Ryan's first playoff start marred by uncharacteristic mistakes

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Atlanta's Matt Ryan opened the regular season by throwing for a touchdown on his first pass.

He opened the playoffs with an interception.

For the first time this season, Ryan looked like a rookie. And it came at the worst possible time for the Falcons in a 30-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.

"I don't think it was nerves or anything like that," Ryan said. "It was just a poor throw, a poor decision. The guy (Ralph Brown) made a good play. In games like this, hopefully we're in them in the future, you can't make those kind of mistakes."

It was the first of two interceptions for Ryan, who completed 26 of 40 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He also was charged with a fumble on a botched handoff that the Cardinals returned for a momentum-swinging touchdown.

"I thought Matt would like to have some throws back," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "But this is a new experience for him. This is a new experience for our entire football team."

Ryan, Atlanta's first-round pick last spring, had a superb debut season. He joined Baltimore's Joe Flacco as the only rookie quarterbacks since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start all 16 games and lead their teams to the playoffs.

But Ryan didn't have the same command against the Cardinals, especially on his first pass. Trying to find receiver Roddy White, Ryan threw the ball right to Brown. Four plays later, Arizona took a 7-0 lead on a 42-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald from Kurt Warner, a veteran who outplayed Ryan.

"You can't do that, especially in games like this," said Ryan, who threw another interception in the third quarter.

Ryan wasn't the only Atlanta player who had a long day in the desert.

The Falcons were flagged six times for 52 yards and gave up a safety on a sack. Their defense also conceded 71- and 42-yard touchdown passes. And their powerful running game sputtered, producing a season-low 60 yards on 24 carries.

After Ryan's opening interception, the Falcons recovered and rallied for a 17-14 halftime lead, surging ahead on a 2-yard pass from Ryan to tight end Justin Peelle with 23 seconds to go in the second quarter.

Leading by a field goal and with the ball to start the second half, the Falcons seemed poised to take control with their running attack.

Instead, the Falcons melted in the glare of their first postseason appearance since 2004 -- and it started with a seemingly routine running play.

On the second snap of the third quarter, Ryan and running back Michael Turner muffed a handoff. Arizona tackle Darnell Dockett appeared to jar the ball loose, and safety Antrel Rolle plucked it out of the air and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown to put the Falcons in a 21-17 hole.

Several Falcons said they thought Dockett might have been offside.

"I'm not going to say he was early, but I think he was early," Atlanta guard Harvey Dahl said. "It just makes it tough. He made a great play. It wasn't a penalty because they didn't call it."

Ryan was charged with a fumble on the poor exchange.

"That was a big, big play in the football game," Smith said.

The Falcons never recovered. They fell behind 30-17 before Ryan capped a nine-play, 58-yard march with a 5-yard touchdown pass to White with 4:15 to go.

Arizona ran out the clock and Ryan and his offense never had a chance for a last-minute miracle.

"It's tough to win when you're minus on the turnover ratio," Smith said. "The three turnovers, I thought, were very, very big."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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