By Matthew Asher
A lot has happened for the Falcons since last Saturday’s win against Detroit. Atlanta has clinched the home-field advantage throughout the NFL Playoffs. Three Falcons have been chosen to go to the Pro Bowl. Oh yeah, there’s still one more game for Atlanta before the regular season ends.
While Matt Ryan (second time), Julio Jones (first time) and Tony Gonzalez (thirteenth time) may be headed to Hawaii, all three men would rather have their final destination be the New Orleans Superdome than Aloha Stadium.
Even though Atlanta’s Week 17 opposition is the 6-9 Tampa Bay Bucs, don’t think that this is going to be a walk in the park for the 12-2 Falcons. The last time Atlanta and Tampa faced off, Atlanta was lucky to escape Raymond James Stadium with a 24-23 win.
But it wasn’t for lack of trying. The big reason Atlanta struggled in the game was costly turnovers. Ryan knows that Atlanta can’t play the same sloppy football if they expect to finish the season 14-2. “We’ve got to protect the football better,” Ryan said. “Two turnovers down there the last time we played …Those are two things that I’ve got to clean up in order for us to have a better chance.”
One of the reasons Atlanta did win was the throwing accuracy of Matty Ice. Connecting on 81 percent of his pass attempts, Ryan finished the game with 353 yards to go along with one touchdown. A performance like that is what Bucs coach Greg Schiano has come to expect of Ryan and his abilities.
When asked about the Falcons gunslinger, Schiano had nothing but compliments to pay to Matt Ryan. “I think he’s in the elite status,” Schiano said. “I think he’s at that level. The kind of field command he has and the way he directs the operation. A lot of guys have big arms and there are a lot of guys that are mobile and all that, but it’s the way they lead, the commandership they have over their offense makes them elite.”
While other may argue if Ryan has truly reached elite status or not, his statistics are at an all-time high. Ryan already has 31 touchdown passes this season a record he shares with Steve Bartkowski. With Ryan averaging better than two touchdown passes per game, Ryan should be in sole possession of the record after the Tampa game.
Ryan has already broken his personal bests of completions, yards , touchdowns, and passer rating with one game remaining. Ryan’s 69 percent completion rate is second best in the NFL. The 394 pass completions are the third most. Ryan’s 4,481 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and 100.2 passer rating are all fifth best in the league.
While the Tampa Bay Bucs are simply playing for pride, Mike Smith is placed in a tough spot. Does he play his starters as usual, keeping them in sync but risking injuries. Or does he keep them out, no injuries but they may not be in tune with each other come the Playoffs?
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Matthew Asher is a freelance writer covering all things Atlanta sports related. His work can be found on Examiner.com.