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Jerry Sullivan: 'Matty Ice' breaks through, but the heat's still on

HOUSTON -- They started calling him "Matty Ice" back in his younger days in Philadelphia. Even as a teenager, Matt Ryan was renowned for his calm, cool demeanor and his rare ability to perform in pressure situations.

"It started among friends in high school for some reason and it stuck," Ryan said Monday on Opening Night of Super Bowl week at Minute Maid Park. "It followed me to college to the NFL. It's been around a long time."

But over Ryan's first eight years of his NFL career in Atlanta, the nickname became something of a contradiction. Sure, he made big throws and Pro Bowls, and had two dozen fourth-quarter comebacks. Still, the ice man earned a reputation for melting in the playoffs, when the spotlight was hottest.

Four years ago, after losing to the Niners at home in the NFC title, Ryan was 1-4 in his career in the playoffs. But that one playoff run, coming at the end of a huge season, earned him a five-year, $103.75 million contract extension. It seemed Ryan, the third overall pick of the '08 draft, had arrived as an elite NFL quarterback.

The Falcons then missed the playoffs three years in a row, winning a combined 18 games. Mike Smith was fired as head coach after the 2014 season and replaced by Dan Quinn, who went 8-8 in '15. Ryan suffered through the worst season of his career, finishing with 21 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.

Under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Ryan seemed lost and out of rhythm. There were murmurs that Ryan, who had truly never won over Falcons fans after replacing the popular Michael Vick in the wake of Vick's dogfighting arrest, might be nearing the end in Atlanta. At 31, it appeared his career would be defined not by his cool under pressure, but his failures.

Then, it all clicked this season. Maybe it was Ryan having a second year with Shanahan and becoming more comfortable in the offense. Or it could have been the addition of some quality receiving depth, or the addition of veteran center Alex Mack to bolster a shaky offensive line.

Or perhaps it was simply Ryan's time, the late, inevitable blossoming of a superstar quarterback. Over the last few months, he's been in the kind of passing rhythm that every quarterback dreams about.

"Well, I feel really good," Ryan said. "I really feel good with what we're doing right now and where I'm at. I feel I've got a real good routine and a good setup to get myself prepared and ready to play week to week. That's been there all year. I felt really good all year."

It certainly seemed that way. Ryan had the season of his life, one that will likely result in a league MVP award. He had 38 touchdown passes and 4,944 yards, both career highs, and threw a career-low seven interceptions.

Ryan led the NFL with a 117.1 passer rating. Tom Brady, his opponent in next Sunday's Super Bowl, was second. Ryan averaged 9.3 yards a pass attempt, a staggering figure. The former Boston College star threw touchdown passes to 13 different players, an NFL record.

But when the postseason arrived, the questions lingered. Would "Matty Ice" melt again? Would he separate himself from other QBs who put up gaudy stats but never won big in the playoffs, guys like Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo? Would he catch up to Joe Flacco, who went in the same 2008 draft and has won 10 post-season games since, the most in the league?

Quinn spoke with Ryan about the pressure before the postseason. He was convinced that Ryan was a different quarterback from the guy who lost those other playoff games. He felt Ryan's great season would continue in January

In fact, he got better. In the Falcons' two-game run to their second Super Bowl, Ryan was magnificent. He completed 70.6 percent of his throws for 730 yards, with seven TDs and no picks. His QB rating for two games is 132.6, the second-highest ever in a single postseason with at least 75 pass attempts.

The Falcons rolled over the Seahawks and Packers, scoring a combined 80 points. Ryan was at his best against Green Bay in the NFC title game, passing for 392 yards, throwing for four TDs and running for a fifth in a 44-21 rout in the final game ever played in the Georgia Dome.

It was a post-season emergence reminiscent of Jim Kelly in the Bills' first Super Bowl run, when the Bills scored 95 points in the two games leading up to their first appearance in Super Bowl XXV. Three times late in the title game, Atlanta fans broke out in chants of "MVP! MVP!"

Now Ryan, who hasn't thrown an interception since Dec. 4, needs to rise up one more time Sunday. Two playoff wins at home is one thing. Doing it in on the biggest stage, against the Pats and Brady and Bill Belichick, is another. It's the sort of bright spotlight that can melt down even the iciest performer.

Ryan got his first real taste on Monday night. The NFL now puts the first player interviews in primetime. The Falcons came out first, at 7 p.m. Central time, parading across a big stage with a red velvet backdrop and fans in the Astros ballpark yelling at the urging of the PA announcer.

He was asked what he would be if not a player (a football coach), what he did for fun (play guitar, but not that well), whether he ever considered having his own 'Matty Ice Cream' (no, but it's a good idea), and whether he knows Brady, whose career took off while Ryan was at Boston College.

"I've gotten to know Tom over the last seven or eight years,." Ryan said. "We met for the first time when they came down for a training camp. Ton has been awesome to get to know. He's incredibly supportive. We exchange text messages quite a bit. I think all young quarterbacks look up to Tom."

The trick is to beat Brady, who is seeking a record fifth Super Bowl. By winning, Ryan would become the second quarterback ever to beat three former Super Bowl-winning QBs on his way to a Super Bowl title. Drew Brees did it seven years ago, against Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.

Fair or not, if Ryan falls on his face against New England, it will revive questions about his status as one of the elite. There's talk of reworking his contract, which has two years to go, after a breakout year. But it's remaking his reputation as a big-game player and winner that matters most to Ryan.

"Ultimately, I understand that as a quarterback, you're judged by post-season success," Ryan said. "But for me, it's about finding a way to get it done on Sunday, and that's really what my focus is on. I'm worried about winning this game."

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