FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Standing in front of his locker, wearing an Atlanta Braves cap, Matt Ryan was back in full ice mode.
Any suggestions about being the early favorite in the MVP race were quickly brushed aside by the Falcons quarterback. Any kudos for his performance over the first quarter of the NFL season brought an immediate reminder about all the games still to play.
"After four games, you can't really worry about those things," Ryan said Wednesday.
But there's no denying he's off to the best start of his five-year career, inching that much closer to being regarded as one of the league's truly elite signal-callers. He's a major reason the Falcons (4-0) have matched the best start in franchise history and already built a commanding lead in the NFL South heading into Sunday's game against the latest quarterback sensation, Washington's Robert Griffin III.
Ryan even broke character after last weekend's stirring comeback victory over the Carolina Panthers, hardly looking like "Matty Ice" as he stood screaming on the sideline, his arms thrust toward the Georgia Dome roof.
"The team has to have passion and emotion," coach Mike Smith said. "The leader on our football team is Matt Ryan, and he was very emotional because that was quite a finish."
The Falcons never trailed once in the first three weeks of the season. Against Carolina, however, Ryan trotted on the field with about a minute remaining, his team down 28-27, the ball on the 1-yard line and no timeouts to make the job a bit easier.
Even though Ryan had already been battered by a career-high seven sacks, he calmly dropped to the back of the end zone and launched a throw so high, it might have scraped one of the rafters. The ball came down right where Roddy White was sandwiched between two defenders, giving him a chance to leap up and snatch it away for a 59-yard gain. Just like that, the Falcons were positioned for another victory. Two more completions — of the much shorter variety — set up Matt Bryant's winning field goal with 5 seconds remaining.
It was the kind of comeback that cements a quarterback's reputation. It was the kind of comeback that persuades a team to jump on the back of the guy taking the snaps and see how far he can take them.
"Matt knows he's the key for the success of this football team," running back Michael Turner said. "We've all got his back. We're all going to support him. We're all going to make plays when our number is called."
If Ryan seems a bit reticent to soak in all the praise, it's worth remembering that he's never done the one thing that truly cements a lofty ranking in the quarterback hierarchy. Three times, he's taken the Falcons to the playoffs. All three times, they were on the wrong end of one-and-done routs.