Matty Ice executed his 17th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. (Curtis Compton/AP)

The Atlanta Falcons were 59 seconds away from falling from the ranks of the unbeatens on Sunday against Carolina. But Matt Ryan orchestrated a nearly-flawless final drive to help them pull out a 30-28 win, displaying the savvy of an MVP candidate and the poise that earned him the nickname “Matty Ice.”

Trailing by one point with no timeouts, Ryan and the offense took over from their own 1-yard line. They needed only one play to get close to field goal range – a 59-yard jump ball that Roddy White snatched out of Haruki Nakamura’s hands – and after a pass interference penalty on the Panthers, Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas for two more quick sideline completions to set up Matt Bryant’s 40-yard game-winning field goal.

“We made the plays when we needed to,” Ryan said after throwing for 369 yards and three touchdowns. “That’s what you need to do week to week in this league.”

The Falcons are now 4-0 with wins over the Chargers and Broncos, and Ryan is leading the charge with a league-leading 11 touchdowns and an NFL-best 112.1 quarterback rating. And as ESPN NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas notes, Sunday marked the 17th time Ryan has led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime.

In his first four NFL seasons, Ryan was more solid than spectacular, but as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley writes, the 27-year-old is now cracking the elite class of NFL quarterbacks.

If you have a choice, you don’t give a great quarterback a chance to beat you. And that’s what Ryan is becoming – a great quarterback. He has won unwinnable games before (meaning Chicago as a rookie), but in the fifth year of his NFL life he has become the guy who, as the glib coach Jimmy Johnson used to say, “can sink the 8-ball on the break.” How else to describe a quarterback who took his trailing team 77 yards in 49 seconds without needing to call time?

The numbers are one thing, but Ryan’s ability to consistently lead his team to wins in pressure-packed situations will determine whether he belongs in the Brady/Brees/Manning/Rodgers club and is a legitimate MVP candidate this season.

Atlanta’s last 4-0 start came with Michael Vick at quarterback in a season that saw them reach the NFC title game. For the Falcons to return to the conference championship, and for their quarterback to truly prove he has arrived, Ryan will need to do something he has yet to accomplish in three career attempts: win a playoff game.

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