Immediately following their loss in the NFC Championship that year, the Falcons fell off, posting back-to-back sub-.500 seasons. After an 8-8 record last year, this season has been a renaissance for Ryan. With an 11-5 record, the Falcons won the NFC South and finished with their conference's second-best record, behind only the Dallas Cowboys.
But it's been more than that for Ryan. In the midst of his best year as a pro, the former Boston College Eagle is one of the front-runners for the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award. He finished the season 56 yards short of 5,000, throwing 38 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
His QB rating of 117.1 dominated the rest of the league (and ranking fifth in NFL record books), with only Tom Brady finishing within ten points at 112.2. He had the third-best completion percentage among regular starters while averaging over 300 yards per game and he heads into the postseason in perhaps the best situation of his entire career.
For many fans, the Falcons are a pleasant surprise this season, a team finding their groove after spending a few seasons in a wandering search for the right factors. For Boston College fans, however, it's just Matty Ice doing what they've always known Matty Ice to do.
"Matt's had a phenomenal season and I hope that he can have a lot of great success in the postseason as well," senior associate athletics director Barry Gallup said. "It was really special to have seen him at Boston College for a long time. He just had that characteristic that the great competitors all have."
In his 37th season as a member of the football program, Gallup's seen the best of the best come through the program. He's watched some of the ups and downs and can relate with great clarity about how Ryan got his start in coming to Boston College.
Ryan's uncle, John Loughery, played at BC from 1979-1982 and is best remembered for being the starting quarterback of the Eagles before Doug Flutie. Entering the 1981 season as the primary signal caller, he was injured, resulting in the entrance of the future Heisman Trophy winner. Loughery was brought to Boston College by Gallup, a move that would later intertwine Ryan into the story.
"When I first saw Matt as a sophomore (in high school), he was this big, lean kid," Gallup said. "John brought him up to BC to participate in our summer camps and I just remember meeting this kid who was a three-sport captain and had that quality. We knew he was going to be good. Tom O'Brien had done a great job recruiting that quarterback type and had already coached players like Tim Hasselbeck, Scott Mutryn and Brian St. Pierre."
The rest is the well-known part of the story. After redshirting in 2003, Ryan made his first start for Boston College in the infamous 2004 game against Syracuse with the Fiesta Bowl on the line, then became the full-time starter for the Eagles the next season. He threw for almost 3,000 yards in his junior season, ultimately returning for his senior year after weighing options to go pro early.
In 2007, he threw for 4,500 yards and 31 touchdowns, inserting his name into the Heisman Trophy race as the Eagles rocketed up the national polls. Taking BC to the No. 2 ranking, the Eagles finished the season with a bowl victory over Michigan State and a top-10 ranking. After the season, he became the highest-drafted Eagle in the 2008 NFL Draft, selected third overall to stabilize a Falcon franchise still reeling from Michael Vick's dogfighting scandal.
"When he made the decision to come back for his fifth year, he went from being a very good college quarterback to being a first-round pick," Gallup said. "The bigger the game, the more of a competitor he was and he was able to elevate his performance. In 2006 and 2007, he had huge wins over Clemson, with one in overtime and then another to win the Atlantic Division. In 2007, he led four huge wins on the road - at Georgia Tech, at Notre Dame, at Virginia Tech in the game everyone knows about, and at Clemson.
"Those were great memories with Matt, and he was always a special person in addition to player," he continued. "His class, including his redshirt year, went to five bowls with five victories. But I'll never forget when we returned from Virginia Tech after that huge win, with the students and the band waiting for us to get back, he spent time with the fans. It was always big for him to acknowledge the fans and take a lot of pride in them. So we look at what he's doing now and it's a great BC story."
It's a great Boston College story that reflects perfectly on the test of time and will be on display on Saturday in Atlanta. Ryan, whose wife Sarah was an Eagle herself on the women's basketball team, will look to take the next step in an MVP-caliber season by defeating one of the game's preeminent franchises. For a player who took the Eagles to that proverbial "next level," it's a chance to do it again, this time on sport's grandest stage.
"People always compare Matt to Doug (Flutie), but the eras are totally different," Gallup said. "When Doug played, there was no Internet and there weren't that many teams on TV and we were on television all the time. When Matt played, Tom O'Brien had done a great job but all of a sudden we were a top-10 team on the front page of the newspapers and media in Boston.
"When you look at all that Matt's accomplished - from taking us every week in the rankings to No. 2 to being on stage with his parents at the NFL Draft, winning our school's first ACC Player of the Year Award, having his jersey retired, being the highest-drafted player, setting NFL records - he took us and now has gone on himself to new levels. Being in the MVP conversation continues his legacy, and, like Doug and players like Luke Kuechly, it continues a legacy of great Boston College stories."
The Falcons host the Seahawks on Saturday afternoon at 4:35 p.m. on Fox.