Panthers at Falcons
When: 4:25 p.m. Sunday
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Quarterback Matt Ryan is hoping to spend another few years with Mike Smith as coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
As Ryan sees it, why not?
With a victory Sunday over Carolina (6-8-1), Smith will have led Atlanta (6-9) to three NFC South titles and five playoff appearances since Ryan was drafted third overall in 2008.
"Smitty's been awesome," Ryan told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I think he's done a great job here. He's, day in and day out, consistent with the guys. You know where you stand with him, which is a great quality as a coach. In this locker room, guys have a ton of respect for him."
Ryan doesn't deny the disappointment of the past two years. Since falling 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl two seasons ago, the Falcons are 10-21, but Ryan refuses to apologize that they're in position to win the division and host a playoff game next week.
Owner Arthur Blank hasn't said if he wants Smith to return next season. A victory, though, wouldn't hurt the coach's chances.
While Ryan putting responsibility on himself and his teammates to keep Smith with the Falcons, Smith has always said he "has to coach better" to put players in position to succeed.
It's the embodiment of mutual respect, but there's a personal side to the relationship, too.
Smith told The AP that he's grown very close to Ryan through the years and wants to continue that relationship in Atlanta.
"Matt Ryan has been the face of our franchise since the first game he played," Smith said. "He means the world to me, not only as a football player but also as someone that can mentor the other players on the team. His play on the field speaks for itself. His ability to overcome adversity, his mental toughness, his physical toughness is as good as I've ever seen."
The future of their relationship is uncertain until Sunday. If the Falcons lose, based on Blank's past firings of Dan Reeves and Jim Mora, Smith could be out by Monday.
If Atlanta wins, the question will linger as the team plans to host a wild-card playoff game next weekend.
The Falcons put playoff tickets on sale not long after winning last Sunday at New Orleans and eliminating the Saints' division hopes.
"This is what you work so hard for in the offseason and during training camp, to have opportunities like this late in the year where everything is on the line," Ryan said. "That's fun. I think guys are going to enjoy the moment."
Blank also hasn't said publicly if general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who was hired in January 2008 before Smith was brought on board, will return.
Regardless of the status of his GM and coach, Ryan is in the first season of a six-year, $100 million contract and knows he likely will be in Atlanta for quite some time.
So it's no surprise that Ryan wants to end this season on a successful note. He knows that some fans will consider this game as the defining moment, particularly if the Falcons lose.
"That's kind of the nature of this game, where we're at, where (the Panthers are) at, what's on the line," Ryan said. "I'm sure that's people will remember. They'll remember what happens late in the year. Hopefully it's other games after this, though, for us that are the ones that are memorable."
Notes: Pro Bowl WR Julio Jones (hip/oblique) did not participate in practice. Also held out were WR Roddy White (ankle), RB Steven Jackson (quadriceps) and reserve CB Josh Wilson (hamstring). ... WR Harry Douglas (foot) and RG Jon Asamoah (back) were limited.