Matt Ryan can't seem to get much love in the hearts of many Falcons fans, even when he badly outplays the guy he replaced.
That may be why what the Falcons did Sunday in dismantling the Philadelphia Eagles has been lost in a shuffle of stories about the losing team. Is Michael Vick going to be benched? Has the defense quit? Will Andy Reid finally get kicked to the curb after 14 years on the job?
Those questions have taken center stage over the fact that the Falcons not only improved to 7-0, but dominated a team that had given them fits the previous four years. If there was possibly a game in the regular season that could have signaled the Falcons have turned a corner, it was Sunday's win in Philadelphia.
Sorry, but nobody is ready to buy it. You can hear it in the tone of various analysts who find numerous ways to ask the doubt-bloated, rhetorical question, "Can Atlanta really be this good?"
"It was a good road win, that's the only way I'm looking at it," Ryan said Sunday after his latest performance from what's looking more and more like an MVP season for the fifth-year starter.
Ryan was quietly insistent about this week-to-week thing. He has learned the classic coaching mantra of "one game at a time" the hard way. In his first two or three years, Ryan found himself looking ahead.
It wasn't flashy, sexy or even all that impressive to watch at first glance, but what San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith did against the division rival Arizona Cardinals was masterful as he went 18-of-19 for 232 yards and three touchdowns in a key 24-3 road win on Monday Night Football.
Smith's career has been defined by lofty expectations. The former No. 1 pick out of Utah was thrust into system after system over the course of his first several years in the league amidst a coaching carousel. However, over the past two seasons he's thrived under head coach Jim Harbaugh with some much-needed continuity.
His performance on Monday night was nothing short of spectacular. While it wasn't an Aaron Rodgers-like effort that fills a stat sheet with gaudy numbers, it was the model of efficiency and a piece of NFL history. Smith was one pass attempt shy from the qualifier of 20 to capture the record for best single-game completion percentage in NFL history.
So while the stat line wasn't impressive on its own merit, the result was -- a rout against a key NFC West opponent that gave his team a stranglehold on first place heading into the second half of the season.
Much like his career, Smith did his job on Monday quietly, effectively and without all the fanfare that comes with a historic performance. The Niners will go as far as their man under center will take them in 2012.
– Michael C. Jones
"You get caught up in all the 'what ifs' about what could happen and where you'll end up at the end of the season and it's all a distraction," Ryan acknowledged. "It doesn't actually help you get there and it takes away from your concentration. It's a cliché, but you find out that it's really true. If you just keep your focus, you're going to be fine."
To an extent, that remains to be seen, but there are real signs this year is a breakthrough for the Falcons. In three of Ryan's four full seasons, the Falcons were good enough to get to the playoffs. That included the 13-3 record in 2010.
However, in each of those three playoff appearances, the Falcons were dismissed and made to look like an also-ran. Never mind the fact that Atlanta has been eliminated by the past two Super Bowl champs (New York Giants last season and Green Bay Packers in 2010) and was beaten by the eventual NFC rep in 2008 (Arizona Cardinals). Those facts are just trivia, particularly to the many fans of Vick still in Atlanta who remember the hope and excitement he created.
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In many critics' eyes: It's not that the NFC road to the Super Bowl goes through Atlanta; it's more like the Falcons have been road kill on the way to the title.
So starting with two new coordinators (Dirk Koetter on offense and Mike Nolan on defense), the Falcons tried to change their approach.
"When [former offensive coordinator] Mike [Mularkey] left to go to Jacksonville and I brought in Dirk and [Nolan], the first thing we talked about was creating the 2012 Falcons," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "We weren't stuck on what we had done before or how we had played in these situations, we were creating a new identity for how we were going to play this season."
While Smith doesn't want to define his team as pass-based or run-based, the stats make it obvious. Ryan is on pace to throw more than 600 times this season for the first time in his career. He is also on pace for career highs in yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and quarterback rating (103.0 so far). For the first time in Ryan's career, the Falcons are throwing the ball more than 60 percent of the time.
In short, Atlanta now completely trusts Ryan to accomplish the main goal. That's why the Philadelphia game is so emblematic of the progress the Falcons have made. Going into that game, Smith stressed that the offense had to score early and set the tempo.
"We don't care if we're a passing team or a running team. We want to be a scoring team," Smith said. "In this league, you have to be multiple and be capable of adjusting to the situation."
As Smith pointed out again and again, Philadelphia was 23-5 since 2008 when leading after the first quarter. Moreover, the Falcons hadn't held the Eagles to less than 27 points in any of the previous four meetings dating to Ryan's rookie season. The Eagles had won three of those contests.
Atlanta struggled to a 35-31 victory over Philadelphia last year, a game in which Vick was knocked out in the second half. If not for the injury, the Eagles might easily have won.
On Sunday, the game was essentially over by the end of the first quarter, but that's because the Falcons took control behind Ryan. They opened with a 16-play drive for a touchdown and followed that with two more TD drives. The next three drives ended in field goals and Atlanta won 30-17 without ever being seriously challenged.
Ryan, a Philly native who had roughly 80 relatives and friends in attendance Sunday, easily could have crowed, even if just a little. Instead, he was subdued, enjoying the victory for what it was and then discarding it as a nominal achievement.
"Like I said," Ryan said, lightly. "It was a nice road win. That's all."
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