When the going got tough Sunday, so did Matt Ryan, who orchestrated an offensive performance that will likely be remembered as one of the best of the 2010 season when all is said and done.
NEW ORLEANS —The Atlanta Falcons wouldn't have found a 27-24 victory Sunday against the New Orleans Saints were it not for kicker Matt Bryant's 47-yard field goal in overtime or the 29-yard miss by Saints kicker Garrett Hartley earlier in the extra session that would have given the Saints the win.
All day long Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan stared down an opportunistic Saints defense and didn't blink. In the process, the Falcons offense went toe-to-toe with the most potent offense in football.
"In the operation of our offense, I thought that he did a very good job," Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith said following the game. "What we were trying to get done in terms of how we were going to sequence our play calling and handle the crowd noise, I thought he did a very, very good job because it's a very loud atmosphere, as you guys know."
Ryan did more than just handle the crowd noise of the Superdome. He stood strong against a stingy Saints defense that dropped him for two sacks on the day, but could do little else.
After seeing what worked well in the Saints' first two narrow victories of the season, Ryan executed the game plan, getting the running game going and connecting with tight end Tony Gonzalez eight times for 110 yards and one touchdown.
Gonzalez was Ryan's target on four third-down conversions and a key fourth-down conversion that kept a long drive going and placed Atlanta on the New Orleans 2-yard line. Four plays later, running back Michael Turner punched it in bringing the game even at 14.
"Well, I was just out there trying to do what I do," Gonzalez said. "Obviously, you've got to give credit to our offensive line for holding that protection because you know that blitz is coming and then to Matt to put the ball right on the money. I'm just trying to do what I've always done and help make plays and help get one in the victory column because that's what we needed."
The Gonzalez conversion and Turner touchdown run capped a mammoth 19-play, 72-yard, 10:39 drive that kept New Orleans' offense on the sideline for most of the second quarter.
That drive took the wind out of the Saints' sails and was a major reason for Atlanta's heavy edge in time of possession in the nearly five quarters of football, a 45:50 to 27:15 advantage.
The game-tying drive that Ryan engineered could be talked about for a long time. Ryan showed his poise scrambling twice to keep plays alive and connected on five of six passes.
Smith went all-in twice on 4th and 2 situations during the marathon second-quarter drive, and Ryan responded with clutch first-down completions to Gonzalez and White.
"I thought that that was not necessarily a turning point, but it was a statement when you talk about controlling the tempo of the football game," Smith said. "That's at the core of what they (the Saints) want to do. They want to control the tempo with all of the groupings and the different looks that they give you on defense. We wanted to basically make sure that we controlled the tempo of the football game. It was hard fought. It was a fun game to be around."
Ryan ended the day 19 of 30 passing for 228 yards, two touchdowns, and a rating of 108. It was the second straight week he's had a QB rating above 100 and the 11th time in his career. The Falcons are 11-0 when Ryan eclipses the century mark in quarterback rating.
The third-year quarterback led a balanced attack that struck for 202 yards rushing on 50 plays and passed on 32 plays. The Falcons showed continued strong play on third downs on offense, converting 50 percent (9-18) on Sunday.
"This is a huge victory for us," Ryan said. "We have a lot of high expectations of ourselves and we fought the entire game to get us in position to win it at the end. This was team win and I am so proud how we converted most third downs. That was a huge factor throughout the game, keeping our drives moving and also running down the clock."
In addition to his pocket presence and on-field demeanor, Ryan also showed a sideline leadership with fist pumps and finger points. He was absolutely absorbed in the game even when he wasn't behind center, motivating players on both sides of the ball and congratulating Falcons defenders after they put the ball back in his hands.
On Sunday, the early-career exploits of the 2008 first-round draft pick grew by one, beating the defending Super Bowl champs on the road. Ryan did a little bit of everything Sunday: passing, scrambling, audibling and most importantly, leading.
The improbably successful rookie with ice water in his veins has matured into a leader with a steely glint in his gaze.