequent companions in Georgia. The Ryans fit in with Stafford's crowd easily -- a group accustomed to treating Stafford as just another friend instead of a highly paid NFL quarterback.
It made sense. Ryan and Stafford shared a profession and a competitive personality. Their relationship has given two men playing one of the highest-pressure positions in pro sports an outlet with each other. They can relax together and, if need be, lean on one another. So can their wives, able to share the ups and downs of being married to the face of an NFL franchise.
They can ask questions and seek out advice, as Stafford did with Ryan when he contemplated seeing a quarterback guru for the first time.
"It's really significant, and there's a guy who's literally been in your shoes," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. "And for Matt Ryan, who's done it a little longer than Matt, he could ask, 'Has this situation ever come up?' 'You know, it has.' So you don't have to be a lot older to be a really good mentor, and I think teammates can be great mentors to another.
"And I'm not saying Matt Ryan is Matt Stafford's mentor, but I'm just saying there is a partnership at the same position, and it's even true for guys like myself who are in a head-coaching position -- that I have some people that I lean on and can ask questions to that might not be on our own team. So I totally recognize that and I think it's cool that they have a good friendship going."
Stafford didn't divulge much about the friendship -- saying there were more important things at this point -- but did say, "it's kind of nice to have somebody in the league that you can talk ball with in the offseason, all that kind of stuff."
Some of that comes on the golf course. Outings became common, including one to the Frederica Golf Club on St. Simons Island in Georgia. Both Ryan and Stafford can play.
Considering their competitiveness, there needs to be something to keep it interesting, not unlike millions of other golfers around the world.
"There's no 'just let's go to see our best score.' There's some sort of competition," Hall said. "I'm the same way. It's hard to go play golf with just going to play. There's got to be something on the line.
"Matt Ryan, he's the first one to come up with the game. He's probably the head of it, but then everyone gets involved. There's something involved."
It's the same competitiveness that's displayed on football Sundays -- including this week, when friends become temporary enemies as the Lions and Falcons meet, a pair of 2-0 teams looking to establish early division leads in the NFC.
But they've been teammates, too. About a year into the friendship, Kelly and Matthew Stafford invited Matt and Sarah Ryan to join their church league basketball team. The team, comprised mostly of Hall family members and friends, is the only co-ed team in an all-male league. Yet they've won two consecutive championships.
Adding the Ryans meant more athletes and competitiveness, since Sarah played point guard at Boston College and Matt was on a high school team with future NBA players Sean Singletary and Rob Kurz. Ryan and Stafford played the wings with Hall serving as the drive-and-dish point guard. It was more deferring than the two quarterbacks were used to, but they won the majority of their games -- typically followed by celebratory dinners at Mellow Mushroom. If they lost, the postgame team meal was no guarantee. They didn't lose often. The quarterbacks wouldn't allow it.
"At first, obviously with anybody, when we're warming up, there's some guys looking and pointing," Hall said. "Even the guys on the other team, even at the start, they kind of probably looked at them and said, 'We'll see how they play.' Second time down the court, they are like, 'Oh, these guys aren't messing around. Let's go.'
"Then it was no taking it easy on anybody. They weren't taking it easy on them. Obviously, Matthew and Matt -- we weren't taking it easy by any means. We got right into it."
This meant Stafford enjoying setting hard screens. Hall said Ryan dove in a scrum for a loose ball in his first game. That endeared him to the rest of the team. The only deference Ryan and Stafford showed was a preference to pass instead of taking over games with their scoring. Unless it was close late, that is. Then competitiveness took over.
"Matthew has definitely had a -- he had a big fourth quarter, it might have been the championship or semifinal game that was basically the championship game," Heyman said. "We were playing the best team. He had a moment of takeover, where he had 12 or 14 straight points.
"But Matt Ryan also had a couple streaks where he was hitting 6-for-6, 7-for-7, and he can hit the long ball. They both can."
It’s all part of a friendship between two couples who became close through mutual interests. After Kelly had twins, Sarah came to Michigan to visit. They've offered advice to one another. And that's really no different from any other friendship.
The Ryans and Staffords just happen to be in the public eye.
"I just gained a good friend. That's probably the biggest thing," Matt Ryan said. "He's a great guy and, really, we've got a lot of similar interests, a lot of things we like to do away from the field. So, honestly, he's just a good person. They're a really good family."
-- NFL Nation Atlanta Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure contributed to this report.