*Thursday night's game was billed as the showdown between the top quarterbacks of the 2008 NFL draft class and it lived up to the hype. However, Atlanta's Matt Ryan used the national stage to showcase one of the best games of his short career and bring the Falcons back from the brink of collapse, leading the offense in a last-minute game-winning drive to win 26-21. *
ATLANTA— Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey met his quarterback in the tunnel outside of the locker room after Thursday night's come-from-behind 26-21 victory over the Ravens and gave him a hug that stopped him in his tracks.
It appeared to be the first thing that stopped Matt Ryan all night, as he led Atlanta to an early lead and eventually a comeback win that will go down in Falcons history.
Mularkey smiled at his third-year quarterback, who has executed more than his share of game-winning drives and while he called the play that won the game from high above the Georgia Dome, Ryan had to go out and get it done.
After giving up the lead with 1:10 remaining, the Falcons' offense knew they had one last shot to take a game they'd controled for much of the evening. There was never any doubt.
"There wasn't a guy on our sideline that blinked," head coach Mike Smith said. "We kept playing and kept playing and we were able to make the plays that we needed to make and get the outcome that we wanted."
Down by one, Atlanta knew they only had to get into field goal range and let kicker Matt Bryant do the rest. Even before the defense gave up the go-ahead touchdown, the Falcons were planning their game-winner.
"We're already planning for the worst," Ryan said of the offense during the Ravens go-ahead possession. "We have confidence in our defense, but you just have to prepare that way. We were talking about two-minute calls, attack calls on the sidelines, talking about some things. Then, when they score you have to go into the mode of 'Alright, we need three.'
"In that situation we're only down one, with a minute and that many timeouts and really only needing to get the ball to about the 35, 40-yard line with Matt Bryant's strong leg, you have to have confidence. We've done it before and we were able to do it again tonight."
In many offenses 60 seconds may not seem like much time, but for Ryan it was an eternity, and he set up the game's final touchdown with a pass that he's used before to get into game-winning distance.
As a rookie in 2008 with 11 seconds remaining in the game, Ryan hit wide receiver Michael Jenkins on a 26-yard pass completion to set up the game-winning kick. Many felt that was Ryan's signature win.
He used the exact same play to raise the bar on himself on Thursday connecting with Jenkins on third-and-10 for a 24-yard completion to get to their 44-yard line. A completion on the next play for 15 to Roddy White was followed by two incompletions and Ryan and his offense faced third-and-10 again with everything on the line.
The Falcons used designed rollouts for Ryan to avoid some of Baltimore's intense pressure all night and he rolled left again with the clock ticking. They were looking for a few yards for three and often-used third-down target Tony Gonzalez was the first read. The tight end was well covered, but White broke free from his one-on-one coverage and Ryan connected with his Pro Bowl receiver for a 33-yard touchdown.
"Always nice to get six when you're going for three," Ryan said.
The game's final touchdown showed the poise of the 25-year-old, but earlier in the game Ryan showed what he can do in control of the offense. Part of the game plan called for Ryan to run the no-huddle for much of the first half and the Falcons offense controlled that half nearly tripling the Ravens' time of possession and coming away with a 10-0 edge.
Ryan's 20-of-28 passing in the first half gave way to a 32-of-50 night for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His 32 pass completions are a personal best. The Falcons also managed to convert 60 percent of their third-down opportunities.
All the stats aside, the final two passes of Ryan's night may have been the biggest of the season as the Falcons improved to 7-2. The quarterback operated with precision all night, in a game advertised as a showdown between two of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco. For much of the game, Ryan's offense was in complete control.
"I think it just says volumes about the maturation process of our quarterback," Smith said. "He called the plays there all through the first half in our no-huddle and he has the where-with-all when the primary receiver was taken away he went to his secondary guy. He and Roddy were definitely on the same on that play, it was a big-time play."
Ryan made big-time play after big-time play all night, finding running back Jason Snelling for a 28-yard touchdown in the second quarter and White for a four-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Even though Baltimore managed to respond, Ryan had the last laugh in what Smith described as the most intense game he's ever been involved with.
With the touchdown Ryan exceeded even his own expectations. Ryan shared his initial thoughts of three with his teammates before they stepped on the field. Whatever the point total, the rest of his offense knew he was going to make something happen for them.
And in front of a national television audience, he did.
"It's funny because Matt came over with about a 1:05 left right after they scored," wide receiver Brian Finneran said. "He said, 'Whatever we do let's go down there, we have to kick a field goal and win this thing.' For some reason on this team, we never doubt that we're out of the game. We feel like we're always in it and we never say die."