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Super Bowl 51: Matt Ryan’s Falcons vs. Tom Brady’s Pats

The Big Game in Houston is set, after Atlanta throttled Green Bay and New England dismissed Pittsburgh. Here’s a look at the Atlanta quarterback’s breakthrough and his counterpart’s continued brilliance. Plus items on a retiring Raven, Johnny Manziel, Ryan Grigson, DeShaun Watson and more

ATLANTA — To appreciate the magnitude of what we saw Sunday in the last football game ever at the Georgia Dome, we must consider what was happening in this city the April day Matt Ryan was drafted in 2008.

I was in Atlanta that weekend. Michael Vick was not. He was in federal prison in Kansas, serving nearly two years for dogfighting and animal cruelty. But the city not only hadn’t forgotten him; many in the city were keeping his seat warm and wanted him as their quarterback when he finished doing his time. I remember the day before the draft walking through a mall and thinking, All these people with Vick jerseys or T-shirts supporting him … amazing. So when Ryan got picked third overall by new GM Thomas Dimitroff, it was a new start. But some locals seemed unmoved.

An Atlanta TV sports anchor, Gil Tyree, told me on draft day 2008 that Vick “is a messiah here. … No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he’ll never be accepted.”

Yikes.

Now to Sunday, and the 44-21 beatdown of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, leading to the second Super Bowl appearance for the Falcons in their history. As Ryan compiled a four-touchdown, 392-yard game in the biggest game of his nine-year career, three times the crowd in the Dome rained down chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” Six straight games without an interception … Heavy favorite to win the NFL MVP on Feb. 4 … Crowd screaming for him as he left the field like New York screamed for the Beatles in 1964.

Matt Ryan is headed to his first Super Bowl and the Atlanta franchise’s second overall.

Matt Ryan is headed to his first Super Bowl and the Atlanta franchise’s second overall.

The screams and chants sounded a lot like acceptance to me. This seemed a cruel time to remind Ryan of that day and the words of the sports anchor in 2008, but in a quiet moment at his locker after the game, I did.

This is not a topic Ryan wants to revisit. In his nine years at the helm of this team, nobody’s ever seen Ryan sweat. He says the right things, does the right things, works the right way. But he understood the gravity of this day, and what he’d accomplished under such initial pressure. Vick thrilled this town like few athletes have, but Ryan has taken the franchise further than Vick ever did.

No matter what Matt Ryan will do, he’ll never be accepted.

Ryan said quietly: “Some things you don’t forget.”

That was it. But others took up Ryan’s cause. “Matt’s created great memories in this dome,” said Dimitroff, who made Ryan the first pick of his tenure. “Back then, when Matt was drafted, the doubts were there. But he’s evolved and stayed above it all.”

“That’s a long time ago,’’ said receiver and returned Eric Weems, who was a Falcon when Ryan was drafted and who knew the tenor in the city. “If people are still holding grudges, and I doubt there are, it’s on them. I can tell you Matt’s my quarterback. Matt’s our quarterback. I love him.”

The best teams are often forged through difficult times. Ryan was drafted the year after Bobby Petrino pulled one of the all-time classless coaching moves, quitting with two games left in the 2007 season to take a college job. Ryan had some shaky playoff games, but Dimitroff and Blank were unwavering in their support. Blank, wisely, held onto Dimitroff—a strong scout—when he fired Mike Smith two years ago and hired Dan Quinn as coach. Ryan has gotten excellent coaching from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan over the past two years, and Quinn’s definitive demands for every position on the field allowed Dimitroff and key personnel men Scott Pioli and Steve Sabo to know exactly what to scout. Two excellent drafts and good free-agent finds (Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu), and here we are—an Atlanta-New England Super Bowl.

On Sunday, the Falcons defense was able to do what no other team could do the past two months: Keep Aaron Rodgers in check.

