PHILADELPHIA -- This was more than a business trip. Matt Ryan grew up idolizing the Philadelphia Eagles. He loved Duce Staley, and he so loved Donovan McNabb that he had a poster of McNabb on the wall of his dorm room at Boston College.
Ryan is a native of the suburbs raised on the Philadelphia religion of sports, but now he also is a professional. Twice he had come to Lincoln Financial Field as the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons and left the loser, forced to see the long faces of his family and friends who had come to support him. It wasn't fun. It was humbling.
But like his team, the 27-year-old is wide-eyed no more. He has experience and perspective and confidence. Ryan is competitive and poised and on the cusp of obtaining that elite status that is so difficult in this league to earn.
That's why when the game was finally over, with a 30-17 win in the books to preserve the Atlanta Falcons' unbeaten record, Ryan left the field waving both hands to fans in the stands. "Thank you!" he told them as he walked into the tunnel. As he approached the Falcons locker room, Ryan heard a few in the crowd chant, "Matt, Matt, Matt." Ryan looked up. "Wow," he said, then walked into the victorious locker room to join his 7-0 teammates.
After a bye week following three close wins in which Ryan didn't play his best, the Falcons wanted to come into Philadelphia and, as head coach Mike Smith said afterward, "set the tempo and control the tempo." Against a team that had changed defensive coordinators during its bye week after losing two straight, the Falcons did just that.
Ryan was sharp from the jump. On the opening drive, he led Atlanta on a 16-play drive that ate 8:44 off the clock and included five third downs, the last of which resulted in Ryan finding Drew Davis on a perfectly thrown fade in the back right corner of the end zone. It was Davis' second career catch, and the first came earlier in the drive.
After the Eagles predictably went three-and-out, the Falcons marched back down the field, adeptly mixing the run and the pass. They had two more third-down conversions, including one on a pass interference penalty on Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. By the time the second quarter started, the Eagles had run four plays and trailed 14-0.
On the Falcons' third drive of the game, Julio Jones beat Nnamdi Asomugha in single coverage down the left sideline. Ryan threw a perfect ball, hitting Jones in stride over his shoulder for a relatively easy 37-yard touchdown and a 21-7 advantage.
That was three possessions, three touchdowns, against an Eagles team that had the second-worst scoring average in the NFL and had scored as many as 24 points only once this season. The Eagles had no answer for Ryan. They couldn't touch him. To that point he was 12-of-13 for 157 yards and three touchdowns, and the second quarter was barely at its midpoint.
Tempo set and controlled. The rest really was gravy. The first six Atlanta possessions resulted in scores, and the Eagles never really contended after that opening drive in which the defense looked confused by new coordinator Todd Bowles' calls. Ryan finished an efficient 22-of-29 for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating of 137.4 was just as impressive as Tom Brady's 131.1 against St. Louis in which Brady threw four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
"Physically, he's not a guy that has the biggest arm," said Atlanta backup Luke McCown. "He's not the fastest certainly, but his command and his understanding of what's good and where to go with the ball is on par with guys that get talked about in that regard throughout the league -- Peyton [Manning], [Tom] Brady, [Drew] Brees. Those guys have that kind of command at the line of scrimmage. That's what Matt has, and it's impressive to watch."
That it has been. In some games, Ryan has been on fire early, setting a tempo that dictated how the opposition played. Against Washington a few weeks ago, he wasn't sharp early but closed the game effectively. He moved his team into field-goal territory on the final possession against Carolina and Oakland. Ryan has started strong, and finished strong, and the result is a team-wide confidence that the Falcons can win no matter the situation or circumstance.
After beating the Eagles, Ryan admitted that winning in Philly was big. "It's special to come back and be able to enjoy it with my family for a few minutes," he said before joining what he estimated would be upward of 100 family members and friends in attendance.
"I think that part of it is great," Ryan added. "As far as professionally, I think you get to a point where it's kind of just another game on the schedule and you have to prepare that way. But it was good. We needed it at this point."
Needed to beat down a desperate team in its own building. Now, the Eagles might just be an average team looking for an identity. If they don't find it, they could be looking for more than that. A head coach. A franchise quarterback. A new beginning.
The Falcons have all of those things in place. On Sunday, Smith earned his 50th victory to pass Dan Reeves as the winningest coach in Atlanta history. Ryan, who is virtually unbeatable at the Georgia Dome, notched his fourth road win this season after previously winning in Kansas City, San Diego and Washington.
This is starting to feel like a team poised for a playoff run. The quarterback has one more step to take to be talked about with the elite ones. He knows it. Ryan must win in the playoffs. He hasn't done that. But he is playing like a quarterback who is ready to do so.
"Matty played well," Smith said as he exited the locker room and made his way to the team bus.
The Philly kid indeed did that.