I suppose Matt Ryan won't truly join the ranks of the NFL's premier quarterbacks unless he finally has some postseason success. But as regular-season benchmarks go, his dazzling performance Sunday against the Eagles is about as good as it gets and portends great things this winter as the Falcons continue their undefeated ride.
This was a big game for the young quarterback, about as big as it gets by October standards. It was a homecoming for him, back to Philadelphia, and after two poor outings at Lincoln Financial Field, the pressure was on to shine. Ryan, like fellow 2008 first-round pick Joe Flacco, has long been much better at home than on the road. The knock on Ryan -- who plays in a dome -- is that his struggles are exacerbated by poor conditions, and Hurricane Sandy was bearing in on the mid Atlantic region on Sunday. The Eagles were coming off the bye, where they were 13-0 under Andy Reid, and they were desperate to make a bold statement in their first game under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The Eagles were pretty much desperate all around, really.
Philadelphia had become a trendy pick in this game (consider me among those on the wrong side of this 30-17 Falcons blowout that wasn't as close as that score might indicate). Many expected Atlanta's winning streak to end, and some wondered if the Falcons might be exposed at least to some degree (in so much as a 6-0 team could be).
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Well, turns out, if anything, this was the perfect storm for Ryan. He added to his MVP resume with a sterling outing, essentially perfect, and absolutely riveting in the first half when the Falcons quickly pulled away. Atlanta scored on its first six drives, Ryan displayed more mobility and throw-on-the-run accuracy than the norm, he spread the ball around to targets new and old, and simply dominated on a day when Eagles quarterback Mike Vick, an ex-Falcon, conceded that his grip on the starting job in Philadelphia was tenuous at best.
But before we examine Ryan's genius from Sunday, let's take a look back. Ryan first played at Philadelphia in his rookie year, completing just 23 of 44 attempts with two touchdowns and two picks, and a 68 rating in a loss. He lost there again in 2010 with a similar stat line -- 23 for 42 for 250 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He was inconsistent in those outings, looked a little rattled at times and had some nerves on display. He's over all of that now.
On the opening drive Sunday he led the Falcons on an 80-yard march, completing six of seven passes (hitting five different receivers) for 62 yards and capping it with a 15-yard TD pass, on third down, to little-used Drew Davis.
The second drive was more of the same. He completed all four attempts on a drive that started at midfield and threw a touchdown to Jason Snelling on a smart screen pass by the goal line. The Eagles showed some life and cut the deficit to 14-7, so Ryan hit Roddy White for 14 yards and then threw a beautiful pass down the sidelines that Julio Jones landed underneath for a 63-yard touchdown.
Ryan was 17-for-20 for 197 yards and three touchdowns at halftime, often picking on Nnamdi Asomugha (more on his demise later). Seven receivers were targeted at least twice in the first half alone and all had at least one reception, with four Falcons logging catches of at least 10 yards in the opening 30 minutes. The Falcons could take the air out of the ball in the second half, and Ryan attempted just nine passes in the second half, finishing the game 22 of 29 for 262 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers and a 137.4 rating.
For the season, Ryan ranks second only to Aaron Rodgers with a 68.7 completion percentage, and he ranks eighth in yards. He is tied for third with 17 touchdown passes (behind Rodgers and Drew Brees), compared to just six interceptions, and his 103 rating trails only Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
Obviously if he keeps this up, or anything close, he is looking at some serious accolades and a massive new contract (his rookie deal expires after the 2013 season; the Falcons would love to do an extension well before next season begins). And, obviously, unless that sparkling regular season is followed by playoff success -- the likes of which guys like Flacco and Mark Sanchez have experienced -- then Ryan will continue to be haunted, and the Falcons will still be stuck trying to get over the hump.
Given the state of the NFC South and Atlanta's fast start, this race should be wrapped up by Thanksgiving, giving the Falcons every chance to rest starters and prepare for the playoffs. Surely at least one home postseason game looms. They seem better equipped than ever to win in that arena -- though I still have concerns over the pass rush and downfield pass coverage -- and Ryan seems more poised than ever to lose the label of playoff bust.
Sunday's effort, under potentially averse conditions, showed as much.
Jets are not so special
Some like to write off the adage that special teams wins games. It seems kind of trite, I suppose, in this era of spread offenses and high scoring. But that truism stands. It showed up in Chicago, where Robbie Gould shook off an earlier miss to hit a game-winning field goal that allowed the Bears to steal a win over Carolina. It was true in Tennessee, where Rob Bironas missed an earlier attempt he usually makes, helping the Colts stick around and eventually win in overtime. Muffed returns loomed large in losses by the Vikings and Cowboys.
And nowhere was the special teams chasm bigger than in the Jets/Dolphins game. Jets legendary special teams coach Mike Westhoff, whose unit some figured might be able give the wobbling team a lift, must have been irate watching Miami exploit his group time and again.
