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Matt Ryan's leadership pushed Falcons past devastating Super Bowl defeat

Philadelphia-area native Matt Ryan will play for the fifth time at Lincoln Financial Field when his Atlanta Falcons meet the Eagles in a NFC divisional playoff game. The Eagles have won three of the previous four meetings.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passing on the run against the Rams on Saturday.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passing on the run against the Rams on Saturday.Read moreROBERT GAUTHIER / Los Angeles Times

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It is just another trip for Matt Ryan, another obstacle in reaching his desired final destination. It is not about going home to Philadelphia, the city where he played his high school football. The 2016 NFL MVP from Exton and Penn Charter has been there and done that four other times since coming into the league as the third overall draft pick in 2008.

This particular trip is all about trying to get back to the NFC championship game and one step closer to another Super Bowl, the place where Ryan's Atlanta Falcons suffered a devastating fall-from-far-ahead defeat last February.

"I'm used to [going back to Philadelphia] now," Ryan said. "Playing as long as I have, regardless of where we go or play, you know you have to be at your very best every week. The one nice part is that you see a lot of familiar and friendly faces afterward."

That is nice if you win, but probably more of a nuisance if you do not, and the Falcons mostly did not during Ryan's four previous trips to Philadelphia. The Falcons were a playoff team in each of Ryan's previous visits to Lincoln Financial Field, but they lost three of the four games, including a 24-15 defeat last November.

The 15 points were well below the Falcons' league-best average of 33.8 per game and marked the only time all season that Atlanta did not score at least 23 points. That game seemed to be of little concern to Ryan after he returned to the practice field Wednesday following a rare absence while he tended to a personal matter Tuesday. He declined to discuss the personal situation that kept him off the practice field, saying he likes to keep his private life private. He said he would certainly be ready for the NFC divisional playoff game Saturday against the Eagles.

As for that game last season, Ryan said "We've had like 20-plus games between now and then. We're a different team at this juncture than we were last year when we played them and they're a little bit different team as well."

The Falcons have played exactly 26 games since that meeting with the Eagles last season, none more memorable than the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, when their 28-3 lead late in the third quarter dissolved into a 34-28 overtime loss. It was the kind of defeat that could have lingered and thrust the Falcons into a free fall this season.

History tells us it is difficult enough for Super Bowl losers just to get back to the playoffs. Only 11 of the last 20 Super Bowl losers have returned to the postseason, and with their win over the Los Angeles Rams last week in the wild-card round, the Falcons became just the fifth team in 20 years to win a playoff game after losing the Super Bowl the previous season. No Super Bowl loser has returned to the title game since the early 1990s, when the Buffalo Bills lost four straight championship games.

No previous Super Bowl loser ever had to deal with the monumental collapse the Falcons had against New England, but there is a strong belief among the Falcons that Ryan's leadership is a huge reason this team was able to overcome a potential Super Bowl-loss hangover. Ryan, 32, did not duplicate his career-best statistics of 4,944 yards and 38 touchdown passes that earned him the MVP award last season, but he did make it clear that the Falcons would move past that loss to the Patriots.

Veteran quarterback Matt Schaub, another Philadelphia-area native who has been Ryan's backup the last two seasons, said the elephant in the room was addressed as soon as the team started its offseason conditioning program early in the spring.

"I would say just going from last year into this year, [Ryan] took [his leadership] to another level," Schaub said. "To go from what we went through as a team last year … he made it clear that we were going to control the present and what is going to happen this season. That started with him. He was the leader of this football team from day one of this past offseason."

Schaub said Ryan and head coach Dan Quinn discussed the Super Bowl loss in April but have not mentioned it since.

"We acknowledged the elephant in the room and we moved on," Schaub said. "From there it was more of an action-based thing. It was Matt showing in his daily routine that he was not going to be complacent in his preparation and offseason training. If you're the same guy and you do the same routine, guys look at that and say, 'If he's going to be like that, then I need to be that way, too.' "

The road back to the postseason was not an easy one for the Falcons, who this season had a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, and defensive coordinator in Marquand Manuel. Playing in the brutal NFC South — the only division to send three teams into the playoffs — Atlanta finished third with a 10-6 record and did not punch its ticket to the playoffs until the final weekend of the season after winning at home against Carolina.

Ryan's 20 touchdown passes were his lowest total since his 2008 rookie season, when he threw 16, but the quarterback seemed genuinely pleased with how he has led the team back to the playoffs.

"I think the best leaders always evolve," he said. "One of the constants in this league is that the roster is always changing … and you have to understand what the group needs and how you can best help the players around you. I'm proud of that part of this year. We're a tough group and a group that has a belief that regardless of how a game shakes out … we can win."

For Ryan, that's what the return to Philadelphia is about Saturday. He will have plenty of time to chat with family and friends during his annual visit to Wildwood over the summer, but first he'd love to spend February in Minneapolis.