ATLANTA – This game may not qualify as an instant classic. But someday years from now, NFL historians might look back at this moment as one of the early duels between future star quarterbacks: Jay Cutler of the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan.
Yep, it's plenty of gun jumping to assume greatness for both Cutler and Ryan. There are too many throws and too many other oddities that derail the path to greatness. Just ask any Falcons fan how fast a promising career can go to the dogs.
Still, for those who love to watch great quarterbacks (and that's a majority of this audience), Denver's 24-20 victory Sunday against Atlanta at the Georgia Dome was a treat. Not quite vintage Joe Montana vs. John Elway, but certainly fun and intriguing.
The fourth quarter alone was worth the price of a ticket – which a few thousand fans were willing to buy and inexplicably not use judging by the many empty seats. Denver opened the final quarter with a field goal on the first play, capping an eight-play, four-plus minute drive.
Ryan and the Falcons countered with a 77-yard drive. Ryan, who seems to have the poise of Warren Buffett in a financial crisis, completed all three of his passes on the drive, including a pair of third downs to make it 20-17.
Cutler and the Broncos countered with an 83-yard drive, ending with the game-winning touchdown on a third-and-9 throw to tight end Daniel Graham, who did a nifty job of getting his hands underneath the low laser from Cutler's whip-like right arm.
Ryan made a game effort in the final six minutes, coming close to hitting a deep pass to Roddy White with 1:16 left. White was unable to hold the 45-yard bomb after Ryan scrambled away from pressure.
"I feel responsible for the loss today," White said, obviously disappointed.
As much as the 6-4 Falcons might regret this loss as the season winds down and the 6-4 Broncos will savor it, this game wasn't so much about the here and now as it was about the future.
"Them two guys, I think we're going to be talking about them for a long time," Atlanta running back Michael Turner said. "They were both cool under pressure, tough."
Extremely. Beyond the back-and-forth pressure of the fourth quarter, Cutler and Ryan faced difficult situations throughout the game and succeeded. Cutler faced four third downs when he needed 6 yards or more. He converted all of them.
Ryan faced 11 such situations because the Falcons running game wasn't very effective on first or second down. Still, he converted five, including three against heavy blitz pressure.
"That's nice to talk about, but it's not really what I'm thinking about right now," Ryan said after the game.
Cutler, who rarely adds much depth to a post-game conversation, said only that, "The guys did a great job of stepping in there and making plays for us."
Still, this Denver team is going nowhere without Cutler, even in the lackluster AFC West. Cutler now has three fourth-quarter comebacks this season – the latter two in back-to-back weeks to help the injury-depleted Broncos take control of the division.
Denver has a two-game lead over San Diego (4-6) with six games to play. Critics can poke plenty of holes in the Broncos. The running back position is decimated and the defense had been terrible until the Atlanta game. But there is no question that Cutler is everything that current San Francisco offensive coordinator and quarterback devotee Mike Martz once said before the 2006 draft.
As for Ryan, simply getting the Falcons to this point has been a testimony to his preternatural makeup. From the mess created by Michael Vick to the pressure of his stunning contract (he received a record $34.75 million guarantee), Ryan had to deal with plenty of distractions.
"He never flinches," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said earlier this week. "He has a really mature way of approaching his job and making sure he takes care of the details in his life and at work.
"He's pretty extraordinary."
That could easily be said about both quarterbacks.
- Jay Cutler