ATLANTA — On a day of dreadful quarterback performances by players with limited NFL experience, Matt Ryan, the most experienced of the three to step on the Georgia Dome turf Sunday, smelled up the place as much as any.
In the midst of an MVP-caliber season, the Falcons’ quarterback threw a career-high five interceptions and posted a 40.5 rating, his lowest since the second game of his career on Sept. 14, 2008.
Nonetheless, with the game on the line and the Falcons’ staring a reputation-sullying two-game losing streak in the face, Ryan rallied his team for his 20th career victory in the fourth quarter or overtime.
He went 4-for-5 for 64 yards on his offense’s only touchdown drive of the day – one that delivered a 23-19 victory over Arizona on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Ryan drove the Falcons 70 yards on seven plays in 3:04, as Michael Turner punched it in from the 1-yard line for the game-winning score.
Veteran center Todd McClure has said it before and so he said it again: Ryan’s demeanor never changes in the huddle, no matter what the situation is – even including one play when Ryan stood in the huddle with blood dripping from his mouth.
Ryan’s success is built upon blocking out a day of failures at the key moment.
“You can’t worry about it,” said Ryan, who failed to throw a touchdown pass for only the second time this season but also for the second time in three games. “Part of playing this position in this league is knowing that there’s going to be times where you make mistakes, you fall flat on your face and you get up and keep playing and keep throwing it.
“In those kinds of situations, I just worry about the next play. Forget about the last play and then worry about the next play and try to make good decisions and put the ball where it needs to be.”
The Falcons improved their NFC-best record to 9-1, but it was far from pretty. At least three of Ryan’s interceptions resulted from tipped balls – one on the game’s opening play from scrimmage that wide receiver Roddy White bobbled – and two others that were tipped by Arizona defenders.
The Cardinals sacked Ryan once, but hit him five other times with their ever-blitzing defense. Linebacker Daryl Washington also hit Ryan in the face on a play that drew a roughing the passer call.
With Kevin Kolb missing his fourth straight game with a rib injury, John Skelton earned a fleeting fifth start at quarterback for Arizona, which lost its sixth straight after starting out 4-0.
Ryan Lindley replaced Skelton with 9:32 left in the first quarter, when the Cardinals held a 10-0 lead after turning Ryan’s first two interceptions into points. Skelton’s started 2-for-7, and the Cardinals pulled him for Lindley, a rookie sixth-round draft pick from San Diego State who made his NFL debut.
Together, Lindley and Skelton completed 40.7 percent of their passes (11 of 27) – not even a good shooting percentage for a point guard in college basketball, never mind an NFL quarterback – for a grand total of 70 yards, but did not throw an interception.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith and numerous Atlanta players said that, statistically speaking, the Falcons should not have won the game with a turnover ratio of minus-5.
Smith said that with Arizona coming off its bye week, the Falcons saw some unscouted looks and had to go to the chalkboard early to remedy their protection schemes. He also said the ball took some “funky bounces” and indeed it did, but that also was the product of design by the Cardinals’ defense.
Ryan said he had seen the tipped passes on film and right tackle Tyson Clabo said that some defensive linemen in a 3-4, when they recognize they’re not going to get at the quarterback, pull back and look to bat down the ball.
Clabo agreed that Ryan had an uncharacteristic day.
“Numbers-wise, yes,” he said. “…Three tipped balls, those aren’t really his fault, but he’s going to get credit for them. But in the long run they’re going to tell us that we’ve got to get their hands down and so that’s just part of the game.”
Typically, Ryan faulted himself for needing to do a better job of finding passing lanes and credited his defense, particularly defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who ran in a fumble from 15 yards out to help turn the momentum of the game in the second quarter.
Arizona started the game with 13 unanswered points, but Babineaux’s score made it 13-10 and Atlanta went into halftime with the score tied 16-16.
In his post-game news conference, Ryan was told he was the first quarterback since Green Bay’s Bart Starr in 1967 to throw no touchdowns and five interceptions and come out on the winning side. The victory had put Ryan, ever professional in his talks, in a magnanimous mood.
Of the Hall of Famer Starr, he quipped, “Good company to be in.”