• Matt Ryan cemented his status as a current front-runner for the NFL’s MVP award with a four-touchdown performance in the Falcons’ 43–28 road win over the Buccaneers on Thursday night.
By Jonathan Jones
November 04, 2016

At the beginning of this NFL season we were all worried about the lack of star power at the quarterback position. Peyton Manning had retired, Tom Brady was suspended and league MVP Cam Newton wasn’t dabbing. Now, halfway through the season, we have an MVP race that has three quarterbacks in the front and everyone’s chasing Matt Ryan.

Atlanta’s starting quarterback is playing at an All Pro level for the first time since 2012, and in this his ninth season, he’s putting together a year worthy of the league’s top award. In Thursday night’s 43–28 win against Tampa Bay, Ryan’s value was on full display. His ability to get everyone involved won the Falcons their sixth game of the season and kept them in contention for one of the top seeds in the NFC playoffs.

Who deserves to win the NFL MVP award? The case for 10 candidates

Just as he’s done all season, Ryan found nearly every eligible receiver available to him against the Bucs. He hit seven pass-catchers Thursday night and targeted an eighth (to a first-year tight end who dropped a sure touchdown). He completed 25 of 34 passes for 344 yards and tossed four touchdowns to tie a career high.

“It’s tough to put a finger on it,” Ryan told NFL Network after the game on why this is his best season. “I think it’s because of the guys around me. We have a deep offense … When you’re deep as a quarterback with a lot of options, it makes your job a lot easier.”

Of course there’s Julio Jones, who had one of the quieter 111-yard nights for a receiver this year. Capable of a 300-yard day, as seen against the Panthers last month, Jones doesn’t have to post big numbers for the Falcons to win. In fact, in the four games this season where Jones has had fewer than 100 receiving yards, Atlanta is 3–1.

NFL midseason crystal ball: Predicting playoffs and Super Bowl LI champions

Atlanta’s running game could also be considered a boon to Ryan’s great season. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman made up the best backfield in the NFL for the first quarter of the season but both have cooled a bit since early October. Freeman has just one 100-yard rushing game this season (with 77 Thursday) and Coleman missed his second straight game due to a hamstring injury.

The constant through all this has been Ryan, who’s been the beneficiary of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s better knowledge of his personnel in Year 2 in Atlanta. The Falcons are using their tight ends more effectively, employing the speed of Taylor Gabriel like on a second-quarter touchdown sweep and giving Ryan a legitimate No. 2 receiver opposite Jones in Mohamed Sanu.

And before anyone points out the competition on Thursday night, don’t forget this Bucs team has had Atlanta’s number. Jameis Winston has nine career victories in his two seasons, and three of them have come against Atlanta. That includes a Week 1 win in Atlanta that, two months later, remains as puzzling as it did as soon as the final whistle blew.

The biggest question facing each NFL team in the second half

Since then Ryan has been one of the most impressive players in the league. He beat Oakland in Week 2, found the mismatches in Denver for the victory and was a missed pass interference away from possibly anchoring a game-winning drive the following week against Seattle. His marquee game, though, was last week against Green Bay. That drive, an 11-play, 75-yarder in the final four minutes, cemented Ryan’s status as one of the elite quarterbacks in this league.

Now he has 23 passing touchdowns, which tops last year’s total by two. Ryan should blast his previous career highs in most passing categories, and he’s on pace to have his first 5,000-yard season. His main competition, at this point, for the MVP award is Tom Brady and Derek Carr. Ryan owns the head-to-head win against Carr, and it’d be tough to give the award to a guy who played 75 percent of the season if Ryan puts up consistently great numbers for all 16 games.

Thursday night, following his fourth touchdown drive of the night, Ryan went back to the sideline at Raymond James Stadium and a faint “M-V-P” chant could be heard in the stadium he was visiting. As the season continues, those cheers should get louder.