My friend’s question was innocuous enough, but one that has been on the minds of Atlanta Falcons fans like him for some time.
“Do you think Matt Ryan is an elite NFL quarterback?” he asked.
I stopped him right there because the reality is there can be no such talk until the fifth-year pro out of Boston College does the minimum necessary to be included among that lofty pantheon.
Namely win a playoff game.
His sterling performance in Sunday night’s nationally televised 19-13 win over visiting Dallas is further proof that Ryan is clearly well on his way to soon being mentioned in any conversation about the game’s top quarterbacks. It’s rarified air that include the likes of the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, New England’s Tom Brady, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
All have Super Bowl pedigrees that scream of their ability to deliver in the NFL postseason, when reputations are forged in the unforgiving crucible of televised national audiences and unprecedented pressure.
Barring something unforeseen, Ryan will likely be there soon. But he isn’t just yet.
Still, he acknowledged that all the comparison talk is difficult to avoid.
“It’s nice just to be mentioned in the same category with so many guys who have accomplished so much,” Ryan conceded.
The 2010 Pro Bowler did his part to make sure that his name will be invoked in more such conversations ahead, completing 24 of 34 passes for 342 yards without a turnover on Sunday evening to push the Falcons to 8-0 for the first time in franchise history.
“Any way you can find a way to win is a positive in this league,” Ryan said, “At the end of the day, [the NFL] is a league based on wins and losses.”
Ryan was every bit as smooth as advertised, coolly stepping up in the pocket all evening against the heavy Dallas pressure to consistently get the ball to his speedy playmakers in the likes of receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
“He was focused,” coach Mike Smith said. “Laser-focused.”
But regular-season heroics aren’t what gets players to the Hall of Fame or what keeps opposing defensive coordinators lying awake at night in December and January.
Ryan need only have looked across the field at his Dallas counterpart in the talented, but erratic Tony Romo to see proof of that.
Now in his sixth season as the Dallas starter, Romo is a three-time Pro Bowler who boasts some pretty impressive career credentials. But the one career playoff win to his resume hasn’t exactly made Cowboys fans forget Troy Aikman or Roger Staubach, that’s for sure. Romo’s professional football fortunes have dipped precipitously as if on cue with the annual changing of the leaves every season.
In many ways, the infamous botched field goal snap in the first-round playoff loss at Seattle following the 2006 season epitomized Romo’s well-documented struggles in the postseason.
To be fair, not all of those setbacks fall squarely on Romo’s shoulders. But he’s the Cowboys quarterback and the one who is ultimately judged by his wins and losses.
Conversely, Ryan seems unphased in games as the pressure mounts.
“You see his best stuff in the most difficult situations,” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer.
Smith said he’s long since stopped being surprised by anything Ryan does.
But doing it in the postseason is what Ryan still needs to do to cement his status as one of the game’s best. He’s 0-3 for his career in the playoffs, having lost to the Arizona Cardinals (2008), Green Bay Packers (2010) and the New York Giants (2011).
With Sunday’s night’s win, the Ryan-led Falcons are the NFL’s last unbeaten team.
“At the end of the day, it’s about finding ways to win,” Ryan said, “and I think we did that [Sunday night].”
Next up is doing so next month and in January, when the games matter most.