Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (left) catches up to celebrate with wide receiver Julio Jones who ran down the tunnel after his game winning touchdown reception for a 24-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

The NFC South is up for grabs. Can Matt Ryan deliver?

The Atlanta Falcons have given themselves a chance, which is all a team can ask after two games, especially when the first was as bad as their Sunday in Minneapolis. They’re tied for first in the NFC South, and we can make the case that they’re now the favorite to win it. Which, given that the Falcons were underdogs in their home opener, doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there you are. 

According to reports, Drew Brees is set to have thumb surgery and miss six weeks. The Saints have a good roster, and Teddy Bridgewater is a better No. 2 than most, but they’re built around their No. 1 quarterback. Every good NFL team is. For the foreseeable future, the Falcons should – should, we underscore – have the division’s best working QB. 

Cam Newton had shoulder surgery in January but still looks awful. He still can’t throw, and now he’s not running. (Five carries for minus-2 yards in two games.) Tampa Bay is 1-1. It’s possible Bruce Arians can do with Jameis Winston what Lovie Smith and Dirk Koetter couldn’t, but we’ll have to see that happen before we believe it. 

The Falcons, as we know, have Matt Ryan. He’s a franchise quarterback. He’s the best quarterback in franchise history. He’s among the league’s very best. For the past 11 years, the Falcons have won because of Ryan. This will sound harsh, but these Falcons are 1-1 in spite of Ryan. 

He has thrown five interceptions in two games. He had seven in 16 games last season, seven in 2016, his MVP year. As a rookie in 2008, he had five over his first nine games. This is a quarterback who usually takes care of the ball. Over two games, he hasn’t. The interception in the end zone against Philadelphia was doubly shocking, seeing as how he’d done the same seven days earlier against Minnesota. 

“It’s hard to win in this league when you do that,” Ryan said Sunday night, speaking of his three interceptions. “But you have to remind yourself that the score is what it is, and we’re still in good position. Just forget what’s happened.” 

To his credit, Ryan did throw the winning touchdown pass to Julio Jones, although the pass traveled maybe 10 yards, whereupon Jake Matthews and Mohamed Sanu did the blocking and Jones the running. Credit Ryan for sensing the Eagles’ intent to bring the house and switch to the tunnel screen, which coach Dan Quinn called “a little play that can hit big.” 

Credit the Falcons’ defense for making a fourth-down stop after letting Nelson Agholor, Philly’s only hale starting wideout, run free through their secondary – twice! Credit the Falcons for winning what was as close to a must game as can be played on Sept. 15. Credit the Falcons for overcoming a second consecutive substandard performance by their Pro Bowl quarterback, though we note that Falcons have sunk $150 million into Ryan because he has so few substandard days/nights. 

From the day of his drafting in 2008, this franchise has revolved around Ryan. General manager Thomas Dimitroff’s next pick in that draft was left tackle Sam Baker, the thinking being that the Falcons were about to start a rookie quarterback and it wouldn’t do to have him maimed.

Tony Gonzalez was imported from Kansas City to give Ryan a big-time tight end. Dimitroff made the 5-for-1 trade to draft Jones so Ryan would have a wideout even better than Roddy White, who was darn good. The Falcons’ first two picks this April were offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, the message again being, “We’ve got to protect our main man.” 

Maybe Ryan’s early inefficiency is because the Falcons’ first two opponents had excellent defenses with canny coordinators. Maybe it’s because Lindstrom broke his foot at Minnesota and McGary got his knee banged Sunday night. (The rookie tackle missed some of the game but returned late.) Whatever the cause, Ryan has been sacked five times and sustained 13 other hits in two games. Of the Eagles, Ryan said: “That might have been the most all-out pressure I’ve seen in my entire career.” 

Once upon a time, the football rule of thumb was that you blitz a young quarterback and drop and cover against a seasoned one. With offenses getting ever more sophisticated, defenses have realized that to drop and cover is to allow a veteran – like Tom Brady, like Brees, like Ryan – to pick you to pieces. The best way to defuse any passer is to hit him before he throws. Because nobody – not Brady, not Brees, not Ryan – is as good under duress as with a clean pocket. 

Two of Ryan’s three interceptions Sunday night, including the one in the end zone, came without heavy pressure. The other – the one that allowed the Eagles to kick-start their comeback from 11 points down – was induced by a safety blitz. Both interceptions against the Vikings saw Ryan with purple shirts bearing down. It hasn’t helped that the Falcons haven’t found a way to run the ball, but this is Matt Ryan. By his admission, he needs to be better. 

Late Sunday night, Quinn said of his quarterback’s game-winning pass: “That’s a good moment for him, when it’s hard and you fight back.” It was a good moment for Quinn and all Falcons, who scored their first meaningful victory since the January 2018 Wild Card game in Los Angeles. But the Falcons under Quinn, and Mike Smith before him, have seldom worried about their quarterback throwing the ball to the wrong team. Should they now? 

Quinn: “I don’t think that’s going to be the norm. That’s not been his history. It’s not a concern spot for me – I don’t think that’s where it’s going to be.” 

Maybe it won’t. Goodness knows this correspondent has had occasion – not many occasions, but a few – over the past decade to wonder what was up with Matty Ice. Those blips always went away. He didn’t get to be a 12-year starter by making mistakes hand over fist. But he has never been 34 before, either. 

This organization has again done everything in its power to make him happy. He has Koetter, an offensive coordinator he liked the first time around. He has the best receivers this side of Alabama. (Two of these are Bama alums.) The NFC South is there for the taking. Matt Ryan has built his career on delivering the goods. This would be a fine time for him to stop delivering to the wrong address.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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