FLOWERY BRANCH Maybe it's time to stop calling Matt Ryan one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL.
One of the best — period — fits pretty well, too.
"The game has gotten slow for him," said Roddy White, Ryan's favorite receiver. "He sees everything now."
The guy known as "Matty Ice" has led the Atlanta Falcons (9-2) to a five-game winning streak and the top record in the NFC. During that run, he's completed 130 of 186 passes for 1,301 yards, with nine touchdowns and only one interception.
More than anything, the 25-year-old carries himself with a certain swagger that all great quarterbacks have, even if they — like Ryan — come across as rather passive and mellow off the field.
"Ohhh, he's confident. Don't let him fool you," tight end Tony Gonzalez said Wednesday. "You have to be sort of like, 'I'm the man. I'm going to make that throw. Don't worry about it. When you come off that route, I'm going to hit you right between the numbers.' It's not always like that, but you have to think that. It's like giving Michael Jordan the ball at the end of the game. You think there was ever a doubt in his mind he was going to make it?"
Of course, confidence comes from being prepared, and Ryan has made it clear that no one's going to outwork him. His teammates marvel at all the extra time he puts in, which includes coming to work every Tuesday — supposedly an off day for the players.
Ryan uses that time to study film, going over every possible scenario a defense might throw at him, learning all the little tendencies and nuances that might make the difference in a touchdown and interception come Sunday.
"As a quarterback, there's a lot of things you have to be on top of," he said. "I like to be on top of that before practice starts on Wednesday, so when you get out on the field and there's an opportunity for you to open your mouth, you'll know what you're talking about."
Ryan recently got engaged, but don't even bother trying to get him to reveal details of the impending nuptials. There's about as much chance of that happening as him taking a day off. He's always made it clear that his private life is off limits, and few details have leaked out about what he does with his own time.
That's just fine with the Falcons, who've already dealt with losing a franchise quarterback (Michael Vick) over what was going on away from the field (dogfighting).
"This is a quarterback-driven league," running back Michael Turner said. "Quarterback is a very important position in this sport. Matt takes it serious. He accepts his role of being a leader. That's big for us."
Ryan is only in his third season, so it's a little early to start putting him in the same class as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. Those guys have won Super Bowls; Ryan has yet to win a playoff game.
But he's guided the Falcons to three straight winning seasons — remember, this was a franchise that had never even had two in a row before he came along — and he's already guided 12 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Five of those clutch performances have come this season, and each one instills a little more belief that Ryan will always come through when his team needs him most.
Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, who knows a thing or two about quarterback play since he sees Manning every day, notices some of the same traits in Ryan.
"He has a chance to be a tremendously good player in this league for a long period of time," Polian said. "He has many of the same attributes in terms of work ethic and maturity and leadership that Peyton has."
Rest assured, the rest of the team notices when a quarterback is putting in all that extra work.
When Vick was with the Falcons, he often flew home to Virginia at the beginning of the week and didn't return until the team began practicing for its next opponent. For all his spectacular play, Atlanta made the playoffs only twice during his six years with the team.
By all accounts, Vick has been a changed man since coming out of prison and taking over as quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. Not surprisingly, he finally looks like a complete quarterback.
"I can look around this league — I'm not going to name names — but there's some big names who haven't had good careers because they won't take the time to go watch film, to get in the weight room, to really work on their mechanics, to really learn how to be a leader," Gonzalez said.
Heading into a key NFC South game at Tampa Bay (7-4), the Falcons have gone four straight weeks without a turnover for the first time in franchise history.
White knows just who to credit for that impressive stat.
"It's having a good quarterback who takes care of the ball," White said. "That's the key to success in this league. If you don't turn the ball over, you're likely going to win the game."