Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was not all sentimental about returning to the city where he played his high school football.
For the former Penn Charter High star from the Philadelphia suburb of Exton, this is the classic business trip.
As far as Ryan is concerned, the Falcons (11-6) are on a mission to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) in the divisional round of playoffs and advance to the NFC Championship game for the second consecutive season. The Falcons are favored to win the game that is set for 4:35 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I’m kind of used to it now, having played as long as I have. I understand that regardless of where we go, where we play, you have to be at your very best every week,” Ryan said. “The one nice part is I’ll see a lot of friendly faces, familiar faces after the game, which is always nice.”
Over his career, Ryan has posted a 1-3 record in return trips to Philadelphia, including last season’s 24-15 loss.
Ryan said he would be ready for the Eagles after missing practice Tuesday to attend to a family matter.
“I was able to get the game plan and get the information that I needed,” Ryan said. “I’ll be very well-prepared for the game.”
He quickly turned his focus to a stout Eagles defense.
“I think the one thing that is consistent is that they are very good in the front seven,” Ryan said. “The front four is very aggressive. (Eagles defensive coordinator) Jim Schwartz has always been that way. Great penetrating type defense. Their linebackers have great speed. I think they are playing very well in the secondary.”
Ryan is not short-changing the Eagles, who lost their starting quarterback Carson Wentz in a game against the Rams on Dec. 10. Nick Foles, who’s 22-17 as a NFL starter, will start for the Eagles.
“They’ve had a great season,” Ryan said. “They’ve played extremely well. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
Ryan noted that the Falcons and the Eagles have changed drastically since their last meeting, when the offense was held to a season-low 15 points and the defense was pillaged for 208 rushing yards.
“From the scheme, we will take from what went well and what didn’t go well in that game,” Ryan said. “We’ll try to improve on that. We’ve had like 25 games (actually 26) between now and then since we played them. We are a different team than we were at this juncture last year. They are a little bit different team as well.”
The Falcons ran the ball 39 times and attempted 30 passes against the Rams in the 26-13 wild-card win last week. He expects more of the same from offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian against the Eagles.
He contends that their bond and relationship has grown stronger late in the season.
“I think it’s continued to get better,” Ryan said. “The more time that you spend with each other, the more time you go through games and situations come up, you really get a feel for people in live game action. I think we know each other a lot better. I think he’s done a great job of learning who we are, what we have and how to utilize it.”
Ryan tossed 20 touchdown passes during the regular season, which was down from his MVP level of 38 last season. It was his lowest total since his rookie season (16) in 2008.
“Each year is different, even though you had a lot of guys back, years shake out differently,” Ryan said. “Sark has done a great job of finding who we are week to week, specifically the last two weeks, he’s done a great job.”
Sarkisian knows the Falcons have a major challenge on offense.
“The Eagles’ defense is really well-coached,” Sarkisian said. “Jim Schwartz has been doing it a long time. They have a really sound and elaborate scheme. They are real aggressive. Everything for them starts up front. Their front is as good as it gets in our league.”
Sarkisian was fine with the 39-30 run-to-pass split against the Rams.
“For us every week it starts with the run game because so much of what we do comes off the run game,” Sarkisian said. “We have to continue to find ways to be creative, but stick to our identity.”
Ryan carried the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie and in three of his first four years in the league. However, the Falcons were 0-3 while the young Ryan was trying to do battle against Arizona’s Kurt Warner, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New York’s Eli Manning.
In those three losses, Ryan threw just three touchdowns and had four interceptions.
Ryan finally had some success in 2012 and reached the NFC title game before making it through to the Super Bowl last season. Since the bumpy start, Ryan is 4-2 in the playoffs with 16 touchdowns passes, three interceptions and a passer rating of 119.1.
After the win over the Rams, Ryan has a 102.4 postseason passer rating in his career.
The only two qualifying players with a higher rating are Pro Bowl Hall of Famers Bart Starr (104.8) and Warner (102.8).
The Falcons will be counting on Ryan to help lead them past the Eagles.