TIME WASN’T THE problem for Matt Ryan on Sunday. He had plenty of that.
After shredding the San Francisco 49ers for 24 points in a brilliant first half, Ryan had 30 minutes to finish the job and punch his ticket to the Super Bowl. After his two terrible turnovers helped the Niners get back into the game, Ryan had the ball and a chance to reclaim the momentum. Even after San Francisco scored to take a 28-24 lead, Ryan had 8 minutes, 23 seconds to burnish his legacy with a game-winning drive.
He got his team within 10 yards. When it became third down, he had two chances to score or, at the very least, pick up 4 yards and another first down. His left shoulder was hurting after he landed awkwardly on it the play before. The tentative diagnosis was a sprain.
“I was all right,” Ryan said. “I was good enough to go. We had two chances, we really did.”
On the first chance to carve his legacy, Ryan rolled to his right. He flipped a pass that was swatted by Niners linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
On the final chance, the Falcons called a play for Roddy White over the middle. It was safe. It was quick to develop. But it deprived Ryan of the ability to wait for other receivers to become open.
He fired for White. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman knocked it away.
“We tried to make something happen,” Ryan said. “We just couldn’t get it done.”
Ryan’s career is a bit like the early part of this NFC championship game. He is 27, with five years of terrific regular-season play on his resume. But his ability to deliver in big games, already in some doubt, will remain an issue until Ryan wins a Super Bowl.
It is a team sport, of course, but games like this wind up on the quarterback’s permanent record. Fans will remember Ryan’s mistakes long after they’ve forgotten who was supposed to cover Niners tight end Vernon Davis, who stepped up with five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown.
There is never a guarantee that a quarterback or his team will get another chance. But Ryan’s situation is even more complex.
The Falcons were able to dominate the NFC South partly because of New Orleans’ devastating penalties from the bounty case.
What will be different is the revolution in quarterback play that is transforming the league. The Falcons barely held on to beat Seattle’s Russell Wilson a week earlier. Washington’s Robert Griffin III looks like he could be a superstar.
And then there is the man who beat Ryan on Sunday, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.
A week after rushing for a quarterback record 181 yards against Green Bay, Kaepernick was held to 21 yards on two carries. He beat the Falcons with his arm and with his poise. It was the veteran Ryan who dropped a shotgun snap and threw an interception, both in the second half.
“You can’t have those kinds of mistakes,” Ryan said. “We could have used points on those drives.”
Otherwise, Ryan’s performance was classic: 30 for 42 for 396 yards and three touchdowns. But he himself is a classic, a dropback QB who runs only as a last resort.
The team that lost the NFC title game last year had a more traditional quarterback. His name is Alex Smith and the team was the 49ers. A year later, Smith stood on the sideline watching Kaepernick deliver where he could not.
So Ryan will not just have to continue performing at a high level to get another shot at the Super Bowl. He will have to buck the current that is flowing through the NFL, or hope defenses adjust and alter that current.
Ryan has plenty of time to get to the Super Bowl. He may never have a better chance than the one he dropped Sunday.