If you go strictly by what was at stake and adjust the curve for the time frame, the last big game Matt Ryan won was the Champs Sports Bowl.
On Dec. 28, 2007, he threw three touchdown passes, leading Boston College to a victory against Michigan State. It was Ryan’s final college game. It also was his last postseason victory.
Ryan gets another chance at the postseason Saturday night when the Atlanta Falcons play host to the Green Bay Packers in the Georgia Dome in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. Ryan beat the Packers with a last-minute drive to set up a field goal in a regular-season game back in late November. You can make a case that qualifies as a big game. You can argue that any number of the 13 victories Ryan led the Falcons to this season would fall into the category of a big win.
Go ahead and point to some of his victories as a rookie or in 2009 and call them big wins. You might be right. Ryan’s done a lot of great things in his three-year career.
But the one thing he hasn’t done is win in the postseason. He’s had only one chance. That came at the end of his rookie season when the Falcons lost to Arizona. Ryan didn’t have a bad game that day. The Cardinals were at home and simply the better team, on their way to the Super Bowl.
Now, comes Ryan’s next chance, and this is about much more than earning a trip to the NFC Championship Game. It’s about Ryan taking the next career step.
Throw his name into a sentence with the phrase “elite quarterbacks’’ and you’re going to elicit strong reaction both ways. When ESPN’s John Clayton called Ryan an elite quarterback during the regular season, my mailbag filled up with emotional replies. Some agreed and some passionately disputed that claim.
Well, now is Ryan’s chance to start ending that argument. But it’s just a step. Remember, Peyton Manning “couldn’t win the big one’’ until he finally won a Super Bowl, and now the knock is “he’s only won one Super Bowl.’’ Even Dan Marino still gets criticized for never winning a Super Bowl.
A victory against Green Bay would do a lot to silence some Ryan critics and help raise his stature. Although the questions about him and winning big games are out there, it’s kind of amazing that Ryan hasn’t had to field them this week.
It’s been a strange time in Atlanta. The city and the region have been overwhelmed by a rare winter storm. The Falcons have been forced to practice indoors in the building known as “The Barn’’ at their Flowery Branch, Ga., facility. Some players and coaches have been staying at the facility and others have been carpooling to get there safely.
When Ryan met with the media Tuesday, the group was limited because national reporters couldn’t fly into Atlanta. Some local reporters were unable to make the trek to Flowery Branch. In a bit of irony, the man known as “Matty Ice’’ spent most of his time talking about the snow and ice.
“It was slow coming in,’’ Ryan said. “I don’t think it’s affected my preparation at all. You’ve got to wake up a few minutes earlier and allow for a little extra travel time.’’
This past Sunday night, as soon as it was clear the Falcons would play host to the Packers, Ryan grabbed a notebook and started getting ready for Green Bay.
“Yeah, I’m kind of old school, so it’s not on a computer or anything like that,’’ Ryan said. “It’s just paper and pencil, which is real old school. It’s just taking notes from that week of preparation [for Green Bay in the regular season], what we thought during the week going into it, our previous game plan and some notes from after the game of what we saw, checks and stuff like that, that we heard out there. That said, they’ll probably change some things, just like we will.’’
In that previous meeting, Ryan was near flawless. He completed 24 of 28 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown. Precise numbers, but hardly prolific.
“That’s the knock on their offense,’’ Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said. “They’re a balanced offense, probably even a run-first offense, so [Ryan] isn’t going to get the chance to put up the really big numbers. They’re always going to try to establish Michael Turner and the running game. They do have Roddy White and he’s a dangerous receiver. But nobody’s afraid of [receiver] Michael Jenkins, and they’re probably less afraid of [tight end Tony Gonzalez] because those guys don’t stretch the field and they don’t make anything happen after the catch. They’re a well-coached and tough group, but I don’t trust the Falcons to score a lot of points.’’
There, that’s the other consistent knock on Ryan. Even in a season in which he established new career highs for passing yards (3,705) and touchdowns (28), he still is viewed as something of a game manager in Atlanta’s ball-control offense.
“I think it will be important for us to run the ball effectively,’’ Ryan said. “[Turner] did a great job running the football the last time we played and our offensive line did a great job. I expect them to do a couple things differently against our run scheme. We’ll try to figure out what that is and try to adjust to that pretty quick. It doesn’t change for us. We like to be pretty balanced. We try to run the football effectively and throw the football, and then figure out through the course of the game whatever we need to do to win it.’’
That’s the bottom line here. To take the next step in his recognition evolution, Ryan doesn’t need a 400-yard passing game, because Atlanta’s offensive system doesn’t really allow for it. What he needs to start silencing the remaining doubters is a postseason win.