- Ashley Fox
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Matt Ryan doesn't get enough respect. What's it going to take to validate an already impressive career? A win Sunday over San Francisco? A Super Bowl victory?
The guy is a winner. Ryan has the whole package: size, smarts, work ethic, arm strength and experience. Since entering the NFL as the third overall pick in 2008 out of Boston College, Ryan has won 56 regular-season games -- the most in a player's first five seasons in NFL history. His .718 winning percentage over the past five seasons trails only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
And Ryan has the quintessential characteristic quarterbacks must have to be successful: He is clutch.
Ryan proved that, once again, last Sunday against Seattle, when he orchestrated his seventh game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. When the pressure was the greatest, Ryan didn't have the wrong look in his eye. His team had just blown a 20-point fourth-quarter lead and trailed the Seahawks by one point. The Falcons had seemingly collapsed under the pressure of having to win their first postseason game in four tries under coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Ryan.
With 31 seconds left in the game, Ryan gathered his teammates in the huddle and told them they were going to win. Three plays later, after Ryan threw lasers to Harry Douglas for 22 yards and Tony Gonzalez for 19 yards, Matt Bryant kicked a game-winning, 49-yard field goal.
The win was Ryan's first in the postseason in four tries and helped him avoid the ignominy of joining Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to lose their first four playoff starts. It took Manning until his fourth playoff appearance to notch his first victory. His career turned out all right.
It took Manning nine years to win his first Super Bowl to validate his career. Maybe that's what it will take for Ryan. Maybe then we will look at him differently. Maybe then Ryan will be the headliner going into big games. Last week the story was Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and the pistol offense. This week the story is Colin Kaepernick and the wicked athleticism he showed slicing up Green Bay last week.
Maybe it should be Ryan's ability to be clutch when it counts.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, since his rookie season, Ryan leads the NFL with 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. This season, including the playoffs, he has completed 70.1 percent of his passes in the final two minutes of either half.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan's numbers in those situations are up significantly over the first four seasons of his career. His completion percentage is better (70.1 percent this season versus 50.0 the first four seasons). His yards-per-attempt average is better (8.5 this season versus 5.1). He has four touchdowns and zero interceptions versus 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
And Ryan's Total QBR, the measure ESPN uses to grade a quarterback's complete performance, in the last two minutes of either half is 87.2 this season versus 59.3 in his first four seasons.
"He's done this," Gonzalez said after the Falcons beat the Seahawks 30-28. "It's part of his M.O."
Standing near the showers long after his Falcons teammates had scattered to celebrate, Ryan shook his head at the absurdity of having to overcome so much adversity to finally get his first playoff win. He had joked with Gonzalez that he kind of liked winning his first playoff game in that fashion, a feeling Gonzalez dismissed by saying, "You like it because you're winning."
"Yeah, there were a few 'holy s---' moments, that's for sure," Ryan said. "But I think it's how you respond to those moments. They're going to happen. You're going to have stretches. I mean, Seattle's a good team, and they were as hot as anybody coming into the game. You knew they were going to make some plays. It's how you respond. And the way we responded [against Seattle] has been consistent with the way we've responded all year."
With Ryan under center, the Falcons have had five consecutive winning seasons, with two NFC South titles and three consecutive postseason appearances. They have been almost unbeatable at the Georgia Dome, where Ryan has a 34-6 record. According to ESPN Stats & Information, among quarterbacks to make at least 20 home starts and begin their careers in the Super Bowl era, only Brady has a better home winning percentage (.851 with an 86-15 record versus Ryan's .850).
This season, Ryan set Falcons season records for passing yards (4,719), pass attempts (615), completions (422), consecutive passes without an interception (272), completion percentage (68.6), touchdown passes (32) and 300-yard games (seven).
Ryan was steady as a rookie, with a 74.1 Total QBR, the highest for a rookie among qualified passers since 2008. He was even better this season with a 74.5, trailing only Manning (84.1) and Brady (77.1). (Kaepernick registered a 76.8 but fell six pass attempts shy of qualifying under ESPN's Total QBR guidelines.)
It is time to give Ryan his due. He wins. He's sharp. He's consistent. He's professional. And he's clutch.
If Ryan leads the Falcons past San Francisco this weekend, maybe people will start to notice.
While we're on the topic of quarterbacks not getting enough respect, the idea that Joe Flacco can go to the next level with a win over New England is ridiculous. For whatever reason, Flacco is massively underrated. And he has the one thing Ryan is trying to get: proven playoff success.
Flacco is 7-4 in the postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information, during the Super Bowl era, only Ben Roethlisberger (8-2) and Brady (9-0) won more playoff games in their first five seasons. Flacco also is 5-4 in nine road playoff games. These statistics are significant.
Sure, finally reaching a Super Bowl and possibly even winning it would elevate Flacco into the next stratosphere. But he is already there. It's why Baltimore will open up the bank for him. And Flacco's self-confidence is unwavering. The Ravens put an attractive offer on the table this past offseason. Flacco wanted more and was willing to prove he deserved it. And then he did.
• • •
Jim Harbaugh doesn't want his San Francisco players to buy into the hype about their team. After his jaw-dropping performance against Green Bay, Kaepernick has become more popular than the iPhone. He is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And Las Vegas has San Francisco as a four-point favorite even though it is playing the No. 1-seeded Falcons in their building.
"Our advice has always been, 'If people are saying nice things about you, kick them in the shins and get back to work,'" Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh, as they say, is a different cat. Coaches are notoriously driven, focused and, among other things, paranoid. But Harbaugh doesn't seem to care one iota about what anybody thinks of him, good or bad.
Asked Wednesday whether he was uncomfortable that people are saying nice things about his team, Harbaugh said: "Comfort or uncomfort is not a word you really use in football."
