The Denver quarterback, who might be the greatest ever to play the position, will be playing in his second game since missing all of last season after neck surgery. That’s only slightly less significant than last week, when Manning was playing his first game after missing all of last season after neck surgery.
Well, they’re just the supporting cast or a sidebar. Think about that for a second, because that role covers more than one game.
It’s the story of the Falcons throughout the tenure of coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. They’ve won a lot of games and become somewhat relevant on a national basis. But the Falcons never have been the story.
Think back on their history of prime-time games since Smith and Ryan arrived in 2008: The Falcons have had plenty of nationally televised games, but they’ve always played bit parts.
They were the backdrop last season for Michael Vick’s return to the Georgia Dome, and Drew Brees' pursuit of the NFL record for passing yards in a season. In a 2009 Sunday night game, they played second fiddle to Jay Cutler, who was in his first season as Chicago’s quarterback.
The closest they came to taking center stage was in a 2010 Thursday night game, when Ryan was matched against Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who's from the same draft class. At best, the Falcons shared top billing with the Ravens in that one.
Will the Falcons ever play a big game that truly is about them?
Well, it’s not going to be Monday, but this game could go a long way toward changing the national perception of the Falcons.
There was evidence in the season-opening victory at Kansas City that coordinator Dirk Koetter has installed the kind of potent offense that could take Ryan to the next level. If the Falcons were to win in a shootout against Manning, the world would have to take notice.
“We’ve been saying from the beginning that Matt is a top-tier NFL quarterback, and that’s how top-tier NFL quarterbacks play,” Koetter said. “We were able to protect him. Any quarterback is going to play better when he’s got time to throw it and also when you have good guys catching it. We threw it and caught it well against Kansas City.”
But Ryan is the face of the Falcons, and his Q Rating is somewhat less than his QB rating.
His personality is a factor. Ryan is a mirror image of his coach. Smith and Ryan are exceedingly polite but frustratingly guarded when speaking publicly.
“It’s fun to play against the very best,” Ryan said. “(Manning is) obviously one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He’ll present a big challenge for our defense.”
That quote was about as close to being colorful as Ryan came when discussing the Denver game with the media on Thursday. Other than having the nickname “Matty Ice," that’s about as colorful as Ryan ever gets.
Under Mike Smith, Atlanta has developed a reputation for faltering on the national stage.
But Ryan doesn’t have to change his personality for him and the Falcons to get recognition. He -- and his team -- need to change their results. Simply winning an average of 10 games a season the past four years has taken them only so far. They have to win the games that really matter, and they have to win the games that come before the largest audiences.
At the risk of sounding like Cliff Clavin, it’s a well-known fact that Ryan never has won a playoff game. Then, there’s another stat that hasn’t received quite as much attention -- Ryan is 0-3 on "Monday Night Football," too.
“I think it’s one of those things that you have to use it as motivation in the right way,” Ryan said when asked about his playoff record. “That’s what I’ve tried to do. It’s certainly difficult, no question. But you put it behind you and start moving on.”
As Ryan tries to do so, it might be worth noting that Manning didn’t win his first playoff game until his sixth season. Back in the old days, people said the same thing about Manning that they say about Ryan now -- nice quarterback, but can’t win the big ones.
Ryan remembers Manning’s early years.
“I think he was drafted when I was -- I don’t want to make him sound too old -- I think in the seventh or eighth grade,” Ryan said. “At the time, I remember watching him (in college) at Tennessee. He was unbelievably talented and then, when he got into the NFL, he was carving people up and has been doing it for a long time.”
Once Manning won the first big one, he started winning a lot more. He became an icon and made the Indianapolis Colts a marquee team. When Manning joined the Broncos this offseason, he might have been the only person who could bring more star power to Denver than Tim Tebow.
This isn’t a playoff game, but it’s tremendously important for Ryan and the Falcons.
If their offense can go out and be as explosive as many suspect it can, the Falcons have a chance to steal the limelight from Manning and the Broncos.
That would go a long way toward finally putting Ryan and the Falcons on center stage.