Drew Brees has his GPS set for Canton, Cam Newton is the reigning NFL MVP, and Jameis Winston is the budding superstar but none of them are currently the best quarterback in the NFC South right now.
That mythical title belongs to Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, who is coming off one whale of a performance Sunday, easily outdueling Newton in a 48-33 statement win over the reigning division-champion Panthers.
Through the quarter-pole of the season, Ryan has the Falcons at 3-1, two games clear of everyone else in the division and his prolific 503-yard passing day against the supposedly staunch Carolina defense has the Boston College product atop the early watch lists for 2016 MVP.
Both Ryan and his main target against the Panthers, All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, had historic days. Ryan became just the 19th man in league lore to throw for five bills while Jones’ 12-catch, 300-yard effort was only the sixth time a wideout has accumulated that much yardage in 60 minutes of football.
Without All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, Carolina has no real option to at least slow-down the
king-sized Jones, looking to rookie James Bradberry, an almost untenable plan even before the corner was hampered by an early toe injury unless it was coupled by a consistent pass rush, which wasn’t the case.
“We had good matchups and (Falcons offensive coordinator) Kyle (Shanahan) did a great job of dialing up plays all day,” Ryan said. “He stayed aggressive. But at the end of the day, it comes down to Julio making some plays.”
Jones was great but Ryan was also being a little self-deprecating there because he was putting the football on the mark, allowing Jones to use his almost-comic book size, strength and speed to do the rest.
Through four weeks Ryan is atop the NFL in both passing yardage (1,473) and touchdown throws (11) but it’s not like you haven’t seen the three-time Pro Bowl selection put up big numbers before.
This time the difference is the production married with an ability to take care of the football, as Ryan has thrown just two interceptions, a rate which is nearly 50 percent lower than the 15 he’s averaged over his past four seasons.
Some of that comes from playing with the lead and not having to push things as much but the supporting cast being rebuilt to a degree helps as well.
The Falcons were agonizingly close to Super Bowl XLVII when Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez were still around as complements to Jones. It slowly morphed into a one-man band from that point with Jones playing the role of Heath Slater and Atlanta hasn’t made the postseason since, winning a total of just 18 games over the prior three seasons.
The co-stars are better now with the additions of receiver Mohamed Sanu as well as tight end Austin Hooper. Meanwhile, the backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman may be the best Ryan has ever had, and talented center Alex Mack has somewhat settled down a seemingly always inflamed offensive line situation.
“I think we’ve played pretty well at times,” Ryan said when discussing the first four games. “We’ve obviously scored points which is, at the end of the day, the most important thing. But I had high expectations coming into it. We’ve got a lot of really good players, a great scheme and I expected us to play well.”
The NFL has a way of testing you when you are riding highest, however, and Ryan and the Falcons will only be as good as their next performance, which happens to be a take-your-temperature game in Denver against the reigning Super Bowl champions and perhaps the best defense in the sport.
No one is planning on 500 yards from Ryan at Mile High and Aqib Talib is quite the step up from Bradberry when it comes to shadowing Jones.
What they should be expecting, however, is a competitive game, at least if Atlanta has really turned the corner.
-John McMullen is a national football columnist for FanRagSports.com and TodaysPigskin.com. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @JFMcMullen — Also catch John each week during the NFL season ESPN South Jersey, ESPN Southwest Florida, ESPN Lexington, KDWN in Las Vegas, and check @JFMcMullen for John’s upcoming appearances on SB Nation Radio, FOX Sports Radio, CBS Sports Radio as well as dozens of local radio stations across North America.