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Matt Ryan is about to throw a touchdown or an interception, depending upon the month

Matt Ryan is about to throw a touchdown or an interception, depending upon the month.

For the second time in three years, the Atlanta Falcons are the NFC’s number one seed. Just like in 2010, the Falcons started this season 13-2 but ended the year with only 11 Pythagorean wins. In 2010, Atlanta lost its first game to the #6 seed Packers, who sported the highest SRS of any NFC team in 2010. This year, Atlanta hosts the #6 seed Seahawks, who finished 2012 with highest SRS of any NFC team. History suggests that this is a difficult challenge for Atlanta, regardless of the Falcons’ lofty record.

One of the obvious topics the mainstream media has hit on this week has been Matt Ryan’s inability to win in the playoffs. As everyone knows, Atlanta is 0-3 in the playoffs in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era. As Ryan prepares for his fourth playoff start on Sunday, history offers some comfort: four other quarterbacks (since 1950) have been in exactly the same situation, entering their fourth playoff start with an 0-3 record. Those quarterbacks went 3-1 in their fourth game. Let’s stroll down memory lane.

  • At age 37, Y.A. Tittle and the New York Giants went to Soldier Field to battle the famed 1963 Bears. Tittle had gone 0-3 in his previous three NFL playoff games, and had lost his lone playoff game in the AAFC, too. In 1957, Tittle was on the wrong side of the most famous comeback in playoff history prior to Bills/Oilers. In that game, Tittle threw three touchdowns against the Lions as San Francisco opened up what looked to be an insurmountable 27-7 lead. But Tittle finished the day with three interceptions, and the Lions came back and won, 31-27. In 1961, Tittle was with the Giants, and was part of an embarassing 37-0 shutout on the quite literal frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. Tittle was a miserable 6/20 for 65 yards with 4 interceptions. The next year, the Giants and Packers met again, this time at a frozen and windy Yankee Stadium, with the Packers again topping the Giants.1 So you can imagine that when Tittle and the Giants had to travel to Soldier Field in 1963 — the Giants third straight year in the title game — Tittle probably carried the choker label. With a wind chill of -11 degrees, the weather was again miserable, and the result was more of the same for Tittle and New York. The Giants lost 14-10, and Tittle threw 1 touchdown against 5 interceptions.
  • Jack Kemp took the Chargers to the AFL title game in the league’s first two seasons. On New Year’s Day 1961, Kemp was outplayed by Houston’s George Blanda, and Billy Cannon put the final nail in the coffin as the Oilers won, 24-16. The Oilers and Chargers met again in the title game the following year — this time in San Diego — but Kemp had a miserable game, throwing 4 interceptions as the Chargers lost, 10-3. By 1963, Kemp was with the Bills, and Buffalo had finished the year tied with the Patriots, setting up a one-game playoff for the division title at War Memorial Stadium. But Kemp struggled and was benched for Daryle Lamonica at halftime, as the Bills lost 26-8. In 1964, the Bills went 12-2, and entered the AFL title game against Kemp’s old team, San Diego. At this time, Kemp had an 0-3 post-season record, and surely Chargers fans taunted the citizens of Buffalo by calling Kemp the Mayor of Chokesville. While Kemp did not produce stellar numbers, the Bills managed to defeat the Chargers and capture their first AFL championship. The hero of the game may have been Mike Stratton, who produced the “hit heard round the world” early in the game, knocking out San Diego’s Keith Lincoln. In any event, the Mayor of Chokesville was able to abdicate his throne.
  • Randall Cunningham was a flashy player who produced crazy stats, but the kind city of Philadelphia labeled him the Mayor of Chokesville early in his career. In 1988, the Eagles went 10-6, but lost in the Fog Bowl to the Bears. The next year, Philadelphia hosted the Rams in the wildcard round, but Jim Everett bested Cunningham, who produced no touchdowns and threw an interception. In 1990, things were set up nicely for the Eagles in the wildcard round. Not only were they again playing at home at Veterans Stadium, but their opponent was the Washington Redskins. But less than two months after the Body Bag game, the Redskins got the best of the Eagles and won, 20-6. Three straight years, three straight losses, with two of those games coming at home. Cunningham produced no touchdowns in the three losses, but threw five interceptions. In 1991, Cunningham tore his ACL in the opener, but in ’92, the Eagles were back in the playoffs. And while Cunningham had known nothing but playoff failures, he took the Eagles into the Super Dome and upset the Saints, 36-20. Cunningham threw for 219 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions.
  • Peyton Manning also started his career 0-3 in the post-season. In 1999, the Colts went 13-3, but Steve McNair and Eddie George helped the Titans upset the Colts 19-16 in the divisional round of the playoffs. The next year, Jay Fiedler threw a touchdown pass in the final minute of regulation to force overtime in a wildcard game between the Colts and the Dolphins. In the extra session, Mike Vanderjagt missed a 49-yard field goal, and on Lamar Smith’s 40th carry of the day, he ran 17 yards for the game-winning touchdown. In 2001, Manning and the Colts self-destructed, causing the team to replace Jim Mora with Tony Dungy. But in 2002, the Colts were embarrassed 41-0 against the Jets, as Manning completed fewer than half his passes and had two interceptions. The next year, the new Mayor of Chokesville made the playoffs. Facing a legion of doubters thanks to an 0-3 playoff record, Manning managed to throw more touchdowns than incompletions against the Broncos, going 22/26 for 377 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 41-10 win.

