One of the questions facing the Falcons throughout the offseason and in the early weeks of this season was whether Matt Ryan would live up to the high expectations he helped create with his performance in his rookie year, when Atlanta made the playoffs. Team insiders will say those within the organization never doubted Ryan was headed in the right direction, but there was uncertainty as to when the strides he was making would consistently show up on the field.
He struggled through a turf-toe injury in the second half of last season as Atlanta missed the postseason. His interception late in the fourth quarter of a tight game vs. the Steelers in Week One didn't get this season started the way the team had hoped.
Ryan's performance since then, however, sent the narrative in a different direction.
While it's not a widespread belief among league observers, there has been some talk suggesting that Ryan has surpassed the defending Super Bowl MVP, Drew Brees, as the NFC South's best quarterback.
Ryan has gone from being counted among a small group of promising, young signalcallers still trying to find their way to the much-improved leader of one of the league's best teams. As of this writing, the Falcons are likely to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and Ryan is one win away from tying Dan Marino for the most wins (33) by a starting quarterback in his first three seasons in the league since the AFL-NFL merger.
"(Ryan) is the leader of our football team," Falcons head coach Mike Smith recently said. "I can't say enough about how he's performed since he's been here. He's one of the toughest guys I've ever been around. I think it's often overlooked about his injury last year, and he came back and only missed two football games and it was a very significant injury. He's a very tough guy.
"He's the kind of guy that you want to have on your team."
He'll get a chance to confront the next challenge in his way — winning in the playoffs — as Atlanta clinched a postseason spot in Week 15. The Falcons have enjoyed sustained success since Ryan arrived in 2008 unlike ever before in the franchise's history, but another one-and-done in the playoffs will leave Ryan unsatisfied and embolden those who aren't ready to call him an elite player.