FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – For Matt Ryan, it was a rare admission.
Ryan, whose interview sessions with the media are an effort in self-imposed verbal straight-jacketing in order to divulge as little information as possible, often serves up such platitudes as the next game being the most important and, in response to what it needs to correct, he will say the Falcons simply need to execute better.
So when the quarterback said following the Falcons’ 34-0 win over the New York Giants on Sunday that last year’s 24-2 loss to the Giants in the playoffs motivated him, it represented a temporary unveiling of the curtain.
“I think for certain guys it does,” he said. “I think for guys that were around here last year, falling short up there last year provides some sort of motivation and, if guys fed off that, we need more of that moving forward.”
Then he was asked specifically about himself.
“For me personally, a little bit. You know, I think more so — rather it being a team, the way it ended last year, that’s kind of difficult.”
Let it be noted that in that victory, Ryan registered the second-best quarterback rating of his career, 142.6, while the two-time Super Bowl winner on the opposite side of the field from him, Eli Manning, posted a mark of 38.9, Manning’s worst in five seasons. Ryan’s only other higher-rated game came last season against Tampa Bay, the 10th straight loss by the disintegrating Buccaneers.
Arguably, then, by completing 23-of-28 passes (82 percent) for 270 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against a defense the caliber of the Giants’, Ryan had the best game of his career.
Ryan already is having the best season of his career, as his 97.5 rating is more than five points better than his previous best and ranks seventh in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts. Furthermore, Sunday’s performance indicates that he has emerged from something of a mini-slump. In his four previous games, he had one with five interceptions, one in which he threw for only 165 yards and in last week’s embarrassing 30-20 loss to Carolina he had thrown for only 40 yards at halftime.
Earlier this season, Ryan was touted as an MVP candidate. While bigger names – namely Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson – are garnering bigger headlines, Ryan would merit consideration if his team finishes with the best record in the league. (Currently, the Falcons and Houston are tied at 12-2.)
Falcons head coach Mike Smith said he thought the game was one of Ryan’s best as a pro, but refused to be drawn into the MVP debate on Monday.
“Again, that’s for you guys to talk about,” he said. “In my mind, Matt is having a great year for us and there’s a lot of things that don’t show up on a stat sheet that he’s doing very well for our football team.”
Among the reasons for Ryan’s success on Sunday was a game plan that neutralized the strength that has helped the Giants to win two Super Bowls in the last five seasons: their pass rush. Smith said it was the Falcons’ “No. 1 offensive must” to neutralize the Giants’ defensive line. For the game, the Giants had only one sack.
To keep the Giants’ defensive line from being able to concentrate solely on moving upfield vertically, the Falcons kept them at bay laterally with end arounds, plenty of action in the backfield on running plays and also a healthy dose of screens and draw plays.
“I thought our offensive staff did a great job in terms of putting a game plan together in terms of neutralizing the defensive line,” Smith said. “… I thought our offensive line did a very good job winning their one-on-one battles, but we did some things formationally and in terms of how we put plays together that I think helped us, as well. It was an outstanding effort by our offensive line yesterday.”
Compared to last January’s playoff meeting against the Giants when the defensive line harassed Ryan throughout the game, the Falcons were vastly improved in pass-protection on Sunday, as Smith said. That allowed Ryan time and his 40-yard touchdown throw to Julio Jones in the third quarter was evidence of that.
The Giants had ruled out two key defensive backs prior to the start of the game, including starting cornerback Prince Amukamara. During the game, Amukamara’s replacement Jayron Hosley missed some plays because of injury and the Giants had to reach farther into their depth chart.
Ryan said the fact that he had time allowed the offense to attack the Giants’ depleted secondary, which is not a strength to begin with.
“Absolutely,” he said on Sunday. “I feel like we have two guys on the outside (Roddy White and Jones) that are as good as anybody in this league. We have to feel confident any time we get those guys in one-on-one matchups and we talked about it all week being important to negotiate their front four and having time to be able to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups and a lot of credit has to go to our offensive line for getting that done today.”
It’s true that without the offensive line’s performance, Ryan would have, like last January, had a harder time. But given the opportunity, he came through with possibly the best game in his five NFL seasons.