Matt Ryan is keeping some special company these days.
Well, maybe it’s Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger who should be looking up to Ryan. The Atlanta passer is, after all, the All-Pro quarterback.
When the conference championship games commence next Sunday, three of the most accomplished QBs of this millennium will be in action. Brady is seeking a seventh trip to the Super Bowl in his 17 NFL seasons, and an unprecedented fifth ring. Roethlisberger has gone three times, winning twice. Rodgers won in his only trip to the big game, and probably has been the league’s best all-around quarterback in the last half-dozen seasons.
Then there is Matty Ice, who tended to melt in the most pressurized games. Not this season, in which he led the NFL in passing and tore up Seattle on Saturday. He also gets a home game against Rodgers and the Packers next weekend.
“We’ve got to praise Matt for what he’s done this whole year,” said right tackle Ryan Schraeder, one of the league’s most improved players in 2016. “He’s done a lot for us this year as a team. And it’s pretty cool to be a part of it. He’s had a hell of a year, and we’re just happy to be able to block for him.”
While Brady, Big Ben and A-Rod have little left to show before likely heading to Canton, Ryan will be front and center on the proving ground. Dismissing him as a lightweight in this company would be unwise.
Indeed, in one way, he might have an edge on the other QBs still alive. Green Bay’s banged-up, undermanned secondary was torched in the second half by the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott. It isn’t going to be all that much healthier or deeper in Atlanta.
And while Dallas has some very good receivers, it doesn’t have All-Pro Julio Jones. He figures to be a matchup nightmare for the Packers.
That said, reaching this point in the postseason brings a kind of pressure unmatched in anything Ryan has faced. In his only NFC title game, four years ago at home against San Francisco, the Falcons came up short.
Then again, the Matt Ryan we have seen this season is light years removed from someone who can’t cope with stressful situations.
His counterpart next Sunday, Rodgers, is just plain fun to watch. Forget the desperation passes he seems to have mastered — it sure looked like he might need another one in Big D — and concentrate on the creativity. Brett Favre is the measuring stick for modern day Packers QBs and always provided some sort of thrills. But he never carried the Pack on his back the way Rodgers has, especially this season.
An almost magical season, too, punctuated by Green Bay’s resilience against Dallas.
“He’s an incredible player, incredible talent,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “And to do it when it’s all on the line like that, that’s what great players do.”
Roethlisberger isn’t anywhere near as spectacular, and he sometimes seems to almost plod his way to wins. But he wins. And he’s unafraid to take risks, some of which don’t work, but many of which have kept the Steelers in the championship chase.
Take his third-down conversion to clinch Sunday’s win at Kansas City. He had the patience and foresight to wait for his All-Pro wideout, Antonio Brown, to work his way across the field and get open.
“I’m sure that play won’t make SportsCenter, won’t make all the highlights,” he said. “But talk to guys in the locker room and that’s one of the biggest plays of the game.”
Executed to perfection.
As for Brady, who has been on a mission following his four-game “Deflategate” suspension, his resume is the epitome of what all quarterbacks, all players, all athletes in any sport are seeking. And get this: Brady might have had his worst game of the season in Saturday night’s victory over Houston. But the Patriots still won, handily, and are solid favorites to handle the Steelers next weekend.
So just look at the conference championships as yet another chance to watch superb quarterbacks. And, yes, right now, Ryan belongs in that company.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL