In the first half of the NFC championship game Sunday, Ryan was epic. At halftime one of the writers sitting next to me in the press box -- I forget who; it was either Pete Prisco from here, or Michael Silver of Yahoo.com -- called it possibly the greatest first-half performance in NFL playoff history. And possibly it was. Ryan threw for 271 yards and three touchdowns ... in the first two quarters. He was halfway toward getting the glowingest darned story you've ever seen me write.
Then came the second half.
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Ryan was mostly mediocre in the second half, and when he wasn't mediocre he was bad. Atlanta was scoreless. And the San Francisco 49ers hurtled all the way back from a 17-point deficit to win 28-24 and advance to the Super Bowl.
Ryan's center, 14-year veteran Todd McClure, was biting back tears as he tried to talk about the Falcons' collapse in the home locker room.
"You play your whole career ..." is how McClure started, but then he fell silent, lowering his head and hanging it for five seconds, then 10. When he looked up again his eyes were red and his voice was quivering, but he picked up where he left off. "...to get into this situation. It's really tough."
McClure's locker is a few feet away from Ryan's. Ryan wasn't there at the time, but soon he was. And soon his awful finish to this game -- not the entire second half; only the final two plays -- made sense.
Ryan walked past in a T-shirt and sweatpants, and while there was no outward sign of injury -- no slings or braces, no icepacks, nothing -- his left arm wasn't moving. I mean, not any.
Ryan walked past the media, his right arm swinging with every step, his left arm stuck to his side like it was stapled there. He talked to McClure and a few other teammates, gesturing repeatedly with his right arm. His left never moved. He put his right hand on his hip. His left arm never moved.
Ryan told Prisco he thinks he suffered a separated shoulder with less than two minutes left, on second-and-9 from the 49ers' 15. Ryan threw a short pass to running back Jason Snelling for a 5-yard gain before being hit by 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Ryan got up, and the Falcons had two more chances from the 10.
Ryan threw the ball both times. Neither reached the end zone -- and it's possible neither throw would have given the Falcons even a first down. On third down Ryan's pass into the right flat for Roddy White was batted down by Brooks. On fourth down he threw over the middle to White, who had plenty of contact on the play with linebacker NaVorro Bowman. No flag. No catch. No Super Bowl.
Atlanta had one more shot, but not really. Maybe it was because Ryan couldn't throw a Hail Mary without the use of his left arm -- not his throwing arm, but vital in the throwing motion to get anything into the throw -- but with 59 yards to go and six seconds to get them, Falcons coach Mike Smith called for a mid-range pass over the middle, presumably to be followed by laterals and luck. Ryan's pass went 24 yards to Julio Jones, who was tackled at the 49ers' 35. Game over.
"That was the play call," Ryan said. "We didn't execute it the way we wanted."
Same goes for most of the second half, just like last week against Seattle in the divisional playoffs. The Falcons clubbed the Seahawks early, taking a 20-0 lead in the first half before blowing a 20-point margin in the fourth quarter. Ryan was better in the first half (135 passing yards) than the second half (115) last week, too, but last week he had enough time left for two late passes to get the Falcons into field-goal range for the win. Not so this time.
This time Ryan followed his near-perfect first half with a humdrum second half. The first half was so good that it propelled him to a franchise playoff record 396 passing yards -- but the second half is when games are decided, and in the second half Ryan was average (12 of 18 for 125 yards) except for the two plays he wasn't.
When he was lousy.
Ryan made two killer mistakes, most egregious his fumble late in the third quarter at the 49ers' 28. The shotgun snap was good, but he took his eyes off the ball and dropped it. San Francisco recovered.
That came one drive after Ryan's timing pass to White was intercepted by 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver.
The 49ers didn't score off either turnover but those two plays were a six-point swing, at minimum, given that the Falcons were on the 49ers' side of the field both times. That's two field goals, not kicked. Six points, not scored. A six-point swing in a four-point loss. You can do the math. So can Matt Ryan.
"We had two chances when we were in positive territory and didn't walk away with points," he said. "You can't do that. You can't do that in these types of games."
In the Falcons' locker room, they seemed more stunned than depressed. Another second-half meltdown? Really?
I asked Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson why the team wasn't able to learn from last week's letdown. He said he didn't know. He tried to come up with an answer, then begged off. Said he needed to watch the film. Then he threw his hands over his head and muttered something to himself, but loud enough for me to hear:
"Man this is tough," Robinson said. "Man."
Down the hall Ryan was in the conference room, talking to the media. His gathering included three kids wearing replicas of his jersey, three little Matt Ryans sitting in the crowd in their red-and-black No. 2s. One of them was the grandson of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who also sat in for the press conference and listened as Ryan repeatedly blamed this loss on those two turnovers -- his two turnovers.
When he was done talking, Ryan walked off the podium and into the arms of Blank, who gave him a hug. Blank's grandson, wearing the Matt Ryan jersey, stood there with his hand up. He wanted a high-five. Ryan saw him, walked over, and slapped the waiting palm softly with his right hand.
His left arm never moved.