On Sunday, the Falcons defense was able to do what no other team could do the past two months: Keep Aaron Rodgers in check.

Two things I notice about Ryan’s game under Shanahan: He’s more comfortable as an athlete—that 14-yard touchdown run against Green Bay, his first TD carry since 2012, showed he’s not a lumberjng runner, but a competent one. “There was nobody to account for the quarterback,” Ryan said. “And everybody's backs are turned playing coverage, playing man‐to‐man coverage. Just saw a lane open up.” In the past, Ryan likely would have stuck in the pocket, looking at his third and fourth targets.

“Matt’s been a grinder, getting his mental right,” is how Weems put it.

Ryan is better at play-action and run fakes, a more complete player who doesn’t think being a pocket quarterback means you actually have to be in the pocket all the time, surveying the field seven steps behind center. I loved his first touchdown pass Sunday, which was a combination of Steve Young and Brett Favre. On Atlanta’s first drive of the game, from the Green Bay two-yard line, Ryan took off to his left near the goal line, and it looked like he’d run it in. But then he threw a flip pass to Sanu for a touchdown. I just don’t think that’s the kind of thing he’d have been comfortable doing pre-Shanahan.

Against New England, the more multiple a quarterback can be, the better. You saw how Bill Belichick and defensive boss Matt Patricia began to neutralize Le’Veon Bell even before he got hurt in the AFC game by taking away those creases in the defensive front that Bell uses so wisely. The Patriots take what you do well and find a couple of ways to combat it. No doubt that Shanahan today and tomorrow will be all over New England tape trying to play Spy Vs. Spy, figuring what the Patriots will do if the Falcons do such-and-such.

The last player you’d compare Ryan to is Vick. But in the next two weeks he’d better get ready for it. During the run-ups to Super Bowls, long perspective stories are the order of the day. Vick, 2001: thrills and chills, a roller coaster, but didn’t work overall. Ryan, 2008: by the book, outworking everyone, in the Super Bowl. The Falcons, and Ryan, have been rewarded, and a date with Tom Brady is the result.

• REMEMBER THE HARTFORD PATRIOTS? Our #RoadtoHouston begins in the Connecticut capital, which nearly swooped in to steal New England’s team—before Roger Goodell saved the day

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We Could Use a Great Game in No. 267

The Pats and Falcons haven’t played since a Sept. 29, 2013, meeting at the Georgia Dome.

The Pats and Falcons haven’t played since a Sept. 29, 2013, meeting at the Georgia Dome.

After 256 regular-season games and 10 in the playoffs, the NFL season comes down to game number 267 in Houston, Super Bowl LI between Atlanta and New England. I love the game, because there’s so much new and interesting about Atlanta (particularly on defense, where seven of the 12 “starters,” including third corner Brian Poole, are first or second-year players), and because there’s so much history on the line for New England. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick could become the first QB-coach duo in history to win five Super Bowls. Brady could be the first quarterback in history to win five Super Bowls. It could be a momentous night in Houston 13 days from now.

And it’s new for the teams too. Of Atlanta’s 53-man roster, 37 players weren’t Falcons the last time these two teams met, a 30-23 win for New England at the Georgia Dome in 2013. It’s fresh for them, fresh for the players and coaches.

I loved Kyle Shanahan’s reaction when, just before I recorded a podcast conversation with him Sunday night in the Falcons’ equipment office at the Georgia Dome, I told the Falcons’ offensive coordinator it looked like the Super Bowl foe would be New England.

“Good,” he said. Not because he’s a cocky glutton for punishment, but because he wants to play the best. That sounds nuts, but what coach who considers himself really good at his job wouldn’t want to match wits with Bill Belichick and his staff in the game of the year?

By the way: I sure hope it’s the game of the year. We could use one. Average margin of victory in the 10 playoff games: 15.7. Games decided by 13 points or more in the 10 playoff games: eight.

