The guy they call “Matty Ice” was somewhat of a nervous wreck.
Matt Ryan, then just a 23-year-old NFL baby, walked into the University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan. 3, 2009, greeted by a raucous crowd of about 63,000. A good portion of those spectators twirled white Arizona T-shirts in unison as a deafening roar welcomed Ryan to his first-ever postseason appearance.
“I think I can remember probably being a little bit too excited in that situation,” the Atlanta Falcons quarterback told ESPN.com. “That was my rookie year, and just calming yourself … I think I threw a pick on the first third down.”
He sure did, on a pass intended for the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, Roddy White.
“I was nervous, too,” White said. “I dropped a 40-yard pass in that game. But after the first interception, I was like, ‘F— it. Let’s roll.’ I thought we were still going to win.”
Ryan settled down and thought he played “really well” after falling behind, 14-3. He even guided the Falcons to a three-point lead before halftime. However, the 30-24 loss against Kurt Warner and a Cardinals team that eventually advanced to the Super Bowl served as a valuable lesson.
“You have to be on it from the start, and that’s something that I’ve learned from regular-season games, too,” Ryan said. “Every play is really, really important in every game. You never know which ones are going to be the ones that determine the outcomes of games. You just have to stay even-keeled.
“I think I’ve calmed down a lot since then.”
Such calmness has helped the now 31-year-old Ryan elevate his game to an MVP level as he prepares for his sixth career postseason contest. Saturday’s divisional playoff matchup with Seattle offers Ryan yet another chance to show the NFL world just how masterfully he’s orchestrated the league’s highest-scoring offense at 33.8 points per game.
Ryan brushed off any negative chatter related to his 1-4 postseason record, with his lone win coming against the Seahawks in the divisional round following the 2012 regular season. Each of those games better prepared him for the moment at hand.
“You only get better with experience, and he has plenty of it now,” White said of his former teammate. “Looking back, we would have won a couple of those games if we had done things differently. The playoffs are so hard because everybody has to do their job, not just Matt. You just know he’s going to be better this time around just based on experience and what he’s seen.”
Ryan has seen it all.
His second playoff game was a 48-21 loss to Aaron Rodgers and the No. 6-seeded Packers at home in the divisional round after the 2010 regular season. The first-round bye and home-field advantage failed to work in the Falcons’ favor against a hot Packers team that went on to win the Super Bowl.
The loss emphasized one particular aspect of preparation for Ryan.
“We’ve had the bye twice and we won one and lost one, and you have to approach it as a normal work week,” Ryan said. “That’s probably the thing that I’ve learned in both of those times, is to keep doing things that we’ve done up until this point and stay in rhythm.
“I think we practiced really, really well last week. I think that’s important, to keep that rhythm and keep that timing and get out there and work.”
Ryan’s third playoff experience was simply a mismatch: a 24-2 road loss in a wild-game game (2011 season) against the defensively dominant Giants, yet another team that went on to win the Super Bowl.
“You’ve got to score points, man,” Ryan said. “Their defense was really, really good. When you have your opportunities — I think we missed on a couple fourth-down opportunities in the red zone or just outside the red zone early on — those are critical. When you have those opportunities, you have to make those plays.”
It’s hard to fathom this season’s version of the Falcons, averaging 35 points per game at the Georgia Dome, failing to reach double digits on Saturday. But, as Ryan said, those red-zone opportunities are crucial, particularly when you have a dominant receiver such as Julio Jones, who can either go up and make a play or create one-on-one opportunities for others.
The 2012 season provided the backdrop for Ryan’s other two postseason appearances. The Falcons earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC then faced the No. 5 seed Seahawks after a bye. A 20-0 start to the game after Ryan hit White with a 47-yard touchdown pass turned into a 30-28 finish as the Falcons held on. Ryan, starting from his own 28, made a pair of clutch throws down the field to set up the game-winning, 49-yard field goal by the always reliable Matt Bryant.
“We kept battling,” Ryan said. “We got off to a really fast start, and they battled back into the game. But we were resilient. You know, I think that’s important. No matter how the game shakes out, you have to keep playing and make plays and trust what you do. And I think we did a good job of that in that game.”
Ryan celebrated by pumping his left fist in the air, embracing team owner Arthur Blank, then smacking Bryant in the chest. Yes, the playoff monkey was finally off his back.
“It was a good feeling,” Ryan said. “It certainly beats the alternative, that’s for sure. That was a good feeling, because you have an opportunity to keep going. Hopefully we can recreate some more of that.”
Defeating the Seahawks on Saturday would earn Ryan another spot in the NFC Championship Game. He came so close to reaching the Super Bowl, only to walk off with a bad taste in his mouth following a disheartening, 28-24 loss to No. 2 seed San Francisco in the 2012 season’s NFC title game. Remember, the Falcons blew a 17-0 lead.
Ryan had a chance to make one of his Matty Ice-like, fourth-quarter comebacks, but his pass to White on fourth down from the 49ers’ 10-yard line fell incomplete right near the first down with just over a minute left in regulation. Tight end Tony Gonzalez broke free from a double team and was wide open in the end zone, but Ryan already had his sights set on a crossing White, who was tightly defended by linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
“We had kind of two stick routes on the right side, and Tony on the backside slant,” Ryan explained. “I had a pre-snap read for us to go to the two-stick side. Just … we didn’t win. We didn’t come away making a play. That’s disappointing.”
Did he see Gonzalez?
“Nah,” Ryan said. “I was working the other side. That’s one of the things that just happens. That’s part of the deal. But it’s not one play. We have other opportunities in that game. Another time, we had a big lead and kind of let them chip away.”
His playoff experiences, both good and bad, aren’t ones Ryan dwells on too often. But they serve as reminders of how to handle certain situations at the most critical time of the season.
“The biggest thing is, when you’re playing in the playoffs, it’s not that different,” Ryan said. “You still have got to go do the right things. You’ve got to play well. You’ve got to convert third downs. You’ve got to score when you’re in the red zone. That stuff doesn’t change.
“That’s probably the No. 1 thing that I’ve learned throughout my career: Don’t make it any less than it is, and don’t make it any more than it is. It’s about going out there and playing well.”
Ryan has done an admirable job following those words all season long. Now let’s see if he can lead his team all the way to Houston for his first-ever Super Bowl.