ATLANTA — Matt Ryan had just pulled off an improbable comeback when someone questioned his credentials.
So, are you sure you’re a rookie?
"Yeah," Ryan said, breaking into a big smile, "I’m sure."
So far, his experience level has been nothing more than a technicality. With Ryan at the helm, the Atlanta Falcons (4-2) already have matched their win total for all of 2007 — a shipwreck of a season that will forever be linked to the franchise’s most visible player being led off to prison for dogfighting.
With each victory, Michael Vick becomes a more distant memory.
With each victory, Ryan becomes the new face of the team.
"He’s got it," first-year coach Mike Smith said. "I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but he’s got it. The guys have really taken to Matt. He knows how to be a leader."
Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft, won the starting job in training camp, though that wasn’t much of an accomplishment with competition that included journeyman Chris Redman and untested D.J. Shockley.
Trying to win over a fan base that is still sprinkled liberally with Vick’s No. 7 jersey, Ryan made quite a first impression when he threw for a long touchdown on his very first career pass.
While there have been a few stumbles since then — he looked very much like a rookie in losses at Tampa Bay and Carolina — Ryan’s poise and arm strength have largely erased any doubts whether he was ready to make the jump from Boston College to NFL starter.
"A rookie quarterback is going to have disappointments," Smith said. "But, to this point, he’s definitely exceeded our expectations."
After trading wins with losses over the first month of the season, the Ryan-led Falcons have moved into a three-way tie for first in the NFC South with two straight impressive performances.
There was a 27-17 upset of the Green Bay Packers at storied Lambeau Field, where Ryan picked up the first road win as a pro. Now, he’s got an improbable comeback on his resume as well, completing a 26-yard pass that set up Jason Elam’s 48-yard field goal on the final play Sunday for a 22-20 win over the Chicago Bears.
The Bears were certainly impressed with the guy on the other side of the line. Taking advantage of an injury-depleted secondary, Ryan had his best game yet: 22-of-30 for 301 yards and a touchdown.
"He took exactly what we were giving him," Chicago’s Lance Briggs said. "He knew exactly where to go. He threw the ball with authority. He didn’t look like a rookie. He looked like exactly what he’s supposed to be: the leader of his team."
Ryan’s final throw was his most impressive. The Bears appeared to have won when Rashied Davis hauled in a 17-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Orton with 11 seconds remaining. Robbie Gould punched through the extra point for a 20-19 lead.
Thousands of stunned fans began heading for the exits, no doubt mumbling in unison, "Same ol’ Falcons."
Not so fast.
The Bears made the dubious decision to squib the kickoff, hoping to avoid another long return by Jerious Norwood. Harry Douglas scooped it up and sped to the Atlanta 44 before going down to save time. Ryan and the offense trotted on the field with 6 seconds to go.
Instead of hurling a desperation pass to the end zone, the Falcons decided they had enough time to pull off a play that would get them in range for a field goal. Michael Jenkins raced away from the line, faked to the inside and broke for the sideline. Ryan let go of the ball before the receiver had even turned.
Jenkins looked back in time to see a perfectly thrown pass heading his way. He cradled it in front of safety Mike Brown, dragged both feet inside the line and tumbled out of bounds at the Chicago 30.
The Falcons couldn’t have timed it any better.
One second left.
As Elam trotted on to attempt a 48-yard field goal, Ryan finally showed his age. The 23-year-old could barely watch the snap, hold and kick.
"I am still just a kid, really," he said. "When you’re out there playing, you feel like you’re 10, 11, 12 years old. That doesn’t change. I was crossing my fingers, doing everything superstitious I could do, just hoping that kick would go through."
It did, setting off a wild celebration in the middle of the field that included Ryan leaping into the arms of his coach.
The Falcons are off this week, time they will use to work out a few obvious kinks in their feel-good story. Most notably, they must have more success in the red zone after managing only one touchdown against the Bears.
"There’s a lot of areas for us to improve in," Ryan said. "We have been getting better. We are becoming more comfortable with each other. But we still have a long ways to go."
But, thanks to a quarterback who’s a rookie in name only, the journey looks a lot shorter than anyone would have expected.