Has it really been almost a decade since Matt Ryan was drafted with the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft?
After making it to the playoffs in four of his first six seasons in Atlanta, the Falcons missed the postseason four years straight after making it to the NFC Championship in 2012. But this year saw Atlanta earn a trip to Super Bowl 51 after not only defeating Seattle, but also the surging Green Bay Packers with everything on the line. With these mud hole stompings, Atlanta left no room for controversy or speculation.
Ryan finished the 44-21 win over the Packers in the conference title game with 27 completions on 38 pass attempts for 392 yards and four touchdowns in a total karate kick to the throat of the Cheese Heads. This marked the sixth straight game in which Ryan had more than two touchdown passes and no interceptions.
After all these years of bearing the criticism of folding in critical situations, Matty Ice has outplayed two of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League in Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson en route to Houston and a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
Matty Ice and company will face arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time in New England's Tom Brady, and a Patriots defense that is the NFL's stingiest in points allowed.
It was four years ago that Atlanta's Super Bowl run ended in tragic fashion, marking an end to the spectacular career of the consensus best pass-catching tight end of all-time, Tony Gonzalez. During a recent conversation I had with with the former football player and now actor, Gonzalez accurately picked New England and Atlanta to advance to the Super Bowl.
"In all fairness, [Ryan] played really well when we went to the NFC Championship game," said Gonzalez. "For those two games, we lost one obviously in a heart breaker on the 10 yard line. Which, by the way, he ended up with a separated shoulder and stayed in there.
"When I showed up the first day out there in Atlanta and I got to see him in person, it was great. I was blown away. He has that natural ability, but I've seen that before in players. But what impresses me more about him is his work ethic, his curiousness to always try to get better, and I've always said it's not a matter of if but a matter of when he was going to become one of the best quarterbacks in the league. This year, I think he's the MVP in my opinion because he's done it from beginning to end."
"In the pocket, he's more consistent as that elite guy. He's been that elite guy before, but now he's just more consistent with it. That's the hallmark of greatness. Everybody shows flashes once in a while, even the practice squad guys show flashes. That's why they're on the team. But it's the guy who can do it game in and game out, series in and series out, play in and play out, when you can go back to back to back in making brilliant athletic plays, that's what separates you. That's what makes you great. That's what Matt's doing this year. He's done whatever it takes to get to this level. "
"I don't think it's a fluke and I think it had a lot to do with what happened last year, when he went through the worst season of his life, statistically, which can be the best thing to ever happen to you. For me, I dropped 17 balls and led the NFL in dropped passes my second year in the league and I'm glad as all hell because that made me the player who I became. That offseason I did some soul searching, started saying I had to switch my routine up, and I think that's what happened to Matt last year. I think he was like, 'I know I'm way better than this."
Indeed, sometimes failure is often the springboard for success.
Julio Jones had a monster game with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns, and the scheme of Atlanta defensive coordinator Richard Smith must be acknowledged as well.
But Ryan, widely expected to be named the NFL regular season MVP, was the catalyst for helping his team emerge as the elite squad in the NFC, armed with an explosive offense that hasn't been seen since the likes of the St. Louis Rams' Greatest Show on Turf.
If that's not baller status, then there's no such thing.