- Ashley Fox
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Matt Ryan watched it. Not obsessively, but enough to see the mistakes, to remember, and to make sure 48-21 never happens to him again. For all but one team in the playoffs, the season ends abruptly, but for Ryan and his Atlanta Falcons, last season's ending was especially jarring. Atlanta was the No. 1 seed in the NFC, coming off a bye, playing at home where it had lost only once during the regular season, taking on a team coming off a short week after a wild-card game on the road. And Green Bay waxed the Falcons. Bam. Over. Thanks for playing.
"It stings," Ryan said earlier this week. "And it does stick with you."
With 48-21 in his back pocket serving as motivation, Ryan will try to continue his upward progression this season as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. In his first three years in Atlanta, Ryan has led the Falcons to a 33-15 record, the best three-year run in franchise history. He has improved his accuracy, cut down on his turnovers and grown into a leader for a team that was at ground zero, post-Vick, post-Petrino, when he arrived.
Now comes the hard step: winning in the postseason. Ryan has gotten the Falcons into the playoffs twice in three years, but he did not play well either time. A loss on the road to Arizona as a rookie was forgivable, but two picks, including a game-changer at the end of the first half, in a 48-21 defeat? Not so much.
Inside the Falcons training facility in Flowery Branch, Ga., there is no doubt. Although Ryan threw two interceptions against the Packers, including one Tramon Williams returned for a touchdown as the first half ended, Atlanta's defense also gave up 442 yards and could barely get a hand on QB Aaron Rodgers' jersey. With plenty of time to throw, Rodgers put on a clinic, completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran for a fourth.
That is part of the reason Atlanta signed Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards to a five-year, $30 million deal to play opposite John Abraham. Edwards does not have to get double-digit sacks as long as he can alleviate some of the pressure on Abraham, who was the Falcons' only effective pass-rusher last season. A better pass rush also should help Atlanta's secondary.
The Falcons filled their other big need -- a direct nod to Ryan -- by moving up 21 spots in the draft to select Alabama's Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick. Last season, Atlanta ranked last in pass plays of 30-plus yards, with nine. Although Roddy White can stretch the field, he can't do it by himself. Jones, 6-foot-4 and 220-pounds, is a speedy receiver who caught 179 passes in college, second-most in school history. His arrival meant Harry Douglas could move to his preferred position in the slot, and with Tony Gonzalez at tight end and Michael Turner at running back, Ryan has weapons all over the field.
"Mike Smith said it well the other day: We made it very clear what our expectations are for Julio when we moved up from 27 to six," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "Julio has impressed me from day one."
He has impressed Ryan, too, despite the fact that Jones dropped a perfectly placed deep ball from him in the Falcons' third preseason game against Pittsburgh.
"He's going to make those plays," Ryan said. "He's made those kinds of plays his entire life, high school, college. He'll make them in the NFL, too. The important part is he keeps getting down the field. He's very fast. I've got to let go of that ball quickly."
If the expectations on Jones are big, the ones on Ryan are enormous. He made a big leap from his second to third season. He improved his accuracy from 58.3 percent to 62.5 percent, in part, Ryan said, because of how diligently he prepared. ("It puts you at ease on Sunday, and allows you to have confidence in what you're doing," Ryan said.) He also threw for 3,705 yards and 28 touchdowns, both career highs.
Dimitroff said Ryan's confidence is felt throughout the building -- on the practice field, in the meeting rooms, in the locker room. He said Ryan has taken more of an interest in the development of all areas of the team, not just the offense.
"He's always had a presence, but it's that much more evident this year," Dimitroff said. "He's a very, very competitive individual, as most quarterbacks at this level are, but he just seems so driven this year to continue to take this to new levels."
Like to that place Dimitroff, who cut his teeth with the New England Patriots, won't mention by name: the Super Bowl.
To get there, Ryan must show that he, like Rodgers, is clutch when it counts. A bunch of come-from-behind wins last year meant little after 48-21.
So Ryan watched the loss to the Packers, more than once, not to torture himself, but to learn. It stung, for sure, but it did help.
"One of the things that's really important and I've kind of learned over the years is you have to get past those tough losses and move forward," Ryan said. "You can't let it eat at you. You have to let it affect you the right way, serving as motivation and learning from that, not sending you into a funk where you can't move past it.
"I think everybody in training camp is beyond that and focused on this season. We'll use what we learned from the last three seasons, and I'll try to make me a better player."
And a winner in the postseason. Manning got his first playoff win on his fourth try. The feeling here is that Ryan will get his in his third try to make 48-21 just numbers in a book.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan isn't trying to forget a 48-21 loss to the Packers in the playoffs. He's embracing it instead, writes Ashley Fox.