Manning won his first playoff game in 2003, at the conclusion of his age 27 season. That’s this year for Ryan, and since he was born in May and Manning in March, Ryan would actually win his first playoff game at a younger age than Manning if the Falcons defeat the Seahawks on Sunday. Bart Starr, Drew Brees, Kurt Warner, and Jim Kelly didn’t win their first playoff game until they were 28 years old; Roger Staubach was nearly 30, Steve Young 31, and Fran Tarkenton nearly 34 when they finally won their first playoff games. To be fair, those are not necessarily apples-to-apples comparisons as Ryan was a starter at an early age and plays in the wildcard era, but it’s worth getting some perspective on the issue.

Remember my Greatest Quarterback of All Time Series from this summer? I looked at the top 50 quarterbacks on that list, and noted their age when they won their first NFL or AFL playoff game.

1Peyton Manning27.8
2Dan Marino23.3
3Steve Young31.2
4Joe Montana25.6
5Tom Brady24.5
6Fran Tarkenton33.9
7Johnny Unitas25.6
8Dan Fouts29.6
9Brett Favre24.2
10Drew Brees28
11Norm Van Brocklin24.8
12Ken Anderson32.9
13Otto Graham29
14Sonny JurgensenN/A
15Roger Staubach29.9
16Sammy Baugh23.7
17Sid Luckman24
18Y.A. TittleN/A
19Len Dawson27.5
20Kurt Warner28.6
21Aaron Rodgers27.1
22Joe Namath25.6
23Philip Rivers26.1
24Daryle Lamonica26.5
25John HadlN/A
26John Elway26.5
27John Brodie35.4
28Jeff Garcia32.9
29Boomer Esiason27.7
30Tony Romo29.7
31Jim HartN/A
32Trent GreenN/A
33Warren Moon31.1
34Donovan McNabb24.1
35Roman GabrielN/A
36Bert JonesN/A
37Steve McNair26.9
38Bart Starr28
39Jim Kelly28.9
40Rich Gannon35
41Cecil Isbell24.4
42Troy Aikman26.1
43Bob Griese26.9
44Charlie Conerly35.3
45Bobby Layne26
46Ben Roethlisberger22.9
47Mark Brunell26.3
48Terry Bradshaw24.3
49Jim Everett27
50Matt Schaub31.5

While Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and Joe Montana saw early success, it’s far from unprecedented for a very good quarterback to have failed to win a playoff game by the age of 27. Ryan has been outstanding early in his career and positioned his team to fail in the playoffs, which is more than you can say for some of the names on this list. To be fair, many of those quarterbacks did not start as early in their careers as Ryan has, but in general, the whole “Ryan can’t win in the playoffs” seems like a pretty silly train of thought. Joe Flacco can win in the playoffs, but I don’t know what that means.

