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Mr. Money Down

As the leader of the all-time-great Atlanta Falcons offense, Matt Ryan seems like a shoo-in for NFL MVP. His stats are unimpeachable, but there’s a hidden source to those gaudy numbers: a mastery of keeping drives alive.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In the NFL, they call third down the “money down,” and over the Atlanta Falcons’ past eight games, Matt Ryan has cashed in at an incredible rate. The soon-to-be MVP was efficient on that key down all year long, finishing the regular season tops in completion percentage (71.2) among qualifying quarterbacks and third in passer rating (112.3), as Atlanta converted first downs 41 percent of the time it passed (seventh best). But since coming out of a bye in Week 12 — an eight-game stretch in which Atlanta has lost just once while averaging a ridiculous 37.5 points per game — Ryan has taken his third-down passing game to a whole new level. It’s turned what was already the league’s best offense into the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut we’re seeing now.

Over that stretch, Ryan has completed 55 of 67 passes on third downs — an 82.1 percent completion rate, best in the league for quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts and a full 12.4 points higher than second-best QB, Aaron Rodgers. Plus, he has thrown six touchdowns, zero picks, and compiled an NFL-best 134.3 passer rating. Ryan’s incredible precision on third down during those eight games has led to 40 Atlanta first downs through the air (tied for second most), and when the Falcons have thrown on third down, they’ve converted a league-best 52.6 percent of the time.

As we saw on Sunday, that kind of efficiency can demoralize a defense and totally change the complexion of a game. Against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game, the Falcons converted 10 of 13 third downs en route to their 44–21 win. Nine of those came via Ryan and the passing game — he threw for 101 yards and a 144.5 rating on third down — and three of those completions went for touchdowns.

It’s not just third-and-short, either. Against Green Bay, the Falcons converted four of six passes on third-and-long (7 yards or more), including four plays of 10-plus yards.

This throw, on a third-and-11 just past midfield, keeps the Falcons’ first drive of the game alive. Instead of being forced to punt, they score a touchdown four plays later when Ryan hits Mohamed Sanu in the end zone for six.

Later in the first quarter, Ryan finds Austin Hooper near the sideline on a third-and-7 from the Falcons’ 48-yard line, and Hooper evades several tacklers to pick up a huge first down. That leads to a Matt Bryant field goal seven plays later.

Early in the second quarter, Ryan hits Julio Jones on third-and-10 from the Packers’ 33-yard line. That drive also ends with seven points when Ryan scrambles 14 yards for a score two plays later.

Then, with 56 seconds left in the half, Ryan connects with Taylor Gabriel on a third-and-10 from just past midfield. Four plays later, Ryan hits Jones in the corner of the end zone for another touchdown.

Atlanta ended the first half up 24–0, and those four conversions were crucial to each scoring drive. On first and second down, Green Bay’s defense did everything it was supposed to. In third-and-long, the option of a run play for Atlanta was all but gone. Play-action does nothing. Misdirection doesn’t help. No, the Packers knew that Ryan was going to drop back into the pocket to pass, which is every pass rusher’s dream: they can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. But Ryan calmly stood back in the pocket and delivered strikes to his receivers.

His poise and execution on these types of plays is what separates the great quarterbacks from the merely good. On first and second down in most systems, coaches have the ability to scheme around a passer’s deficiencies. Can’t read a defense? Give him clearly defined quick throws. He’s not comfortable in the pocket? Build a scheme that gets him outside on bootlegs and sprint-outs. Isn’t good in the vertical game? Build in a bunch of screens and swing passes. Coordinators can effectively mask problem areas for developing or less-talented quarterbacks with a variety of methods and get away with it. But when it comes to third-and-long, it’s impossible to hide those blemishes.

In those situations, the quarterback position is distilled down to its purest, most traditional form: Drop back, go through your target progressions, and throw it from the pocket. Over his past eight games, Ryan is 27 of 31 (87.1 percent) for 303 yards, one touchdown and zero picks for a 118 rating (second among qualifiers) on third-and-long, and the Falcons have converted 38.9 percent of those throws into first downs (third in the league over that stretch).

It never hurts to have a demigod like Jones running routes and picking up yards after the catch, and Kyle Shanahan’s brilliant play designs consistently give Ryan a buffet of options to choose from. But the ninth-year passer has lived up to the Matty Ice moniker on third downs this year; he’s been cool and deadly from the pocket on the money down.

This season, the Patriots have allowed a solid 34.1 percent of third-down passes to be completed (ninth best), so Ryan’s third-down sorcery will be put to the test in the Super Bowl in Houston. But if Atlanta can keep converting third-and-long like it’s second-and-4, the math will always be in its favor.