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Ryan, Falcons again in position but need their breakthrough

by | CBSSports.com
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons selected quarterback Matt Ryan with the third pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, and also with the expectation that he would quickly mature as a professional quarterback and lead the team to the playoffs, and beyond.

Through four seasons, Ryan has performed admirably in pursuit of those goals.

Ryan has led the Falcons to a 43-19 record since his arrival, the best start of any Atlanta quarterback in franchise history. In each year since 2008 he's increased his touchdown totals, and in the past two years he's ramped up his passing yards.

When the dust settled on the 2011 regular season, Ryan had 29 touchdowns and 4,177 passing yards, the highest single-season total for any Falcons quarterback in history.

The fourth-year quarterback's next step: win a playoff game.

Twice Ryan has been in the playoffs, but neither trip ended well. In 2008 Atlanta was bounced from the playoffs by eventual NFC champ Arizona. Last season Green Bay unceremoniously ended the Falcons' postseason en route to a Super Bowl title. Both one-and-done performances have the Falcons looking for ways to improve on their recent 0-2 record in the playoffs.

Coach Mike Smith moved quickly to dispel the idea that Atlanta's playoff woes of recent past rest squarely on the shoulders of Ryan.

"I know that we've had two postseason games prior to this," said Smith. "We haven't got the outcome we wanted. We are learning from those experiences. We're going to use those as growing experiences and we're looking forward to competing this week and that's just not Matt Ryan. That's Mike Smith, every member of our team."

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But the easiest target to aim for if looking for reasons why Atlanta didn't last long in the playoffs of 2008 or 2010 is Ryan.

In his playoff career, Ryan is 46 for 69 with 385 yards passing, three touchdowns and four interceptions. In neither game has Ryan thrown for 200 yards. In neither game has he thrown more touchdowns than interceptions.

Until Ryan can improve on his playoff numbers, and until he can lead the Falcons to their first playoff win in the Smith-Ryan era in Atlanta, his status among the elite quarterbacks in the league will be in question.

Of the 12 playoff quarterbacks this year, seven are making return trips. New England's Tom Brady has 14 playoff wins to his legacy. Drew Brees, Ryan's divisional rival from New Orleans, has four. So does Sunday's opponent, Eli Manning of the New York Giants.

Ryan is still looking for his first playoff win along with Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, T.J. Yates, Tim Tebow and Andy Dalton. But Ryan is the only quarterback who has been in the playoffs previously who has failed to win a game in the postseason.

Of the passers with at least 300 attempts this season, Ryan ranked seventh in the league in quarterback rating. The six quarterbacks ahead of him have 28 playoff wins combined, and only Stafford -- who's making his first trip to the playoffs -- is without a win.

While Atlanta is going to have to find a way to win in the playoffs to reach lofty goals set upon the team, both internally and externally, Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey thinks it's ridiculous Ryan shouldn't share the same limelight as the NFL's elite because he hasn't won a playoff game.

"I think he's proven that he's one of the best in the league," said Mularkey. "I don't think he has to win any specific game to prove that he is or not. I don't think it really matters to Matt. I haven't really thought about putting that pressure on him or ourselves for that matter. I don't think he's thinking about that."

Mularkey has a point.

If you look at Ryan's numbers from the moment he arrived in Atlanta, you'll see a quarterback who has gotten better every year. A student of the game, a film-room junkie, the playbook has expanded for Ryan and he's often lauded as being one of the league's best play-callers at the line of scrimmage.

And no matter what happens Sunday in New York, Ryan will likely make strides next year and become an even better quarterback. He doesn't need this win to continue his trajectory, and climb into the realm of the league's elite.

But it sure wouldn't hurt.

Atlanta running back Michael Turner spent the first four years of his career in San Diego, where a young Philip Rivers was in a similar situation to the one Ryan's in now.

Rivers entered the 2007 playoffs after a deflating 2006 one-and-done performance. He got his playoff first win in 2007 and Turner said the pressure that was lifted off Rivers helped the quarterback lead the Chargers all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

"Yeah, it was a huge weight lifted," said Turner.

Could the same drive to a league championship happen with the Falcons, if Ryan were to get his first playoff win against the Giants?

Ryan said he's under no pressure to win just because it's a playoff game, laughing off the suggestion. He says the past really doesn't matter too much to him.

"We had opportunities but didn't take advantage of those," said Ryan. "What matters is that we've put ourselves in this position again. And we have an opportunity to move forward. I just focus on preparing and trying to play well this week."

But as Turner saw in San Diego, and what Ryan still has to experience, is that one elusive win could have a domino effect. And that deep playoff run is what team owner Arthur Blank expects.

Blank, on numerous occasions since Atlanta's early playoff exit last year, has said to look at the elite teams in the league like Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Those elite teams and their players are judged on what they do in the postseason.

"It's just a reality," said Blank.

Does Ryan need a playoff win to be an elite quarterback in the NFL? No. Does he need that win to be treated like one? Most assuredly.

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