Ryan, Gonzalez still looking for playoff wins

In just three seasons, Matt Ryan has already earned that elusive

tag: franchise quarterback.

You know, the kind of guy who’ll be the centerpiece of your team

for a decade or more. Just put some good players around him, stand

back and watch the wins come rolling in.

So far, that plan has worked to perfection for the Atlanta

Falcons.

In the regular season, at least.

Now, it’s time for Matty Ice to show he can win a playoff

game.

”I understand how the NFL works, and how the fans work too,”

Ryan said. ”You are judged by what you do in January. You have to

embrace that. Hopefully, we’ll fully have another opportunity to

change that perception.”

The Falcons have gone 33-15 since Ryan arrived in 2008 as the

No. 3 overall pick. He claimed the starting job right away and

fast-forwarded a rebuilding job that was supposed to take several

seasons after Michael Vick went to prison for dogfighting.

Ryan has already thrown for more than 10,000 yards, with 66

touchdown and just 34 interceptions. More important, he’s guided a

franchise that had never had back-to-back winning seasons to three

in a row, including an NFC South title and two trips to the

playoffs.

It’s in the postseason where things have taken an ugly turn.

He’s thrown only three touchdowns and been picked off four

times. He’s been sacked eight times, once for a safety. He’s

coughed up two fumbles, one of them returned for a touchdown. Not

surprisingly, both trips to the playoffs ended right away with

losses, including last season’s hideous 48-21 blowout at home by

the eventual Super Bowl championship Green Bay Packers.

”There’s a lot of things you learn in those situations,” Ryan

said. ”For one, your mistakes are magnified. You’re playing such

good opponents and it’s a one game-and-down type of atmosphere.

Anytime you make a mistake, it really counts as two. We certainly

made too many mistakes in last year’s playoff game. If given that

opportunity again, hopefully we can improve on that.”

The way general manager Thomas Dimitroff was wheeling and

dealing during the locked-out offseason, it’s clear he feels this

team is right on the cusp of winning its first title. On draft day,

he mortgaged a great deal of his future to acquire receiver Julio

Jones, the sort of breakout threat that seemed to be missing a year

ago even with an offense that included Pro Bowlers Ryan, receiver

Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Michael Turner,

fullback Ovie Mughelli and tackle Tyson Clabo.

With Jones added to that already potent group, the Falcons

should have no trouble scoring even more points. They’re also

counting on having a lot more passing plays of at least 20 yards,

ranking next-to-last in that category in 2010.

”It’s a Ferrari offense,” Gonzalez said. ”The biggest thing

we’ve got to add this year is explosive plays. … That’s where

Julio is going to come in and help us out a lot with his big body

and his speed. With him and Roddy and myself and (third receiver)

Harry (Douglas), there’s a whole lot of weapons on this teams. And

Matt’s the guy driving the car. I feel very comfortable with him

driving the Ferrari.”

Dimitroff didn’t neglect the defense, either.

As soon as the lockout was settled and teams could begin signing

free agents, Atlanta addressed its biggest need on the other side

of the line. John Abraham was a Pro Bowler at defensive end, but he

had little help rushing the quarterback – a weakness that Green

Bay’s Aaron Rodgers exploited while carving up the Falcons in the

playoffs.

Now, former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards will be

lining up on the opposite side from Abraham, a major upgrade over

last year’s starter, Kroy Biermann.

Given the trade for Jones and the signing of Edwards, anything

less than a trip to the Super Bowl will be a major letdown for a

team that went 13-3 last season.

”The opportunity is short in the NFL. You have to take

advantage of it while you have it,” Gonzalez said. ”The more the

merrier, and let’s make a serious run at this thing.”

No one would appreciate a Super Bowl ring more than Gonzalez.

The 35-year-old heads into the 15th – and, who knows, maybe the

last – season of a brilliant career that will surely take him to

Canton after his playing days are over.

Gonzalez has pretty much done it all in his career. Except win a

playoff game. Not even one.

As much as his teammates want to bring Atlanta its first NFL

title, they really want to give No. 88 a chance to retire as a

champion.

”He’s got everything except that Super Bowl ring. We want to

get him there,” White said. ”He’s been patient. He’s played his

heart out for 15 years. He’s been at the top of the game. He’s an

awesome locker-room buy and a great pro. He’s showed a lot of

people how to play football. That’s a great thing. He should be

rewarded.”