When the time came to reckon publicly with another crushing playoff loss, Matt Ryan entered a locker room-turned-press conference area at Lincoln Financial Field in January 2018 with an entourage that reaffirmed his standing in the Atlanta Falcons’ hierarchy.

On the final play of an NFC divisional-round game, Ryan’s desperate, back-footed pass on fourth-and-goal had sailed over Julio Jones’ hands, falling incomplete, their inability to connect preserving the Eagles’ 15-10 victory. The Falcons had squandered a 25-point lead in the previous year’s Super Bowl, losing in overtime to the New England Patriots. Now, they had missed a chance to reach the NFC Championship Game — again. These games had come down to moments, nothing more, single plays that shape history, and now Ryan’s own history would be defined, in part, by those moments. He took that sack that knocked his team out of field-goal range. ... He couldn’t finish that fourth-quarter drive.

Imagine the blowback that Ryan would have received for those failures from another fan base — say, the one here in the Philadelphia area, where he grew up. Imagine the pressure on the Falcons to start fresh. Yet, Ryan strode in for his postgame interview session, his face stone, with his wife, Sarah, and, just a step behind, Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Blank’s then-wife, Angela. It was a sign that the bond between owner and franchise quarterback remained strong, and Blank confirmed as much just a few months later, greenlighting a contract extension that made Ryan the first NFL player to earn $100 million in guaranteed money and to average at least $30 million in annual salary.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has surpassed 4,000 throwing yards in each of his last eight seasons.
John Bazemore / AP
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has surpassed 4,000 throwing yards in each of his last eight seasons.

Did Ryan deserve such a contract? Of course he did. He was the league’s MVP in 2016, has thrown for at least 4,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons, already has established himself as a no-brainer Hall of Fame inductee, and was just 32 at the time of the extension. By any measure, Ryan is the kind of quarterback an NFL team seeks, then does all it can to keep. Ahead of the Eagles’ game this Sunday in Atlanta against the Falcons, it’s difficult not to review Ryan’s career, listen to how those who have coached and played with him talk about him, and not draw a comparison to Carson Wentz. The language used to describe one is practically plagiarized from descriptions of the other.

“He’s got every characteristic you would want in a player, both mentally and physically,” Glenn Thomas, who was Ryan’s quarterback coach for four years with the Falcons, said in a 2016 interview. “His work ethic is just tremendous. Getting back from late games, getting back mid-morning, he was one of the first ones back up in the offices, watching film, and he had already watched it by the time I got to him early that morning. He was his own worst critic. He was very critical of himself and how he could have and should have reacted in different situations or plays that he made or missed. That’s very commendable. He’s got everything you’d want in an elite player.”

The Eagles view Wentz in the same way that Blank and the Falcons have long viewed Ryan. (Remember: In June, the Eagles announced Wentz’s contract extension in June with a brief video showing him and owner Jeffrey Lurie shaking hands and engaging in some awkward dialogue.) But the similarities between Wentz and Ryan go beyond the good things that both have done and (for Wentz, in particular) might yet do. Neither has won a Super Bowl, and for each quarterback, that absent achievement is held up by critics as a stark example of his shortcomings. Ryan is in his 12th season. He was on a team that had a huge lead in an NFC Championship Game and lost, and he was on a team that had a huge lead in a Super Bowl and lost. Wentz is in just his fourth season, but has never played in a postseason game. The Eagles didn’t need him to win the Super Bowl, and they didn’t need him to come within one touchdown drive of returning to the NFC title game.

These sorts of circumstances are regarded as flaws in the everlasting debates that sports fans have and the conclusions that they draw. Is Matt Ryan really a winner, or is he just a guy who racks up great stats every year? Is Carson Wentz really better than Nick Foles? After all, he didn’t do it when it counted. He wasn’t even healthy enough to do it when it counted! Was it their fault? Doesn’t matter. You either win or you lose. You’re either there or you’re not.

It’s easy to dismiss those proclamations as illogical and rash, as noise from the unenlightened, from those who would judge an elite athlete’s career on a single decision or action or on a situation or occurrence that was outside of his control. It’s easy to make the choice that the Falcons and the Eagles made: You see the evidence and promise of sustained excellence, and you bank on that quarterback getting you where you want to go, and you stick with him for a long time and take your chances. Both franchises were right to do it. Matt Ryan has been great. Carson Wentz will be great. You won’t find two safer bets at the most important position in the NFL. But you can also bet that both men would tell you that the moments matter, too. That, sometimes, the moments mean everything.