LANDOVER, Md. — For Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, it will always be difficult to top his 2016 season, when he was named the NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. The Falcons went to the Super Bowl, losing a heartbreaker to the New England Patriots.
Yet this year, his 11th in the NFL, the Penn Charter graduate and Exton native is approaching the best he has ever played. And that is saying something.
The Falcons got off to a rough start, losing an 18-12 nail-biter to the Eagles in the NFL season opener. That game ended the same way the Eagles' 15-10 playoff win over the Falcons did last season: with a Ryan incompletion to Julio Jones in the end zone. The Falcons went on to loss three of their next four games, and the season appeared to be slipping away.
But Atlanta (4-4) is making a playoff run after Sunday's 38-14 win over Washington at FedEx Field, the Falcons' third victory in a row. The Falcons' win helped the Eagles (4-4) move to within one game of the first-place Redskins (5-3) in the NFC East.
Against the Eagles, he had a passer rating of just 57.4 after completing 21 of 43 passes for 251 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, but since then, Ryan has played at an elite level, conjuring up memories of 2016. His passer rating has been 99 or better in every game since losing to the Eagles.
"We didn't do a good job of [red-zone efficiency] in the opener, but since then, we have done a pretty good job of that," Ryan said after the Falcons' win at Washington.
The Falcons scored just one touchdown in five red-zone trips against the Eagles on opening night. Atlanta entered Monday seventh in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns 69.23 percent of the time.
Ryan won't compare this season to any other, but he and the Falcons are moving in the right direction.
"I feel good. I do," he said. "I feel like I am comfortable with the plans that we have."
Always humble, Ryan credits his supporting cast.
"I'm surrounded by excellent players and have a lot of trust in the guys around me to make plays, and they have done that," he said. "That's exciting, and it's fun to be a part of that."
Ryan, 33, has completed 213 of 301 passes (70.8 percent) for 2,685 yards, 19 touchdowns, and just three interceptions this season. His passer rating is 115.1, second best of his career. While it is only a half-season, it compares favorably to 2016, when Ryan completed 373 of 534 passes (69.9 percent) for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. His passer rating was a career-best 117.1.
Even after all these years, Ryan's level of preparation amazes his teammates and coach Dan Quinn.
"One of the things that I really admire about him is his consistency, and that is not a sexy word, because it isn't earned overnight and you have to put it in over and over again," Quinn said. "I wish you guys could come to practice and see all the work he puts in on the practice field, all the way through to the games."
The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Ryan enjoys the grind needed to prepare to be an elite quarterback each week in the NFL.
"I take a lot of pride in having myself as best prepared as I can be week in and week out," Ryan said. "One thing I've learned throughout my career is that you kind of have to stay even-keeled and trust your process, and that's what I do."
Ryan is a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Each time, the honor has come in even-numbered seasons: 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016. So this could be his turn again.
"Matt has been doing a great job," Jones said. "I have been here eight years with him, and he is a phenomenal leader. Everything about him, he is a winner."
The leadership comes from working as hard as anybody on the team.
"I love the way he prepares and makes sure we know our stuff, and it is great to have a leader like that, especially at quarterback," said receiver Mohamed Sanu, the former Rutgers star.
Rookie receiver Calvin Ridley has stepped right in and contributed in a big way, with seven touchdown receptions. The first-round draft pick from Alabama said working with Ryan has made his NFL transition smooth.
"He is a great quarterback," Ridley said. "He is very detailed, does everything at a high level, and I try to put myself in a position to make sure I am in spots for him, to make him look good and make myself look good."
The receivers and Ryan are making each other look good.
The key for the Falcons is for the defense to continue to improve after being torched early in the season. In the three non-Eagles losses, Atlanta gave up an average of 40.3 points.
If the defense can continue its growth, Atlanta will be a dangerous team over the second half of the season, especially with a quarterback who is approaching the best level he has ever reached.