ATLANTA – Maybe it’s the wrong NFC South quarterback that’s been doing the Superman pose.
Newton may be more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But he also fumbled when it mattered most and failed to lead his team to victory.
With less than a minute left, Ryan and the Atlanta offense drove to set up Matt Bryant’s 40-yard field goal for a 30-28 victory against Carolina at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
If you measure the success of an NFL quarterback by wins and losses -- and, really, there is no better indicator -- Ryan has built a résumé that truly is super. Newton’s is nice, but he has only won seven games as an NFL quarterback.
In his fifth season, Ryan has won 47 games. More importantly, he’s won a lot of dramatic ones.
Sunday marked the 17th time in his career that Ryan has led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or in overtime. It also marks the third straight game against Carolina that Ryan has led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
"Not for one second did we think we were going to lose the game," said wide receiver Roddy White, whose clutch catch we’ll get to shortly.
Maybe that’s the difference between Ryan and Newton, and maybe that’s the difference between the 4-0 Falcons and the 1-3 Panthers.
Atlanta has a quarterback that knows how to win games by coming up big when it matters most. Newton is capable of spectacular things. But, to this point in his career, finishing hasn’t been a strength.
That’s precisely how the final 1:51 played out Sunday. To that point, Newton had thrown for 215 yards and run for a career-high 85 yards. Newton raised his rushing total to 86 yards on Carolina’s final offensive play, but that final carry ended up going a long way in costing the Panthers a win.
With a 28-27 lead and facing a third-and-2 at the Atlanta 46-yard line with 1:51 left, Newton ran a quarterback keeper and appeared to have the distance for the first down. But, as Newton was going down, defensive end John Abraham knocked the ball loose. Carolina’s Mike Tolbert recovered, but you can’t advance the ball on a fumble recovery. After watching the replay, officials ruled that Newton fumbled the ball at the 45-yard line and placed it there.
Instead of going for it on fourth-and-1, Carolina coach Ron Rivera decided to punt. The move seemed to work brilliantly as Kealoha Pilares downed the ball at the Atlanta 1-yard line.
The Falcons, who had trouble protecting Ryan all day, allowing seven sacks, were backed up against their own goal line. Fifty-nine seconds remained.
The Panthers had the Falcons right where they wanted them.
But, when you really think about it, the Falcons had Ryan right where they wanted him. Reflect on his career for a second and think about all the miraculous comebacks he’s led, dating back to the one against Chicago in his rookie year.
"We were talking about (the Chicago game) on the sideline," said running back Michael Turner, who finished with a season-high 103 yards on 13 carries and had a 60-yard touchdown reception. "We always feel we have a chance to win. We’ve had some great finishes, so why not add one more?"
The latest comeback ranks right up there with any of the previous ones.
It began with a spectacular throw from Ryan to White, who used a double move to slip behind two defenders and catch a 59-yard pass.
"I knew if I caught that ball we were going to be in field goal range in 10 or 15 yards," said White, who finished with eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns. "I just wanted to make the play."
White made a play that also was worthy of a Superman pose. Oh, by the way, whatever happened to that old knock that Ryan doesn’t have the arm strength to throw the deep ball?
He hit White with a 49-yard touchdown pass, which traveled about 60 yards in the air, in the first quarter. But the theme to this story is the final drive, so let’s get back to it.
"Good throw, great catch," said Ryan, who also has built a long history of praising teammates above himself.
After White’s catch, the Falcons used a pass-interference penalty on Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn and two quick sideline routes to Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas to move the ball to the Carolina 22-yard line. That’s when the Falcons trotted out Bryant, who connected on his 21st consecutive field goal attempt dating to last season.
"It just shows that we’re never out of it, and I’d like to say there was never a doubt, but you have to keep a positive attitude," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "The guys kept fighting and, as long as there is time on the clock, you have to have the mind-set, and we do."
It’s not just a mind-set that the Falcons possess, though. What they have is a quarterback who’s proven many times that he can rally his team to victory.
"They don’t call him 'Matty Ice' for nothing," Turner said. "We have faith in our quarterback, no matter what the situation."
Maybe, someday, Newton will get to that point. He put his team in position to win the game, but didn’t quite finish the job.
In the Carolina locker room, there were no Superman poses. Instead, Newton was putting all the blame on himself.
"Personally, it should have never gotten to that situation," Newton said. "That’s how I feel. There’s no finger pointing in this game, especially not on this team. So, if you expect me to point somebody out ... if anything, you can point the finger at me."