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Matt Ryan finally leads Falcons back to playoffs
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) calls out from behind center during the first quarter of a Dec. 11 game against the Los Angeles Rams in Los Angeles. - photo by Associated Press

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Matt Ryan is back in the playoffs after a four-year wait.

The Atlanta Falcons' four-time Pro Bowl quarterback never thought it would take that long after signing a six-year, $103.75 million contract in July 2013.

But as he enters the last week of the regular season, Ryan has cast aside his 18-30 record over the last three years to lead the Falcons to an NFC South title. A win Sunday over New Orleans will give them a No. 2 playoff seed and a bye in the first round.

Leading the league's top-scoring offense, Ryan is a strong contender for his first MVP award, but the nine-year veteran, a master at stating the obvious throughout his career, isn't about to look too far ahead.

There's too much at stake. The Saints are eliminated from playoff contention, but Ryan won't take anything for granted. He's 6-10 in the series and remembers how Drew Brees and Co. won the regular-season finale last year at the Georgia Dome, sending Atlanta to an 8-8 finish.

"I've got enough on my plate getting ready for the Saints to worry about all the other stuff that can go on as well," Ryan said Wednesday. "To me it's about getting in here to your normal routine and doing your preparation as best you can. That's kind of my message to everybody."

Aside from a pair of interceptions that cost the Falcons a win over Kansas City four weeks ago, Ryan has played brilliantly in the last two months.

He's now averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, best in the NFL since St. Louis' Kurt Warner averaged 9.9 in 2000. Ryan's 115 passer rating is 12 points higher than Brees, who ranks second, and he's the first NFL quarterback in a single season to throw touchdown passes to 13 different receivers.

Ryan said the numbers don't mean much. His concern is making the right checks at the line of scrimmage, getting everyone in the right place and into the right protection before the snap. He grades himself hard.

"Am I going to the right spot with the right throws? That's decision-making and accuracy," he said. "For me, I always try to look at each play and see if I'm doing that. I think the other stuff kind of takes care of itself. Your other numbers fall into place when you're doing those things."

Ryan's first season under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was tough. The Falcons were often out of sync unless he and All-Pro receiver Julio Jones were in perfect rhythm. This year is different as new center Alex Mack has stabilized the offensive line and the running game is consistently as potent as the passing attack.

Improved mobility has helped a lot. Never considered a great runner, Ryan has played within his skill set to make plenty of plays outside the pocket.

"It's something we did earlier in my career and then we didn't do it for a little while, but that's come back into it," Ryan said. "It's something that I've worked hard on the last two years to try to improve on. It's been effective for us."

Running back Tevin Coleman estimates he averages about five snaps a game lined up outside the backfield. Because he and Pro Bowl selection Devonta Freeman have been so effective as receivers, opponents often struggle with matchups if both running backs are in the game and Ryan is using play-action.

"We do so many things," Coleman said. "That does give a defense a key, but they're like, 'Oh, snap, they got something up their sleeve.' Kyle's doing a good job of lining us up to get the ball to us and Matt always gets the job done. It's his team. That's what we expect."