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Matt Ryan Is No Fluke

Going into Sunday’s NFC championship, the Atlanta Falcons — and, by extension, their MVP front-runner QB Matt Ryan — were losing the battle for media attention to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

But on Sunday, Ryan forced the football world to take notice; the Falcons walloped the Packers 44-21 and punched a ticket to Houston for Super Bowl LI. It was just the latest piece of evidence that Ryan’s astonishing regular-season statistics weren’t empty numbers that would evaporate in the playoffs. Instead, Ryan is performing less like, say, Joe Flacco or Eli Manning — QBs who punctuated otherwise average careers with stellar postseason bursts — and more like one of the game’s best starters (which, incidentally, Ryan has been over the NFL’s past decade or so.)

Against Green Bay, Ryan painted a QB masterpiece. He conducted the Falcons’ offense with ruthless efficiency, scoring six touchdowns and a field goal on nine drives. He also completed 27 of his 38 passes (71 percent) for 392 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions, tallying the 15th-best completion percentage, fourth-most yards and sixth-best passer rating (139.4) in a conference championship game.1 Not even Tom Brady, who notched a 127.5 passer rating against Pittsburgh later Sunday, could match Ryan.

PLAYER YEAR TM OPP WON? CMP ATT CMP% YDS TD INT RATE
1 Jim Plunkett 1980 OAK SD 14 18 77.8 261 2 0 155.8
2 Mark Rypien 1991 WAS DET 12 17 70.6 228 2 0 152.2
3 Billy Kilmer 1972 WAS DAL 14 18 77.8 194 2 0 148.6
4 Kurt Warner 2008 ARI PHI 21 28 75.0 279 4 0 145.7
5 Troy Aikman 1993 DAL SF 14 18 77.8 177 2 0 144.7
6 Matt Ryan 2016 ATL GB 27 38 71.1 392 4 0 139.4
7 Joe Montana 1988 SF CHI 17 27 63.0 288 3 0 136.0
8 Dan Marino 1984 MIA PIT 21 32 65.6 421 4 1 135.4
9 Tom Brady 2004 NE PIT 14 21 66.7 207 2 0 130.5
10 C. Kaepernick 2012 SF ATL 16 21 76.2 233 1 0 127.7
11 Tom Brady 2016 NE PIT 32 42 76.2 384 3 0 127.5
Best conference championship games by passer rating, 1970-2016

Minimum 14 passing attempts. “Year” represents the season for which the championship was played.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN

In the 2016 postseason thus far, Ryan has a passer rating of 132.6, the third-highest that any conference-champion QB has carried into the Super Bowl,2 trailing only Joe Montana in 1989 (142.5) and Tony Eason in 1985 (135.6). It’s not unusual for unheralded quarterbacks to go on hot streaks — Flacco had a 117.2 passer rating in the 2012 playoffs — but Ryan’s previous regular-season résumé is stronger, particularly after he produced one of the NFL’s all-time great passing seasons in 2016.

In Ryan’s last NFC championship game (itself a stellar, 396-yard performance against San Francisco in 2013), he had already shown some of the progress he’d made under center. Early-career Ryan had a tendency to make too many throws that were safe but ultimately harmless, resulting in high completion percentages but low yards-per-attempt averages and anemic third-down conversion numbers. By the time he faced San Francisco, Ryan was more confident throwing the ball deep, leading to more air yards per throw and more big plays.

PER ATTEMPT PER COMPLETION
YEAR ROUND OPP WON? YDS AIR YD TD INT 1STD YDS YAC
2008 WC ARI 5.0 8.1 5.0% 5.0% 35.0% 7.7 3.1
2010 DIV GB 6.4 9.0 3.4 6.9 31.0 9.3 2.5
2011 WC NYG 4.9 8.2 0.0 0.0 22.0 8.3 2.0
2012 DIV SEA 7.1 12.1 8.6 5.7 45.7 10.4 2.7
2012 LC SF 9.4 11.5 7.1 2.4 50.0 13.2 2.1
2016 DIV SEA 9.1 8.1 8.1 0.0 51.4 13.0 6.7
2016 LC GB 10.3 8.8 10.5 0.0 57.9 14.5 7.4
How Matt Ryan’s playoff passing evolved

“Year” represents the season for which the championship was played.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

But this year, Ryan has been showcasing the full mastery of his arsenal, and an extremely talented group of skill-position teammates has also helped. Ryan’s average pass has traveled fewer yards through the air than in 2012, but he’s making up for it (and then some) by completing a higher percentage of his passes, and getting more than twice as many yards per completion from receivers sprinting with the ball after catching it. As a group, Ryan’s receivers ran for 199 yards after the catch on Sunday, the sixth most any team had in a playoff game since 2006.3 And while Julio Jones had 180 receiving yards by himself, tied for fourth most in conference championship history, he was also just one of eight different targets among whom Ryan distributed the ball.

When Ryan’s improvement as a passer combined with a better supporting cast around him, the result was one of the deadliest regular-season offenses in NFL history — a trend that’s only becoming clearer with each successive Falcons playoff victory.

Ryan isn’t going to get more attention than Brady before the Super Bowl, but his brilliant season (and postseason) has finally earned him the attention of even casual football fans. Moreover, he’s earned that recognition as one of the game’s best for an extended stretch of time — not merely as a flash in the pan.

Footnotes

  1. Going back to the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.

  2. Minimum 30 pass attempts

  3. 2006 is the first year for which ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has yards-after-catch data.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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