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.
During the offseason, 0-3 was definitely was on Ryan's mind as he hit the weight room harder than ever before. He wanted to be stronger at the end of the season. He wanted to be in a better spot to lead this franchise to its first championship.
Now, in the day-to-day grind of the season, Ryan is reticent to talk about his playoff failures. He prefers to stay in the moment — looking forward, not backward. But it's clear he's got a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
"He's the real deal," said Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall. "Matt is coming into his own. He looks like the guy (everyone) thought he would be all along. He's playing at an MVP caliber right now."
Ryan is the NFL's top-rated passer, completing more than 69 percent of his throws, with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. If there was any doubt about his toughness, that was cast aside with the beating he took in Week 4, which not only include all those sacks, but another dozen hits — several of the brutal variety — after he got rid of the ball.
While eyebrows were raised when the Falcons hired Dirk Koetter as their new offensive coordinator, it's clear that Ryan has developed a quick bond with the guy calling the plays. An offense that was based around Turner and a power running game has become more a quick-passing, no-huddle scheme.
The Falcons have hit only 11 passing plays longer than 20 yards, tied for 20th in the league rankings. But, actually, they appear to be a more wide-open team, letting Ryan take advantage of his myriad weapons: White, Julio Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"They're just letting Matt do things he's comfortable with," Turner said. "As long as we keep doing that, we'll be fine."
Just don't bring up those letters.
"The biggest thing for me is to try to play well every week and do whatever we need to do to get a win," Ryan said. "Other than that, I try not to pay attention to it."
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