New England (16-2, AFC top seed) versus Atlanta (13-5, NFC second seed), Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m. ET, NRG Stadium, Houston (retractable roof). New England will play in its ninth Super Bowl (a record), Atlanta its second. Tom Brady plays in his seventh, Matt Ryan his first. So clearly, the Patriots have cornered the market on experience. But Atlanta hasn’t shown many signs of being intimidated by the bright lights this postseason, putting up 80 points on Seattle and Green Bay, teams far more playoff-experienced than the Falcons; defensively Atlanta held the Aaron Rodgers-led Packer offense scoreless for the first 35 minutes Sunday. It’ll be fascinating to see the game plan Josh McDaniels weaves after studying players he’s never faced—rangy and instinctive Falcons rookie middle ’backer Deion Jones, for instance—this week. The bigger New England secondary could be a matchup problem for Atlanta, even thought Julio Jones laughs at matchup problems. One Falcon told me Sunday night, “Julio’s playing with half a toe, and it doesn’t matter,” referring to a nagging turf toe injury that won’t get better until he gets four or five months of rest and rehab. But if you saw his 73-yard catch-and-run and breaking of two tackles against Green Bay, you’ve got to figure the Patriots are going to try to eliminate him and let someone else beat them. That someone else might be Mohamed Sanu. I was disappointed in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (25 carries, 71 yards, long of 14) against Green Bay, and New England’s run defense is better. So that means it’s up to Matt Ryan to justify his MVP-ness and have a big day if Atlanta hopes to keep New England from its fifth Super Bowl win.

• HOW THE FALCONS DEFENSE GOT SO GOOD SO FAST: Andy Benoit examines how a few midseason tweaks paid off in Atlanta

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Marveling at Brady

After Sunday’s win, Tom Brady is now 7-4 in conference championship games.

After Sunday’s win, Tom Brady is now 7-4 in conference championship games.

You are living through a remarkable time if you’re a football fan. You’re seeing one of the great athletic careers in history play out, apparently with no sign of diminution.

Tom Brady won his 24th NFL playoff game Sunday. To put that in some perspective—though, obviously, there are more playoff games today than there were for much of the NFL’s history—the Chicago Bears as a franchise have won 17, according to Pro Football Reference. Considering that the Bears played their first playoff game in 1932 and are a flagship franchise of the league, and considering Brady was born in 1977, that’s quite a feat for the Patriots QB.

One more gem: New England’s total of 24 playoff wins with Brady under center surpasses the all-time postseason win totals of 25 of the remaining 31 NFL franchises.

Rightfully, having Bill Belichick coaching (with Josh McDaniels constructing the offense and Matt Patricia taking on increasing importance as a defensive brain and presence) and Tom Brady playing is just about the perfect formula for success. Brady, as our Jenny Vrentas wrote so smartly last week, is a perfect leader of the franchise because he likes to be coached, and he can take being coached hard, and Belichick has always believed in coaching hard. I found it interesting last week that the Patriots put pads on before the 18th game of the season, at a time when most teams have put the practice pads away for the year. New England practiced in pads Wednesday. Nobody bitched. If Brady’s not bothered by it, no other player would dare be bothered by it.

The game against Pittsburgh was a good illustration of the Patriots’ intelligence and patience. Against a zone team like Pittsburgh, an offense has to be patient. It’s not likely to yield many over-the-top big plays; the Steelers challenge you to take yards and eventually make a turnover or get greedy and throw risky or incomplete passes downfield. Now, I didn’t watch a lot of this game, but I did think the mid-second-quarter flea-flicker touchdown from Brady to Chris Hogan was very interesting. On a play like that, with Brady handing it to Dion Lewis, and Lewis shoveling it back to Brady, and Brady looking deep, a young secondary like Pittsburgh’s might be tempted to bite on the run. Well, Brady did catch the Steelers looking run, and slipping past the secondary was Hogan, who caught an easy touchdown from Brady.