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Original Issue


A gritty fourth-quarter performance should take the heat off Matt Ryan. For now

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan couldn't have looked more dapper on Sunday in the Georgia Dome—and it had nothing to do with the gray suit, white shirt, red tie and white pocket square he wore after a 35--31 victory over the Eagles. On a night when he faced not only the return of Michael Vick, who was making his first start in Atlanta since being released by the Falcons in 2009, but also mounting questions about his play, Ryan turned a potential disaster into an elegant success.

Ryan overcame a relentless pass rush and a sticky-fingered secondary—four sacks and two interceptions in the first three periods—to erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit and win arguably the most important game since his arrival as the third pick in the 2008 draft. "This was the type of game that will continue to build his confidence," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "He showed great resilience, and his toughness is second to none. Matt was able to deal with [Philadelphia's rush] and pick himself off the ground, dust himself off and focus on getting the ball where it needed to be."

Questions about Ryan might seem ridiculous considering he's 34--14 as a starter; however, the NFL is a bottom-line business, and Ryan is 0--2 in the playoffs with more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three). The Falcons were the only team that failed to score an offensive touchdown in Week 1, losing 30--12 to the Bears despite the addition of Alabama wideout Julio Jones, the No. 6 pick, to an already potent attack. Another poor showing from Ryan with the still-popular Vick in the house, a national TV audience looking on and history staring the team in the face—since 1990 only 22 of the 177 teams that started 0--2 have made the playoffs—could have turned a flicker of skepticism into a flame of doubt.

"I can honestly say I didn't feel any of that," said Ryan, who finished with a career-high four touchdown passes. "Don't get me wrong, it's frustrating when things don't go right. But you have to be able to live with the outcome either way. There are a lot of good players in this league. Every week is not going to be what you want it to be."

Sunday was far from classic. Ryan had just nine completions (for 119 yards) entering the fourth quarter, but three went for touchdowns. It seemed as if coordinator Mike Mularkey was still trying to figure out whether Atlanta is a team that runs to set up the pass or passes to set up the run, whether it wants to strike quickly or grind it out. The NFL has become a pass-oriented league, and Dimitroff appears to be building the offense with that in mind, even if it's not immediately visible. "Right now we don't have an identity," said wide receiver Roddy White, chuckling. "That's half our problem. We haven't played our style of football yet, which is running the ball, play-action pass and [converting] third downs."

The Falcons were at their best on Sunday when they went hurry-up and Ryan called his own plays. Trailing 31--21 to start the fourth quarter, he completed 8 of 10 passes for 76 yards while leading back-to-back 80-yard touchdown drives. Atlanta converted three straight third downs (all on pass plays) after making just 3 of 9 before that. "We have the capability of being one of the most complete offenses in the league," said tight end Tony Gonzalez. "We're searching for that balance. Right now it's a work in progress, but it's a good work in progress." And the final grade for Ryan won't come until the playoffs.









GROUND OUT Atlanta's early run-heavy attack was stagnant, but things opened up down the stretch when Ryan (2) called his own plays in the no-huddle.