ATLANTA — Through the first four games of the season, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was touted as a possible MVP candidate. Through Week 5, he remained the NFL’s No. 2 passer, even if his effort dipped slightly.
On Sunday against Oakland, Ryan threw three interceptions in a game for only the second time in his five seasons, putting his team firmly behind the proverbial eight ball. But helped by a 79-yard interception returned for a touchdown by teammate Asante Samuel, Ryan again summoned a fourth-quarter comeback, as Matt Bryant’s 55-yard field goal with one second left downed the Raiders 23-20 at the Georgia Dome.
Ryan’s high-wire act is the second time in three games he has pulled one off, with both coming at home. Two weeks ago, he threw a 59-yard pass from his 1-yard line in the final minute, powering the Falcons to a 30-28 win over Carolina. On Sunday, he started at his own 20 following a Raiders touchdown with 40 seconds left. In six plays, all passes, including the final two to Tony Gonzalez for 10 and 13 yards, he moved the Falcons in position for Bryant’s kick.
“They’re all tough,” Ryan said. “That’s the thing in this league. It’s hard to win. So when you do make those plays, when you execute the way you need to at the end of the game, it’s gratifying. So they’re all difficult but they’re all fun.”
They’re fun because they have become so routine for Ryan and the Falcons. Since he entered the league in 2008, he has an NFL-best 19 fourth-quarter or overtime victories.
Because Ryan and his offensive teammates have pulled off so many late-game victories, the quarterback said the group is “comfortable and confident” in those situations — even on a day when Ryan was far off his game.
He finished 24 of 37 for 249 yards and one touchdown with his three interceptions — all of which came in the first half as the scrappy Raiders (1-4) led 13-7 at halftime. Ryan’s 59.4 rating was by far his lowest of the season.
So the Falcons needed some help from their defense. Atlanta entered the day tied for first in the league in turnover differential at plus-10 and have yet to finish a game minus in that department. The same proved true on Sunday because of one of the game’s most dramatic plays.
Ryan said he has seen it in practice and he’s seen it in games as an opponent: cornerback Asante Samuel jumping a route, picking off a pass and returning it for a touchdown. On Sunday, with Oakland driving deep into Atlanta territory late in the game — well within field-goal range — Samuel did it again, for the 10th time in his career and he did it in spite of safety William Moore calling the wrong coverage.
So football savvy is Samuel that he recognized the mistake, played the coverage correctly and intercepted Oakland’s Carson Palmer when he looked for Denarius Moore on an out route. Samuel returned it 79 yards for the score with 2:40 left in regulation.
Samuel, who wears No. 22 and whose Twitter address is “pick_six22,” described the play after the game.
“Three-step drop … WillMo gave me the wrong coverage, so I just said ‘(expletive) it. I’m just going to do it myself,'” Samuel said. “Read the three-step drop, he threw the little out on me, picked it out.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith had a feeling the defense celebrated a little too much. He was right as Oakland drove 80 yards in eight plays over two minutes, capped by Darren McFadden’s two-yard TD run to tie the game at 20-20 with 40 seconds left.
But it was too much time, as Ryan did what he does so well.
So now, the Falcons are 6-0 for the first time in franchise history and are running away with the NFC South — a 3½-game lead over second-place Tampa Bay (2-3). Next week is their bye week and then it’s off to Philadelphia, which has proved a rivalry game since ex-Falcons quarterback Michael Vick began suiting up for the Eagles.
Spicing up that rivalry will be the presence of Samuel. With cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro-Bowler in 2010, going down for the season in Week 1 with an Achilles’ injury, the acquisition of Samuel from the Eagles for a seventh-round pick seems a small price to pay.
“Oh, man, I’m excited,” said Samuel, as Moore mockingly interviewed him with his iPad. “All my Philly fans, I know they’re loving me. I know they can’t wait to see 22 step on that field, even though I’m in another jersey. They’re going to cheer for me because they love me.”
Moore asked if the Philly fans, who famously booed Santa Claus, would boo him.
“(Heck), no,” Samuel said. “Everybody love deuce deuce. We don’t roll like that.”