HOUSTON - Football is the ultimate team game. Yet, many people insist on judging the greatness of an NFL quarterback by whether he happens to own a Super Bowl ring.

One of the quarterbacks in Super Bowl LI, Tom Brady, has four of them, and has a place waiting for him in Canton five years after he retires, which looks as if it might not be until the turn of the century.

The other quarterback in Sunday's big tilt, Penn Charter product Matt Ryan, still is looking for his first one.

Ryan has had a prolific season. He led the NFL in passing with a 117.1 rating. He set the Falcons' franchise record for passing yards (4,944), touchdowns (38), completion rate (69.9) and completions of 25 yards or more (42).

In his last six games, including playoff wins over Seattle and Green Bay, he has thrown 18 touchdowns and no interceptions. I repeat, 18 TDs, zero picks.

His passer rating in the two playoff wins over the Seahawks and Packers was 132.6. He averaged 9.7 yards per attempt, completed 70.7 percent of his passes and had seven TDs.

And, oh, yeah, he is expected to be announced as the league's Most Valuable Player on Saturday night.

Yet, if the Falcons lose to Brady and the Patriots on Saturday, Ryan's incredible season will become loose change between the couch cushions in the minds of many people. Simply because he/the Falcons couldn't close the deal.

"I've always known Matt had the ability,'' said Dwight Freeney, the Falcons' seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end. "I think maybe there was a phase where people felt like he couldn't win the big game.

"But the thing is, no one is out there by themselves. It's not an individual game. He's having an amazing year, not only because he's a great player, but also because he's surrounded by some great players.''

Win as a team, lose as a team. Yet it's usually the quarterback getting too much of the credit, too much of the blame.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning's career passer rating is 10 points lower than Ryan's (93.6 to 83.7). His career completion percentage is five points lower (64.9-59.7), and he has a lower touchdowns-to-interceptions differential (plus-126 for Ryan, plus-105 for Eli).

But Eli owns two Super Bowl rings. Which one is a better quarterback? In my mind, it's Ryan, hands down. But if you ask other people, they'll point to those two Lombardi trophies the Giants have won with Manning and tell you it's Eli.

Such is the power of The Ring.

Ten of the last 15 modern-era quarterbacks who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame have been Super Bowl winners. I can assure you The Ring(s) carried considerable weight in the selection meeting.

"I understand that, as a quarterback, you're ultimately judged by postseason success,'' Ryan said. "But it's about winning this one game and finding a way to get it done on Sunday. That's where my focus is at. Not how I'll be remembered.''

Ryan was loose and relaxed Monday night as he met the media for the first of four Super Bowl-week get-togethers with reporters.

He happily answered the stupid opening night media session questions, such as whether he's ever thought of officially changing his name to Matty Ice and whether he likes rapper Vanilla Ice. And he answered the slightly less stupid ones, such as how he's handling the pressure of playing in his first Super Bowl.

"It's what everyone works so hard for,'' he said. "To have this opportunity to be on this stage. We're excited about that. It's going to be fun.

"But at the end of the day, it comes down to making plays. Going out there and completing passes and converting third downs and scoring touchdowns. We've done that all year. So I feel we'll be ready to do that on Sunday.

Last year, the Falcons got off to a 5-0 start under first-year coach Dan Quinn, then lost eight of their last 11. Ryan frequently bumped heads with new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and had probably the worst season of his career.

His 89.0 passer rating was his lowest since '09, his second year in the league. His plus-5 touchdowns-to-interceptions differential was his lowest since his rookie season. He had a career-high 12 fumbles, which was the fault of the Falcons' pre-Alex Mack offensive line as much as it was Ryan's.

There were whispers after last season that the Falcons were considering moving on from the 31-year-old Ryan. But he and Shanahan eventually worked out their differences, and, with one game left to play, it's clear that some of the best moves you make are the ones you don't make at all.

"To take another step and break through a new ceiling, it's really difficult,'' Quinn said of Ryan. "But Matt has totally owned that challenge to do that.''

The Falcons led the league in scoring this season, averaging 33.8 points per game. That's 12.6 points per game more than last season.

"The biggest thing is everybody's a little bit more comfortable (with the offense),'' Ryan said. "I know I am. In terms of just understanding what we're trying to do offensively, terminology, all of those kinds of things. The comfort level's been there since the offseason.

"The other thing is we added some really good players to our team. The addition of (center) Alex Mack was huge. He has solidified our offensive line. And our offensive line has played extremely well all year.

"But then you add guys like (wide receivers) Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson, and young players like Austin Hooper and Josh Perkins at the tight end position.''

Ryan had an NFL-high 13 different people catch touchdown passes from him this season.

"We've had a lot of different people make plays for us. And I think that's what's made us tough throughout the year.''

Now, they need to be tough for one more game, four more quarters. If they can do that, the Falcons will have their first Lombardi Trophy and Matt Ryan will have The Ring.

"We've prepared ourselves for this moment,'' Ryan said. "We've worked really, really hard, and this is exactly where we want to be. We've put in the work. We've put in the time. We'll be ready to go.''


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