ATLANTA -- His on-field performance was not sharp, but Matt Ryan's memory sure was.
As he walked out of his news conference after the Atlanta Falcons defeated the Arizona Cardinals 23-19 at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, I asked the quarterback if he had ever thrown five interceptions in a game before.
The wheels turned for all of about three seconds before the answer came.
"No, that’s it," said Ryan, who had thrown only seven interceptions in the season’s first nine games. "Let’s keep in that way."
In a five-year NFL career, Ryan never had thrown more than three interceptions in a game and he only threw three a couple of times. At Boston College, William Penn Charter High School in Philadelphia and even in youth leagues, Ryan never had a five-interception game.
It truly was an historic day for Ryan, on many levels. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan became the first quarterback to throw five interceptions with no touchdowns and still win since Green Bay’s Bart Starr in 1967.
"Good company to be in," Ryan said with a slight laugh when told of his new place in the record books.
Ryan and the Falcons can afford to chuckle just a little bit about this one. They’re 9-1 and they know they got lucky.
They quickly fell behind 13-0 as Ryan threw three interceptions in the first quarter and the offense never got into much of a rhythm. Against most teams (maybe as many as 30 other teams), Ryan and the Falcons would have been blown out of the building.
But they were playing the Cardinals, who started the season 4-0 but have fallen apart with quarterback Kevin Kolb injured. They started John Skelton and yanked him in favor of third-string rookie Ryan Lindley, who had never taken an NFL snap before Sunday, when they held a 13-3 second-quarter lead. When’s the last time you heard of a team yanking a quarterback when it held a 10-point lead?
Let’s turn to noted receiver/philosopher Roddy White to truly put this one in perspective.
"The Cardinals are a good football team," White said. "No, I mean they’re a good defensive football team."
Say what you want about White, who draws a lot of criticism for his outspoken nature. But, more often than not, the man cuts straight to the point.
The Cardinals, at least right now, are a horrible offensive football team. Atlanta turned the ball over six times (running back Jason Snelling also lost a fumble), but Arizona managed only one touchdown. Skelton and Lindley combined for 41 net passing yards.
You can debate which of the three quarterbacks had the worst day, but Ryan was the only one who threw an interception. The Falcons never considered benching him and the record will show Ryan led the 20th fourth-quarter comeback of his career and his fourth this season. But Ryan, who completed 28 of 46 passes for 301 yards, will be the first to tell you he didn’t have a good day.
"I think that there are a lot of hats you wear as a quarterback," Ryan said. "Part of it is player and part of it is keeping everybody on the same page and being relaxed."
Ryan kept his composure and rebounded well enough for the Falcons to win -- this time.
"We can’t turn the ball over the way we turned the ball over, obviously," said coach Mike Smith, who clinched his fifth consecutive winning season. "You can’t be minus-four in turnovers and, normally, you’re not going to win games. That doesn’t happen very often in the National Football League."
It doesn’t happen often because most NFL teams aren’t nearly as bad as the Cardinals on offense. But let’s give Atlanta’s defense, which held receiver Larry Fitzgerald to one catch for seven yards, some credit.
"They were put in some very difficult situations, in terms of field position and were able to step up and make some plays," Smith said.
Although Ryan’s interceptions frequently handed the Cardinals good field position, the defense generally was able to limit Arizona to field goals or got the Cardinals off the field. No play was bigger -- or more bizarre -- than the third play of Lindley’s first drive.
As Lindley was about to throw a pass, veteran defensive end John Abraham, who finished with two sacks, hit his arm and forced a fumble. A lot of Arizona and Atlanta players stood around, thinking the result of the play was an incomplete pass. But defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux saw the ball on the ground and alertly realized no whistles had blown. Babineaux scooped the ball up and returned it 15 yards for a touchdown that cut Arizona’s lead to 13-10 and put the Falcons back into the game.
"Our defense won the game for us," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "They bailed us out a bunch of times."
It should be noted that three of Ryan’s interceptions came on tipped passes, but the Falcons know they’ll have to be more efficient if they’re going to have any shot at winning in the postseason for the first time in the Smith/Ryan era.
"It says a lot about how we have that never (say) die attitude," Babineaux said. "But, at the same time, we’ve got to get back to playing Falcon football. You’re not going to turn the ball over like that and win many times."