By CHARLES ODUM
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons disagree with the idea they have little to play for in Sunday’s final regular-season game against Tampa Bay.
The Falcons (13-2) have home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, and a big goal this week is for Ryan to carry his hot streak into the postseason.
Ryan threw seven touchdown passes with no interceptions the past two weeks while completing 80 percent of his passes. He was selected to the Pro Bowl on Wednesday.
Coach Mike Smith said that ranks as the fifth-year quarterback’s best back-to-back games.
Center Todd McClure said this is the perfect time for Ryan to be peaking.
“You look the past few years at teams that have had success in the playoffs, the quarterback has gotten hot at the right time,” McClure said. “Our quarterback definitely is hot and we’ve got to keep him that way.”
Ryan has completed 69 percent of his passes this season. Only San Francisco’s Alex Smith, who has played in only nine games, has a higher completion rate, according to STATS LLC.
Ryan’s franchise-record 4,481 yards passing ranks fifth in the NFL, and he’s also fifth with 31 touchdown passes and his 100.2 quarterback rating.
Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said Ryan deserves to be mentioned with the league’s top quarterbacks.
“I think he’s in the elite status,” Schiano said. “I think he’s at that level with the kind of field command he has and the way he directs the operation. To me, there are a lot of guys who have big arms and guys who are mobile and all that, but it’s the way they lead and the command they have over their offense which makes them elite.”
The best news for the Falcons is Ryan is gaining momentum for the postseason. He completed 23 of 28 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 34-0 rout of the New York Giants two weeks ago. He completed 25 of 32 passes for 279 yards with four touchdowns and no picks in last week’s 31-18 win at Detroit.
Ryan’s rating in each game was 142.6. Smith said he hasn’t seen the quarterback play better in consecutive weeks.
“The numbers I think will back that up in terms of quarterback rating and the passing yardage but really it’s about running the offense and our offensive team,” Smith said after Wednesday’s practice.
“He’s done a really good job with good plays at the right time and he’s got us out of some bad plays. He’s looked very comfortable in the pocket and going through his progressions and getting the ball to the guy we need to get it to most of the time.”
McClure said Ryan’s mastery of the offense and confidence in his skills show in his performance.
“He’s learned the game better,” McClure said. “He’s learned our offense. Now he’s just confident with where everybody is on the field. He knows where everybody is at any given moment. Right now he’s making all the throws and that’s why he’s playing really well.”
Ryan, who will be joined by tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Julio Jones in the Pro Bowl. said improved consistency has boosted his confidence.
“I feel like my confidence the entire year has been as high as it’s ever been,” he said. “I’ve felt good each week. One of the things I’ve always strived for is consistency. I try to be consistent week in and week out. I think I’ve been better with that the last couple of weeks and really the entire year.”
This is the second time in three years the Falcons will be the NFC’s top seed in the playoffs. They were 13-3 in 2010, but lost to Green Bay in the playoffs.
Atlanta lost to the Giants in the first round of the playoffs last season, leaving Ryan 0-3 in the postseason.
Ryan said this team is more mature and better prepared for the playoffs.
“Probably the biggest difference with where we’re at now and a couple years ago is the maturity of the football team,” Ryan said.
“I think at this point everybody understands we’ve put ourselves in good position but we still have a lot of work to do. Nobody is content with where we’re at and I think that’s a little bit different than where we’ve been in the past.”