Seeing the 0-3 playoff record on Matt Ryan's otherwise impressive resume is like seeing the woman at the bar whose body you're admiring from behind turn around to reveal a face that looks like your uncle's.
Drafted third overall in 2008, Matt Ryan has taken the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs three times in his first four years in the league. Ryan's first playoff trip concluded with a respectable road loss to Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals, 30-24. However, Ryan's last two playoff appearances were awful: A blowout loss at home to the Packers following the 2010 season, and an unacceptable 24-2 loss last season at MetLife Stadium to the New York Giants.
To say that the pressure is on Ryan to carry the Falcons to a victory over a Seattle team led by a rookie quarterback who's now won more playoff games than he has is an understatement. Perhaps ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas made the most telling observation about the significance of Ryan's fourth playoff game when he pointed out that Ryan is one of only six quarterbacks to lose their first three playoff starts since the AFL-NFL merger, and that he will become the just the second member of an even more exclusive club if he suffers another loss on Sunday.
Interestingly enough, there's another quarterback in these playoffs who has been where Matt Ryan is. You may be surprised to learn that Peyton Manning is on the list to which Yasinskas was referring as one of the six quarterbacks who lost their first three playoff starts. After being drafted first overall by the Colts in 1998, Manning led his team to three playoff trips in his first five seasons from 1998-2002.
In his second campaign, Manning's Colts lost at home to the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round following a 13-3 regular season. Following the 2001 season, Indy lost by a touchdown in the Wild Card Round to the Miami Dolphins. Finally, Manning's playoff record dropped to 0-3 when his Colts were shut out at the Meadowlands in an embarrassing 41-0 loss to the New York Jets in the 2003 AFC Wild Card Round.
Like Ryan, Manning faced difficult questions following a playoff loss in which a Colts offense that featured himself, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison failed to put any points on the board. The Colts offense that year also boasted second-year wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who had been drafted in 2001 to make an offense that was already in the upper echelon of the league even more explosive (sound familiar Falcon fans?):
Guys, it doesn't really matter what I have to say right now...I'm sure the articles are already written and the shots are here to be fired. All I can do is sit here and take it. But certainly I always feel very responsible, no matter how I play, when we do not win. (via Indystar.com)
The following spring, Manning went into overdrive, refining his craft with his then-quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. "We've kind of broken down different parts of the seasons-third downs, turnovers, forced passes, great passes," Manning told C. Jemal Horton of the Indianapolis Star in May 2003 before a Colts four-week minicamp session. "We've taken them step by step. You see the things you do well; you see the things you need to work on. I'm just trying to be playing for something important in January."
According to Horton, Manning had been a regular at the team's facility long before minicamp began.
The hard work paid off for Manning in the fall when the 2003 regular season began. En route to leading the Colts to a 12-4 record and a division title, Manning threw for 4,267 yards and 29 touchdowns while also reaching what were then career highs in completion percentage (67 percent) and passer rating (99.0).
Manning saved his best for his fourth-career playoff start in the Colts' 2004 AFC wild-card game matchup against the Denver Broncos. Manning was nearly impeccable as he completed 22-of-26 passes for 377 yards and five touchdowns. Manning's performance was good enough to yield a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating as the Colts routed the Broncos 41-10. "Sure, it's good to get that little monkey off my back," Manning said after the game when asked whether he was relieved to get his first postseason victory.
In addition to all of the talent around him finally coming together, the biggest difference between Manning's first three playoff flops and his breakout performance in his fourth game may very well have been his comfort level with the offense. "He was more under control, so cool," Edgerrin James said of Manning after the win over Denver. "I told him (before the game), 'Pey, if you see something you don't feel comfortable with, don't do it. I wanted him to know that whatever he called, we were going to support him."
Matt Ryan spent this past offseason bulking up and familiarizing himself with new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's offense. From Week One against the Chiefs, the improvement in Ryan's game was clear. Ryan set his own career career highs in passing yards (4,719), completion percentage (68.6), touchdowns (32) and quarterback rating (99.1). He has benefited from playing in an offense that has been designed to emphasize his strengths and from Pro Bowl-level seasons from Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. When you factor in expected contributions from Jacquizz Rodgers, Harry Douglas and a fresh Michael Turner, then Ryan is easily taking the best offensive arsenal he's ever had into a playoff game.
Like Manning, Ryan is also entering his fourth playoff start with a great deal of confidence. “I feel more comfortable with the guys around me,” Ryan said to D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Having been in my second year with Julio Jones now adds to that confidence level. Knowing Roddy White and having played with him for five years and understanding him inside and out. …He understands me the same way. I think that helps.”
In addition, Ryan's teammates sound like they have the same confidence in their quarterback that Edgerrin James had in Peyton Manning nine years ago. “With the team that we have now, and all of the guys that have been around each other, with him (Ryan) leading us a group, and knowing that everybody is on the same page, it’s going to be a different outcome,” Roddy White told the AJC.
Despite what the national media may lead you to believe about Sunday's matchup against the Seattle Seahawks—a number of critics see Ryan and the Falcons losing—the stage is set up quite well for Ryan much like it was for Manning in 2004. Ryan will be playing at home, and like Manning he will be facing a quarterback who's has already won a playoff game (Denver's Jake Plummer had won a wild-card playoff game with Arizona).
Ryan shouldn't need a perfect passer rating like Manning to exorcise his playoff demons on Sunday, but we will find out early on if he's up to following the example that Manning set for him in 2004 by leading the Falcons to a convincing victory over the visiting Seahawks and finally getting the "little monkey" off of his own back.
All player stats used courtesy of ESPN.com. Quotes from Peyton Manning and Edgerrin James taken from Indianapolis Star Newspaper Archives ("As Usual, Pressure's on Manning," C. Jemal Horton, May 29, 2003; "Offense Suffers Complete Breakdown", Mike Chappell, January 5, 2003; and "Manning Makes Up for Lost Time", Mike Chappell, January 5, 2004)