What word would he use?
"Determined, focused on what we need to do to make our meetings the best of the season today, to make our practice the best Wednesday practice all season," Harbaugh said. "That's our hope. That'll be our expectation."
One day, one minute at a time, with a definite edge to it.
• • •
Even Brady had to learn how to act, practice and prepare the way Bill Belichick demands. Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Lawyer Milloy all pulled him aside early in his career to teach him the "Patriot Way."
Asked this week what the Patriot Way means to him, Brady provided a detailed look at part of the reason New England is about to play in its seventh conference title game since he has been the quarterback and Belichick the coach
"I think Coach always talks about doing your job," Brady said. "You do your job so that everyone around you can do their job. When people trust each other, then you can play with anticipation and confidence and ultimately go out there and play aggressively. There's really no secret to it. It's just Coach puts a lot of pressure on us in practice every day to perform at a high level. When we don't, we certainly hear about it. When you show up to work every day, you better have your game face on, because you'll end up on the lowlight film the next morning.
"I think the guys bring that attitude every day, and over the course of a long season, it results in enough wins to get us into the playoffs [and] give us a chance."
It is hard to argue with the results.
• • •
The Manti Te'o situation is so layered and twisted that it is too soon to tell exactly what happened and whether Te'o was involved in the fabrication of the story of his allegedly dead girlfriend. Maybe it was a hoax.
But what we do know is that NFL teams will spend a ton of time digging into Te'o and his past to see whether his stellar reputation at Notre Dame is well justified or its own hoax. Teams take fliers on guys with checkered pasts all the time, but the Te'o story is bizarre and unique. Teams will want to do their homework -- including hearing Te'o explain what happened -- to see whether he really is authentic.
Michael Crabtree has become Kaepernick's security blanket. In the past six games, including San Francisco's playoff win over Green Bay last Saturday, Kaepernick has targeted the third-year wide receiver out of Texas Tech 63 times. The next-closest target is Randy Moss with 26.
Crabtree's 20-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter was a perfect example of why Kaepernick trusts him. First, Crabtree used his body to create separation from Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields, then with Shields on his back near the goal line, he caught the ball with both hands for a touchdown that gave the 49ers a 21-14 lead.
"Crabtree has great hands," said Greg Cosell, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup." "He caught it really effectively with his hands. He never brought the ball into his body because Shields was on his back. It was a great example of his hands."
The Niners will face an Atlanta defense that Cosell expects will take a different approach than Green Bay did. Three of Kaepernick's scrambles in the first half came against man-to-man coverage, including two when the Packers double-teamed Crabtree. Cosell said the Falcons did not play man coverage against the Seahawks, and completely took away Seattle's read option by standing up their defensive ends and not having them "crash inside."
"What they chose to do is mush rush with four to keep Wilson contained in the pocket and make him throw," Cosell said. "The problem with that is he's a good passer and not a runner by nature like a Michael Vick. He just sat there. There were plays he threw four, five, six, seven seconds into the play, and you can't cover that long.
"I think Kaepernick is a more frenetic player, and I think they'll pressure him a little more selectively. Wilson is a very calm and composed player. As athletically gifted as Kaepernick is, I think he's a little more frenetic. I don't think he'd be as patient sitting there."
STATS & INFO
How good have the Ravens been under first-time head coach John Harbaugh? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Harbaugh's streak of five straight playoff appearances to begin his head-coaching career is tied with Chuck Knox for the third-longest ever.
The only coaches with more? Former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher and former Cleveland coach Paul Brown, who both made six straight postseason appearances to start their careers.
The Ravens are 0-2 in AFC Championship Games under Harbaugh. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only four coaches have lost their first three conference championship games: Chuck Knox, John Madden, Marty Schottenheimer and Andy Reid. Harbaugh was Reid's special-teams coach in Philadelphia when they lost three consecutive NFC Championship Games before finally getting to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season.
Harbaugh has proved he is a very, very good head coach. Is this the year his Ravens take the next step?
"Congrats to Gus Bradley! Always nice to see great things happen to great people!"
-- Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 17, 2013
Jacksonville became the first team to hire a coach with a defensive background when it hired Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who leaves behind the ridiculously talented cornerback Richard Sherman.
"Heard so many GREAT things about Coach Trestman can't wait to follow his lead. Reading his book now #coolread #BEARDOWN."
-- Brandon Marshall (@BMarshall) January 16, 2013
The Bears went out of the box and hired Marc Trestman from the Canadian Football League. Trestman has an NFL background and a reputation as a quarterback guru, but he hasn't coached in the league in eight years. His first priority should be trying to get every ounce of potential out of Jay Cutler.
"Thanks all @Seahawks players, coaches, and the best fans in the #NFL, the #12thman, for an amazing Rookie Year #Blessed #GoHawks."
-- Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) January 13, 2013
Wilson belongs. Not only is he a mobile quarterback, but he can thrive as a pocket passer as well. He showed that in Seattle's loss to Atlanta, throwing for 385 yards and posting a 109.1 passer rating.
All times Eastern.
San Francisco at Atlanta, 3 p.m. Sunday
The 49ers are favored after they thrashed the Packers last week and the Falcons merely survived against the Seahawks. Doesn't matter. The first-year starting quarterback is due for a slipup, and Atlanta went 3-1 against the read option this season. Falcons 30, 49ers 27.
Baltimore at New England, 6:30 p.m.
Baltimore is playing inspired football, and Flacco is throwing the ball downfield better than ever. But the Patriots are 5-1 in conference title games with Brady, and he can become the first quarterback ever to play in six Super Bowls. That will matter to him. Patriots 42, Ravens 35.
1dDoug Clawson, ESPN Stats & Information