Let’s get straight to the reality of Sunday’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Quite simply, it could be the biggest game of Matt Ryan’s career.
Sure, the Atlanta quarterback has played in plenty of big regular-season and post-season games since coming into the league in 2008. But this is the game, that once and for all, could cause the public perception of Ryan being a very nice quarterback to elite status. This is the game that could make Ryan a star and put him in the driver’s seat for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award.
Ryan already is in the picture. He is playing the best football of his career. He’s thrown for 1,473 passing yards, which leads the league. He also has completed 72.1 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s the reason the Falcons are off to a 3-1 start.
But this game is about perception and reality. The perception is that Ryan has been one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the league this season. But we won’t know the reality until Sunday evening.
That’s because, as great as Ryan has played this year, he hasn’t faced anything quite like Denver’s defense. The Broncos are allowing just 16 points a game. They have their own MVP candidate in Von Miller, who has a league-high 5.5 sacks. The Denver pass rush, which also features Derek Wolfe and Shane Ray, is going to be a huge challenge for Atlanta’s offensive line. But Denver’s pass rush doesn’t tell the whole story of the defense.
The Broncos can cover, and they have five interceptions, led by three from Aqib Talib. Things can’t possibly be as easy for Ryan and top receiver Julio Jones as they were in last week’s win over Carolina. In that game, Ryan threw for a career-high 503 yards and Jones had a career-best 300 receiving yards. Ryan and Jones have been the league’s most dangerous combination through four games, but let’s see if they can do it against a defense like Denver’s in high altitude. This will be the ultimate test and Ryan and Jones may be ready for it.
“I think it’s that it’s Matt’s second year in the system, which always helps anybody,’’ Falcons owner Arthur Blank told ESPN. “I think that has a lot to do with it. I think he has a greater personal connection with the offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. I think that’s helped a good bit.”
“I think the addition of some of the receivers that we have picked up has helped. Look at (Taylor) Gabriel. Mohamed Sanu has played well. (Rookie tight end Austin) Hooper has played well. (Jacob) Tamme continues to play well. Of course, Julio is Julio which is just out of sight. Matt’s got a lot of choices. And then you’ve got these two backs out of the backfield (Devonta Freeman) and (Tevin Coleman) not only can they run the ball, but they can catch the ball and run with it. So he’s got a lot of options.’’
Blank is spot-on in his assessment of Ryan and the offense. Ryan has a better supporting cast than ever, and that’s saying a lot. Early in his career, he was surrounded by Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner. But age eventually caught up to that trio and Ryan hasn’t had a good supporting cast, except for Jones, the last few years. Now he has good talent at every skill position and Jones is looking like he could be a Hall of Famer.
But Blank’s other point, the one about Shanahan, might be more important in Ryan’s fast start. Ryan struggled at times last year and admitted that the learning curve for Shanahan’s offense was steep. It also looked like Shanahan wasn’t always playing to Ryan’s strengths and was hesitant to make adjustments to his offense.
Ryan worked very hard on mastering the offense during the offseason and Shanahan made some changes to take advantage of Ryan’s skill set. That combination is working spectacularly.
If Ryan and the offense can play anything like they have been this season against Denver, Atlanta could have an MVP on its hands.