FLOWERY BRANCH — Matt Ryan knew the question was coming.
There are four quarterbacks still standing in the NFL playoffs. Only one has failed to win a Super Bowl title.
Any guesses who that might be?
“Yeah,” Ryan said dryly, pointing toward the questioner with a big smile, breaking the room up.
With his greatest season, Ryan has guided the Atlanta Falcons within two wins of their first Super Bowl title. It’s a tantalizing chance to fill the most glaring hole on his resume, to take care of the one thing that separates him from New England’s Tom Brady, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
Ryan might be the favorite to capture the MVP award, too. But chances are he won’t be considered a truly elite quarterback, the kind they start clearing a spot for in Canton, until he brings home a championship.
“He craves a Super Bowl,” said former Falcons teammate Tony Gonzalez, now an analyst for CBS. “Absolutely it would change the national perception of him. It would change the perception he has of himself. … It would change everything for him.”
Ryan has certainly had a stellar career up to now, and even his performance a year ago — generally viewed as the worst of his career — really wasn’t all that poor statistically. But it certainly wasn’t up to his standards, largely because of some high-profile miscues that played a big part in the Falcons finishing 8-8 after winning their first five games.
Gonzalez compares it to his second season in the NFL, when he followed up a brilliant rookie year by leading the league in dropped passes.
“Sometimes, that’s the best thing that can happen to you,” said Gonzalez, who went on to play 17 seasons — the last five with Ryan and the Falcons — in a career that will certainly lead to the Hall of Fame. “It forces you to turn over every stone. That’s what Matt did. When he’s in the huddle, he’s in complete command. I’ve never seen him like that before.”
Like any top player, Ryan is fastidious about his preparation. But something really clicked this year in the way he gets ready for a game. Nothing seems to faze him. No situation appears to catch him off-guard.
A more comfortable relationship in his second year with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is usually offered up as the most logical reason for Ryan’s transformation. But it runs deeper than that.
“I feel well-prepared week in and week out. I feel ready and confident when we get to games,” Ryan said Wednesday. “Do I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I’m doing it better than I’ve done it up to this point? Absolutely.”
No argument there.
Ryan completed just under 70 percent of his throws during the regular season, and he’s probably the most accurate deep passer in the league. He finished with a career-best 38 touchdowns and 4,944 yards — and a career-low seven interceptions — while leading the Falcons (12-5) to the NFC South title.
Yet Ryan knows better than anyone he’ll be judged by what he does in the playoffs, especially because he came into this year with only one victory in five postseason games.
He began writing a new narrative last week, throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a dominating 36-20 victory over Seattle, his sixth straight game without an interception. Now, it’s on to the NFC championship game against Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, a dazzling matchup between two quarterbacks at the top of their games.
Ryan shrugs off any speculation about what a victory might mean to his legacy.
“I don’t think about those things all that often,” he said. “Certainly not at this time of the year.”
But others know how important this is.
“He’ll probably have Hall of Fame numbers with what he’s done so far in his career,” said Phil Simms, who was with the New York Giants for a pair of Super Bowl titles. “But we’ve come to a day and age where it’s how many Super Bowls were you in? How many victories did you have? How did you play in the so-called big games? It’s really big for his — and it’s a word I hate to use — but his legacy. That’s just the way it is.”
Ryan is certainly carrying himself with the swagger that all the great ones have.
It wasn’t that way when Gonzalez was with the Falcons, even though they nearly reached the Super Bowl during the 2012 season, losing to San Francisco 28-24 in the only other NFC championship game hosted by Atlanta.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Gonzalez, who retired in 2013. “He just has a different look, a different air of confidence. You never know where that ball is going. Julio Jones is one of the top two or three receivers in the game, but he’s not just throwing to Julio. He’s throwing to everybody.”
Indeed, Ryan’s touchdowns have been spread out among 13 receivers, an NFL record.
“I think he’s turned a corner,” Gonzalez continued. “I expect the rest of his career — and the rest of these playoffs — to do what he’s done this season. He’s on a roll now and peaking as a player.”
Ryan is always cautious about what he says. He’s the last guy in the league who would brag about his performance or do anything to provide the other team with bulletin-board material.
But he agrees with Gonzalez on one point.
The best is yet to come.