HOUSTON - The Falcons had just lost their starting quarterback, who was sent off to federal prison for his role in running and participating in a dogfighting operation. Michael Vick had been sentenced to serve three years at Leavenworth and the NFL had indefinitely suspended him. Atlanta had the No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 draft and it selected a quarterback.

His name: Matt Ryan. While Vick had his ups and downs in six seasons with the Falcons, he was already an iconic figure in Atlanta. Ryan was stepping into some big shoes.

"For me, early on I just tried to go in and do the job the best I could," Ryan said last week about following Vick. "Michael has been incredibly supportive of me as I've gotten to know him, as I've gotten older. That support has meant a lot because he is such an icon for the city of Atlanta.

"He was such a huge part of the sports fabric in that town, and for him to be supportive and help me out in the way that he has throughout my career has been really, really nice."

Vick, who announced his retirement this weekend, penned a love letter to the city of Atlanta in the Players Tribune last week and wrote about his sadness when he learned that the Falcons had chosen Ryan. On April 26, 2008, the same day as his mother's birthday, Vick said that he found out about his grandmother's having a stroke and the selection of Ryan.

Almost exactly a year later, Vick was released from prison. He signed with the Eagles and played five seasons in Philadelphia. But his heart remained in Atlanta, and he said he continued to cheer for the Falcons, especially this season as they made their run to the Super Bowl.

"One of the biggest misperceptions about me is that I have a bad relationship with Matt Ryan," Vick said. "Matt and I actually have a great relationship."

Defense ruled early

Deion Jones' performance in the first half highlighted a defense-oriented start to Super Bowl LI. The Falcons linebacker made the first big play of the game Sunday night when he ripped the ball from Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount and forced a second-quarter fumble.

The Falcons offense, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, scored the game's first points when they drove 71 yards on five plays. Running back Devonta Freeman scooted around the end untouched for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

The drive was kick-started by Ryan passes to wide receiver Julio Jones that covered 19 and 23 yards. Freeman then took care of the rest, rushing three straight times for 29 yards, including the score.

Jones was all over the field in the first 30 minutes. The rookie from LSU, who was chosen in the second round of the draft, broke up an early deep pass to James White and recorded five tackles, including the forced fumble.

In what was supposed to be a high-scoring game from the gun, both teams came out sharp on defense. The combined first five possessions featured four sacks - Tom Brady and Ryan each went down twice - four punts, and a fumble.

Ryan completed 7 of his first 8 passes for 115 yards with a 19-yard touchdown to Austin Hooper. The rookie tight end beat Patriots safety Patrick Chung, a former Eagle, for the score that padded the Falcons' early lead to 14-0.

The defensive trend continued for Atlanta when Robert Alford picked off a Brady pass and returned it 82 yards for a 21-0 Falcons lead.

Chester County proud

Matt Schaub and Ryan didn't cross paths on the field during their Southeastern Pa. high school football careers - they're four years apart - but the Chester County natives became teammates and fast friends this past year after the Falcons signed Schaub to be Ryan's backup.

They not only spent long hours together at practice and in meetings this past season, but they had a ritual of driving to the Georgia Dome together during home games.

"We would just talk about whatever was going that day," Ryan said last week. "We spend so much time together, so the conversation could go anywhere. We've been really close, and he has been a huge pick up for us this year, too. Certainly, he has helped me a ton, in terms of our preparation.

"He played at such a high level for a long time here in Houston."

Schaub, who played at West Chester East, was drafted by the Falcons in 2004. After three seasons as Vick's backup, he was traded to the Texans, where he spent eight seasons as the starter. The 35-year-old Schaub said that there's more to Ryan than his robotic news conferences suggest.

"What you see, that's him. That's him on a daily basis," Schaub said. "Obviously when it's just us guys or we go out to eat or we're just hanging in the meeting room he lets his hair down and relaxes a little bit. He's the ultimate guy. He's a guys' guy and he's a great teammate."