NFL in London: Falcons struggle to escape recurring nightmare but Matt Ryan still holds key

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NFL in London: Falcons struggle to escape recurring nightmare but Matt Ryan still holds key
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London 2021 is a showcase for the next generation of quarterbacks. Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are a handful of games into their NFL careers. Tua Tagovailoa is in his second year. They all dream of reaching the Super Bowl.

Matt Ryan has been there and done that. Just four years ago. Yet it feels like he is the forgotten quarterback of the quartet visiting the capital. And as for that Super Bowl appearance, it is an understatement to say the experience was bitter-sweet.

Arthur Smith, appointed Atlanta head coach in January, put his trust in the 36-year-old. The Falcons had fourth pick in a draft that ran deep with quarterbacks. Justin Fields (Chicago Bears) and Mac Jones (New England Patriots) were available when the NFC South team made their selection. Instead they chose Kyle Pitts. No tight end had ever been drafted this high before. The 6ft 6in Pitts was brought in to give Ryan a target.

Pitts has plenty of potential but is raw. In his first four games he made 15 catches and failed to score a touchdown.

The 20-year-old will hope to open his scoring account in London this Sunday against the New York Jets. The Jets should be cannon fodder for Ryan and Pitts. They have young and inexperienced cornerbacks and injury problems at safety. New York are vulnerable to the deep pass. The long ball is not Ryan’s strength. Although he fired a 42-yard touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson in the 34-30 loss to the Washington Football Team on Sunday, he has made only four other passes of more than 20 yards in ­Atlanta’s 1-3 start. The Falcons’ best receivers have picked up knocks, exposing a lack of depth in that area.

Smith also needs to address deeper issues. Last season Atlanta limped to a 4-12 record with eight of those losses by seven points or less.

The lack of mental toughness was illustrated early last season. On successive Sundays the Falcons led by 15 and 16 points in the fourth quarter and contrived to lose. The collapses cost Dan Quinn, who led the team to the Super Bowl in 2017, his job.

Which brings things back to the Super Bowl. Ryan looked every inch the game’s Most Valuable Player as Atlanta sped to a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots. That was before the most remarkable meltdown in Super Bowl history. New England scored 31 unanswered points, taking the lead for the first time with a game-ending score in overtime. Every time Atlanta lose from a winning position, as they did against Washington, that day in Houston hangs over the team.

Although Ryan might not be a Hall of Fame quarterback no one should doubt his ability.

But if things are close in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Falcons fans should be very afraid.

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