Up 3-0, Miami made a gutsy call for an onside kick and recovered it. The Dolphins blocked a punt for a touchdown, the first time in 440 games the Jets had allowed that to happen (it should be noted Tim Tebow was in charge of the protections as the personal protector in this instance).
And, with the Jets searching for a pulse at the end of the half, Miami blocked a field goal attempt.
Special teams, specifically kicker Dan Carpenter, cost Miami the game in its first meeting with New York. This reversal could not have been more swift and complete, and it leaves the Jets reeling at their bye, very lucky to even be 3-5 in the mediocre AFC East.
• I'm enjoying seeing more teams willing to show some guts on fourth and short and put the ball in the hands of their playmakers. Within about two minutes of each other on Sunday, both Robert Griffin III and Tom Brady converted fourth-down attempts for short touchdowns. Let them play! Let them play!
• However, one thing I didn't like on Sunday regarding RG3: the Redskins still seem too willing to put him in harm's way for my liking. He ran a sideline pattern on a Wildcat-ish play against the Steelers, with receiver Josh Morgan throwing the deep pass. Safety Ryan Clark read it well and dislodged the ball from Griffin with a devastating and clean hit -- he could have easily dislodged Griffin from the starting lineup for 4 to 6 weeks as well. The risk-reward here isn't even close to high enough to attempt this sort of gadget play, especially against a secondary that is known for knocking guys out (cleanly or otherwise). It's time to strike that stuff from the playbook. Griffin is the franchise.
• Calvin Johnson isn't right, and, in a recurring theme, Philip Rivers isn't close to being right. Megatron was not targeted in the first half Sunday against Seattle. He has been suspiciously quiet for long stretches all season, and it doesn't seem just to be the blanket coverage he receives. That huge frame of his is such a big target and Matt Stafford tends to sail some balls high. Johnson seems to be getting up from big hits more and more slowly, and nagging injuries are common on the midweek injury reports. It has to be slowing him down. As for Rivers, I know the wind was swirling in Cleveland and it was raining, but he seemed to have considerably more difficulty getting the ball downfield than Brandon Weeden did, and at times Rivers' passes just hung up in the air allowing seemingly the entire Browns secondary to have a chance to bring them down. The Chargers should be very concerned -- even in a wide open AFC playoff race -- and all signs are pointing to sweeping changes there in the offseason.
• The emergence of Jonathan Dwyer in the Steelers backfield isn't a surprise. I heard a strong buzz about him through the preseason -- his power, ability to run guys over -- but he is the kind of guy who needs a bit of a load to get going. He's not that suited to spot duty. So when he finally got called on regularly in Week 7, he broke out with 17 carries for 122 yards. Sunday, with Rashard Mendenhall still out, he gashed the previously stout Redskins for 107 yards on 17 carries. He's averaging 6.74 yards per carry in those two starts, and 10 of his 34 carries have gone for 10 yards or more. That's more than just moving the chains. Mendenhall is expected to be back this weekend, but if he's not, or he needs to sit out a few drives, Pittsburgh is in good hands with Dwyer.
• With so many top coaches wary of working under Jerry Jones -- the GM, not the owner -- it's hard to come up with a list of who replaces Jason Garrett (as the Cowboys continue to suffer quintessentially Cowboys late defeats, a coaching change seems requisite). I tend to think Chargers coach Norv Turner could end up back there in some capacity (you can always go home again in Dallas, it seems), maybe as offensive coordinator to try to get Tony Romo right. I don't see any name coaches ending up there other than perhaps Mike Holmgren, who was writing an open letter to owners at his press conference last week. Jones has also showed a willingness to go to the college ranks in the past, so maybe a Les Miles or Chip Kelly makes some sense there. But I certainly don't see a Jon Gruden or Andy Reid or Bill Cowher there.
• Young kicker Kai Forbath might be the answer to Washington's epic kicking revolving door. He has been accurate, but his kickoffs need major work. It's costing the team in field position, his hang time is not good enough and the Redskins defense isn't good enough to overcome those kind of issues. He'll have to boost his leg strength and bulk up some in the offseason.
• I chuckle every time I see these most overrated lists and Asomugha is not included on them. He is a huge free agent bust with the Eagles to this point. He isn't big on tackling, he has proven to be anything but versatile and he isn't a deterrent to getting balls thrown his way, either. He bites on double moves, he got beat by guys like Drew Davis for big touchdowns and was also caught out of position on Julio Jones' 63-yard touchdown on Sunday. He actually seems to be inviting throws his way at times and if he is having a better season than Eagles cast-off Asante Samuel is having in Atlanta, well, I don't see it.
• Looking at point differential, you would have to rank the NFC North as the league's best nearing the midpoint. The North is plus-127 (the AFC South is worst at minus-127). The AFC East is the only division in that conference with a positive differential (plus-28), due in large part to the Patriots being an NFL-best plus-92.