Last offseason, I wrote a series of Throwback Thursday articles looking back at some of the most memorable moments in Atlanta Falcons history. That series culminated with an article looking back at the time newly minted general manager Thomas Dimitroff drafted Matt Ryan with the third overall pick. Here’s how that specific article concluded:
As you may or may not have noticed, there wasn’t a single one of these articles which was dedicated to any moment in the Matt Ryan era; that was by design. In this upcoming offseason, I hope to write a series of “Matty Ice Moments” articles, which look back on nothing but moments in the Matt Ryan era.
Well, that time has come — welcome to the “Matty Ice Moments” series. This will be a series of articles dedicated to looking back on Matt Ryan-centric moments, in an attempt to help distract us from the dead period a little bit.
And if you don’t like Matt Ryan and think that we’re focusing on him too much this offseason, then that’s just too bad, I guess.
You can find last week’s article in this series, looking back on Ryan’s rookie of the year season here.
First Playoff Game, vs. Arizona
Well, not every single one of these is going to be a great moment. This is one of those which was a tough moment in Ryan’s career, but was ultimately very necessary in his maturation process.
The calendar had shifted to January of 2009 and the Falcons were still standing, as one of the unlikeliest playoff teams in the league. The dynamic tandem of Matt Ryan and Michael Turner on offense, a savagely great John Abraham on defense, and a ferocious coaching effort from head coach Mike Smith had the Falcons in a Wild Card spot with an 11-5 record.
Unfortunately, the Carolina Panthers finished 12-4 to claim the division and a crucial bye week.
Ryan was fresh off of a Rookie of the Year season, and he was looking to make his mark in his first career playoff appearance.
Atlanta went into the Wild Card round as a favorite, facing the Arizona Cardinals, who surrendered more points than they had scored in 2008. Arizona won a terrible NFC West with a 9-7 record, with six of those wins coming against the horrendous 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams. However, as division winners they got to play at home.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that the Cardinals were a team of destiny in the NFC, They’d take their first step toward one of the unlikeliest and most exciting Super Bowl runs in recent memory by beating the Falcons on this day.
While Ryan’s first career regular season pass went for a touchdown, his first career playoff pass was intercepted by Ralph Brown in Arizona territory. The ensuing Cardinals drive would culminate with a 42-yard flea flicker touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald, in double coverage.
After Atlanta cut the deficit to 7-3 with a Jason Elam field goal after a nine-play drive to begin the second quarter, Warner would again deliver a vicious body blow in the form of a 71-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin just three plays later.
While many players would fold, down 14-3 on the road in their first ever playoff game, Ryan would showcase his leadership and maturity against adversity. He led the Falcons on a monstrous 15-play drive which ate up almost six minutes of the clock, and culminated in Michael Turner punching it into the end zone from seven yards out, late in the second quarter.
After an Arizona three-and-out, the Falcons would get the ball with 2:03 left in the half. That was more than enough time for Ryan to lead his team on a drive which resulted in his first career postseason touchdown pass — a two-yard dart thrown to tight end Justin Peele. Atlanta actually had a 17-14 lead at halftime.
Getting the ball to begin the second half, the Falcons looked to continue their excellent offensive momentum. Unfortunately, disaster struck. On just the second play of the half, Ryan fumbled and it was recovered by Antrel Rolle for a defensive touchdown. That was the turning point in the game, as Arizona would never relinquish its lead again.
Warner and the Cardinal run game wore down the Falcons defense with a 14-play drive which took nearly eight minutes off the clock a few drives after the fumble, and increased their lead to 28-17.
Ryan would get sacked in the end zone for a safety early in the fourth quarter to make it 30-17, as it seemed like this just wasn’t Atlanta’s night.
Not ever one to give up, Ryan put together one final push in the form of a nine-play drive (which was nothing but passing attempts), finding Roddy White for a five-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 30-24 with 4:19 remaining.
Atlanta would need a defensive stop to try and give Ryan an opportunity to work his late-game magic one more time in his rookie year, but that stop would never come. On 3rd-and-10 with 3:25 remaining, on the ensuing drive, Warner would link up with Steve Breaston on a crucial 25-yard pass completion to move the sticks.
With one more opportunity to get the ball back, the defense forced Arizona into a 3rd-and-16 with 2:17 remaining. The ensuing play went for a 23-yard reception by Stephen Spach to ice the game and leave Atlanta’s offense on the sidelines.
Matt Ryan finished with 199 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, two interceptions, and the crucial fumble which was returned for a score. It was a poor game, but he still would have put the Falcons in position to win had the defense just been able to get one stop on two separate third and long plays. Turner was also stifled to the tune of just 42 rushing yards on 18 carries.
The Cardinals weren’t very good in the regular season but they turned it on in the playoffs. They would annihilate those 12-4, NFC South winning Panthers 33-13 the next week before beating the Eagles 32-25 to clinch a trip to the Super Bowl, where they would fall to Pittsburgh.
Larry Fitzgerald had arguably the best playoff run by a wide receiver in NFL history, putting up receiving lines of 6-101-1, 8-166-1, 9-152-3, and 7-127-2. That’s a combined 30 catches for 546 yards and seven touchdowns in four games, for those keeping count at home. He had at least a 41-yard reception in every single game. To this day, it’s still one of the most incredible playoff runs by a single player I’ve ever personally witnessed.
The Falcons couldn’t beat the team of destiny on that January 3 night. Matt Ryan had fallen but his future was still incredibly bright. This game gave him invaluable playoff experience which he would tap into later in his career, when playing in some of the biggest moments.