Sam Donnellon: Facing Falcons' Ryan could be just what doctor didn't order for Eagles

Matt Ryan has led the Falcons to comeback victories in the last three games.
Matt Ryan has led the Falcons to comeback victories in the last three games. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 26, 2012

HE'S CALLED "Matty Ice" as a compliment, a nod to his ability to shake off some of the worst starts and circumstances the quarterback position can experience and play the last few minutes as if someone pressed restart.

Nineteen times in his four-plus seasons, Matt Ryan has driven the Atlanta Falcons to victory in the waning minutes of a game, including three straight occurrences leading into Sunday's game against the Eagles.

Just perfect. A defense coming off two fourth-quarter meltdowns, a defense that just saw its coordinator fired, that will have Todd Bowles talking into DeMeco Ryans' ears for the first time this Sunday, will have its first test against a guy whose fourth quarters make Eli Manning seem like a hack.

A local guy no less, from Exton.

"You know what?" Matt Ryan was saying over the phone Wednesday. "You'd like to have them wrapped up earlier, that's for sure. But a lot of times that's the way it shakes out. And especially in the NFL. There's such great parity in the NFL that week in and week out, it comes down to the fourth quarter."

How true. If the Eagles played only three periods last season - like hockey - they would have been a playoff team, maybe even made it to the Super Bowl. This season, the margin of victory in five of the six games they have played has been three points or less. As poor as the Eagles' offense has been, they would be sitting at 5-1 if they could have made one more first down or one more stop in their last two games.

The Falcons, on the other hand, might have an identical record to the Eagles' 3-3 without Ryan's late-game heroics over their last three games. Atlanta won all three by a total of 12 points.

"The fourth quarter is going to be big for us," said Ryans, the Eagles linebacker. "To find a way to reverse what's been happening to us."

They will try to do so against a guy who has generated more fourth-quarter comebacks in his first five seasons as a pro than either Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger did. A guy who, in the last 3 weeks, beat Carolina with a last-minute, 77-yard drive, Washington with a last-minute, 69-yard drive and completed five of six attempts on a final drive to beat Oakland in the Falcons' last game, 2 weeks ago?

Shouldn't there be a quiz before you take this exam?

"I like the challenge," DeMeco Ryans said.

You want a silver lining in your playbook? Here it comes: There is a secondary meaning to "Matty Ice" that isn't complimentary. Dating back to his days at Boston College, Ryan has been prone to slow starts and even slumps, has struggled at times with short and intermediate passes. It's one reason there were no fourth-quarter comebacks in the Falcons' two lopsided playoff losses to the Giants and Packers the last two seasons. It's one reason that Ryan, like that other local-born NFL quarterback, Joe Flacco, has been kept out of the elite quarterback club by some people.

It's one reason the Falcons needed fourth-quarter heroics against Oakland: Matty Ice threw three interceptions in the game.

But for the most part, this season has been a model of consistency for the 27-year-old Penn Charter grad, who was NFL offensive player of the month in September. First-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has received some credit for that. But Ryan's offseason regimen after the 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants, said head coach Mike Smith, should not be overlooked.

"He was the first one back in the weight room [after the Giants loss] and worked extremely hard to get stronger," Smith said.

Said Ryan: "It's one of those things that motivated you in the offseason and pushed you to train and prepare yourself to watch the film and try to improve."

Said Smith: "You look at him and you don't see a whole lot of difference in his body. But his body fat is down and his strength numbers are up. And I think you can see that not necessarily on his long balls but on his short and intermediate balls."

Ryan has thrown for at least two touchdowns in five of the six games this season, and ranks in the top four among NFL quarterbacks in rating, touchdowns and completion percentage. As important, he's been sharp at the start of games. And he's been Matty Ice at the finish.

"We've got to figure out a way to stop that from happening," DeMeco Ryans said. "To find a way to reverse what's been happening to us."


Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon. For recent columns, go to philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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