When Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan took the football with 25 seconds left to play in Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game and drove the offense 41 yards to set up a game-winning field goal, he set kicker Matt Bryant up to win the game with a 49-yarder.
The playoff win was Ryan’s first in the NFL, after three failed attempts in the four seasons prior. But driving his team down the field late in games is nothing new.
Since taking the reins as Atlanta’s signal-caller, Ryan has led the Falcons on 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the most in the NFL since 2008. No quarterback since 1966 has come up with more late-game magic in the first five years of his career.
When a game is on the line and you need an offense driven down the field, Ryan is the guy to call. Ryan is the NFL’s most clutch quarterback.
Ryan’s first heroic moment came in his rookie season of 2008, just five games into his professional career. Tied at 17 with less than 10 minutes to play, Ryan led the Falcons on a six-play, 25-yard drive to set up a Jason Elam 41-yard field goal.
He later in the same game drove the Falcons down the field for a touchdown, a score that was sorely needed as the Green Bay Packers made a comeback run that fell just short.
Atlanta’s rookie signal-caller pulled off the feat of winning a game late three more times that season, but four in a year wasn’t setting the bar high enough. In 2010 and again in 2012, Ryan pulled off late-game magic six times.
In addition to Ryan’s 22 game-winning drives being spread fairly evenly over the course of his five years in the league, the way he leads the offense down the field has been spread evenly as well.
The majority of his drives (12 of 22) lasted between two and four minutes and were methodical and precise. Four have taken longer than four minutes. Six have been blazing fast, where Ryan drives the Falcons to a score in less than a minute.
That was the case Sunday when Ryan, in two plays, moved Atlanta 41 yards in 12 seconds and set Bryant up to be a hero himself.
Highlights from Matt Ryan’s 22 Fourth-Quarter-or-Later Game-Winning Drives
A total of 13 of Ryan’s game-winning drives ended with a touchdown; nine ended with a field goal.
Jason Elam capped three of Ryan’s late-game drives, while Matt Bryant hit six game-winning field goals. The shortest field goal was Elam’s 34-yarder in 2008 to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in overtime. The longest was Bryant’s 2012 game-winner against the Oakland Raiders, a 55-yard bomb.
The fewest number of plays it took Ryan to set the Falcons up for victory was two. In Atlanta’s 2008 victory over the Chicago Bears, Ryan took the ball on the Falcons’ 44-yard line and threw a pass to Michael Jenkins that gained 26 yards. This drive was not only Atlanta’s shortest by numbers of plays, but also in time of possession.
Ryan’s pass to Jenkins was started with six seconds left on the clock. His quick out toward the left sideline took up five of the remaining six seconds. Elam blasted a 48-yard field goal to give Atlanta a two-point victory.
Of Ryan’s 13 drives that ended with a touchdown, seven were rushing scores. Roddy White caught three game-winning touchdown passes, with Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Michael Jenkins grabbing the other three.
When the Falcons scored a game-winner on the ground, Michael Turner scored five of Atlanta’s seven touchdowns. Jerious Norwood and Ryan had the other two rushing scores.
Ryan has spoiled the day of 15 NFL teams with his 22 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or later. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have suffered the most, losing four times in these situations. The Carolina Panthers are a close second with three losses. Green Bay and Chicago have each been beaten twice by Ryan late.
There are 11 other teams that have fallen victim to Ryan’s heroics just once.
Ten of Ryan’s 22 drives spanned the distance of 70 yards or more.
Most of Ryan’s drives fell in the six- to nine-play range (11 drives). Four times it took fewer than five plays to score, while seven times it took more than 10 plays. I’ll leave you with a brief recap of Ryan’s longest drive (by number of plays) to win a game in the fourth quarter or later.
On Oct. 3, 2010, the San Francisco 49ers jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Atlanta scored 10 points in the second quarter and three more in the third; the game remained at that score entering the fourth quarter.
With 3:40 to play and the Falcons still down by one point, Ryan took the ball on Atlanta’s own 8-yard line. He was sacked on the first play at the 3.
Ryan then completed 4-of-5 passes for 43 yards to get away from his own end zone. On the seventh play of the drive, Ryan was intercepted by Nate Clements, who returned the ball 39 yards before Roddy White stripped the ball away. Harvey Dahl fell on the ball at Atlanta’s 7-yard line, one yard behind where Atlanta’s drive first started.
Ryan went back to work from his own 7. He completed six of his next nine throws and got the Falcons to San Francisco’s 26-yard line. Atlanta ran two running plays to set up a game-winning 43-yard field goal by Bryant with six seconds to play.
At the end of the day, Ryan’s final drive was 19 plays and lasted three minute, 34 seconds. The Falcons drove from their own 3-yard line to their 46 before the interception, then from their own 7-yard line to the 49ers’ 25 before Bryant’s field goal—a total of 116 yards.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.