ATLANTA -- If it's true that third down is "the money down," as several Atlanta Falcons veterans emphasized after Sunday's hard-earned 28-20 victory over the archrival Carolina Panthers, then second-year quarterback Matt Ryan must be worth a million bucks.
The NFL's reigning offensive rookie of the year completed 21 of 27 passes, including 13 straight at one point, for 220 yards and three touchdowns, with only one interception, as the Falcons moved to 2-0 for the first time since 2006 and only the seventh time in franchise history. But just as important as his 122.2 passer rating for the game was Ryan's sterling 98.7 passer rating on third down.
"He was uncanny, wasn't he?" assessed tight end Tony Gonzalez, the 10-time Pro Bowl performer who has quickly forged an intuitive relationship with Ryan. "We want to score every time we have the ball, to keep the ball moving up the field … and he certainly does that for us."
Ryan completed 8 of 10 third-down passes for 87 yards. The only real blemish was an ill-thrown first-quarter attempt over the middle, intended for Marty Booker. The pickoff, by Carolina cornerback Richard Marshall, stopped a promising drive for the Falcons, but it didn't affect Ryan's confidence.
The ability to extend drives with big plays provided an emotional lift for an Atlanta offense that punted only twice on its nine possessions, and left the Carolina defense in the doldrums, and usually in trouble.
"We had our chances to knock them off the field, and it seemed like every time, [Ryan] had the right solution," lamented Panthers free safety Charles Godfrey. "It got really frustrating at times. You'd think you had them, then bam, he'd come up with the big play."
That was especially true on a 14-play, 80-yard drive in the second quarter, a possession that ended with Ryan's 10-yard touchdown pass to backup tailback Jason Snelling. On the drive, Ryan converted four straight third-down situations, all with completions, good for 54 yards. Memorable were 27- and 15-yard completions to 11-year veteran Booker, who was signed off the street by general manager Thomas Dimitroff in the third week of training camp after slot receiver Harry Douglas suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Said Falcons coach Mike Smith, understating the obvious: "Matt threw the ball very well, and he distributed it very well, too."
Indeed, while Gonzalez seems to have become Ryan's most comfortable option on third down, he didn't play any favorites Sunday. Gonzalez, Booker and Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White (6 catches for 53 yards), each had two third-down grabs.
"Different weeks, different guys are going to be open and get the ball," Ryan said.
That was certainly true Sunday, with Ryan completing passes to seven different receivers, including three or more hookups with four players.
"He's definitely way ahead of the curve," conceded Gonzalez, who has scored twice in the first two games, including a 24-yarder in the first quarter in which he eluded Carolina weakside linebacker Thomas Davis and both Panthers safeties to break free over the middle. "And he's got a lot of weapons."
The increasing use of Booker in the slot might represent another one.
Although his NFL résumé includes four seasons with 50-plus catches (including 100 receptions in 2001 and 97 in '02), Booker was a relatively forgotten free agent this summer. The phone wasn't ringing, and his job prospects were looking pretty bleak -- until Douglas went down for the year.
Not as quick out of the slot as Douglas, a second-year player, the 33-year-old Booker knows how to play the game, and how to rely on his guile and route-running precision to get open.
"He hurt us a lot with those two [third-down] catches," said Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble. "They were huge plays."
Just about every third-down play was a big one for both teams, and the failure to get the Falcons off the field in a timely fashion weighed heavily in a Carolina locker room where the players faced an unusual 0-2 start. But the Atlanta offensive line seemed to protect well on the key downs (Ryan was not sacked in the game), and the Atlanta quarterback had considerable time to go through his progressions. And on virtually every one of the third-down conversions, someone shook open with plenty of cushion.
"We like to think that third down is our down," White said. "We pride ourselves on being able to convert those things. We ranked pretty high on third-down conversion rate last season [sixth in the league, at 43.4 percent], and our goal is to do it again. If we can stay at about 50 percent, it should be enough to put us among the league leaders.
"And if we do that, we're going to be tough to beat."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.