As a rookie, the Falcons rushing game and defense were bigger reasons for Atlanta’s loss in Arizona than Ryan. In 2010, Aaron Rodgers was 31/36 for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns, and quite simply, Green Bay was the better team that season. Last year’s loss to the Giants was embarrassing, but New York went on to win the Super Bowl and Atlanta’s running game was shut down while Eli Manning threw for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns. In my view, none of the playoff losses so far scream to me that Ryan can’t win in the playoffs; instead, he’s faced some really good teams with some really good quarterbacks who outplayed him that day. There’s no shame in that.

  1. This was the first game Ed Sabol filmed for the NFL, under the label Blair Motion Pictures. []
  • Tim Truemper

    While this does not address the Ryan playoff success issue, the article did bring up a note of distant NFL history. Not only did the NY Giants lose three straight NFL championships from 61-63, but they lost consecutive championships in 58 and 59. This means in a 6 season span they lost 5 championship games, going 0-5 (I guess we can say Philly in ’60 gave them a respite for one year).

  • Richie

    The other thing about Atlanta’s 3 losses with Matt Ryan as QB is they lost to two teams that went on to win the Super Bowl and one team that lost in the Super Bowl (Arizona). I think part of the problem is just bad luck in who they’ve had to play.

    And going back to discussions I’ve had about Marty Schottenheimer – sometimes comparing playoff records is apples and oranges when Joe Flacco is getting “credit” for winning playoff games in the wildcard round, but Matt Ryan has skipped the wildcard round in 2 of his 4 playoff appearances, because he led his team to a bye. Seems to me that earning a bye should be “worth” about as much as a win in the wildcard round.

    • Richie

      Of all QB’s who passed for 10,000+ yards in their first 5 seasons, here are the top-10 by ANY/A:

      Game Pass
      Rk Player Tm GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Sk ANY/A
      1 Dan Marino* MIA 69 1512 2494 60.6% 19422 168 80 94.1 67 7.27
      2 Kurt Warner RAM 49 1083 1623 66.7% 14082 101 64 98.2 108 7.25
      3 Tony Romo DAL 39 831 1307 63.6% 10562 81 46 94.7 65 7.06
      4 Philip Rivers SDG 48 890 1428 62.3% 10697 78 36 92.9 77 6.75
      5 Mark Rypien WAS 62 1078 1888 57.1% 14414 97 65 84.3 66 6.62
      6 Boomer Esiason CIN 62 1038 1830 56.7% 14825 98 65 86.2 119 6.60
      7 Matt Ryan ATL 77 1654 2637 62.7% 18957 127 60 90.9 113 6.57
      8 Jeff Garcia SFO 71 1449 2360 61.4% 16408 113 56 88.3 103 6.32
      9 Marc Bulger RAM 60 1357 2106 64.4% 16233 95 59 91.3 165 6.27
      10 Joe Montana* SFO 49 1045 1645 63.5% 11979 78 44 90.0 94 6.25

      Of course, Ryan gets the benefit of coming into the league during a great passing era.

    • Zach

      Well, generally speaking you’re going to face really good teams in the playoffs, especially when you have a first-round bye. I think it’s silly to label Ryan (and the Falcons) as chokers based on three games, but since when has the media narrative surrounding football been anything BUT silly?

  • Richie

    Thanks. I hate when that happens. I wish I could edit my posts (or at least preview before submitting).