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Pro Bowl voters overlook Matt Ryan despite his success

By Gene Cherry

SALVO, North Carolina (Reuters) - The popularity contest known as NFL Pro Bowl voting has not been kind to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

The highly successful player has Atlanta atop the NFC standings with an 11-2 record but is missing from the latest top 10 of All-Star candidates based on balloting by fans -- a list that features six quarterbacks led by former Atlanta player Michael Vick, now of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"As good as Atlanta is right now, Atlanta is not a household name in Montana or Oregon," NFL expert Gil Brandt told Reuters in explaining Ryan's absence. "They don't have the fan background like someone like the Mannings or Brady."

For Brandt, though, there is no more valuable player in the NFL this season than Ryan.

While others point to red-hot New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as the man for the honor, Brandt said last week he was sticking with Ryan, his preseason pick.

"The guy just doesn't make bad plays," said Brandt, vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys for 29 years who now shares his expertise as an NFL.com writer and Sirius radio analyst.

"He has got great composure. There is no question he is really bright and he is probably a better athlete than you think he is," Brandt said via telephone from Dallas. "He has got everything going that you need."

Everything, perhaps, but that national fan base and the glamour statistics of established NFL quarterbacks Brady, Peyton Manning (Colts), Drew Brees (Saints) and Philip Rivers (Chargers).

"Matty Ice," as some call the third-year quarterback, just wins, often on heart-throbbing, late-game rallies.

Six times this season the Falcons have done just that behind the 25-year-old.

ICY NERVES

The highlight may have been a 26-21 triumph over Baltimore secured by an 80-yard drive that took 45 of the 65 seconds remaining in the game.

"We never give up, said Ryan, whose 33-yard pass to Roddy White sealed the victory with 20 seconds to play. "And when you do that, you always have a chance."

The quiet quarterback with the icy nerves came to Atlanta at the perfect time for a rookie.

The Falcons were still stunned by the year-earlier departure of Vick, who was suspended by the NFL after pleading guilty to dog-fighting charges, and were looking to rebound under new coach Mike Smith.

They had won only four of 16 games in 2007, their first year without Vick.

Ryan, the Falcons' top draft choice in 2008, started all 16 games that season, guiding the Falcons to an 11-5 record and their first playoff spot in four years.

The team record dropped to 9-7 in 2009, but the Falcons have rumbled back this season, living up to Brandt's prediction that they would be the team to beat in the NFC.

"I saw all of these things (about Ryan) and I saw a team that had a running back and a receiver and a tight end, which is a good thing to draw to," said Brandt.

LEADERSHIP ROLE

Equally important, Ryan has become more comfortable in his leadership role.

"He's the face of this franchise," tight end Tony Gonzalez told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He's going to be one of the best quarterbacks in this league before it's all said and done."

Ryan has been perfect at home this season (6-0) and at 19-1 for three seasons shares the NFL record with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White for best winning percentage for the first 20 starts at home.

The unbeaten streak -- and Ryan's hopes for MVP -- will be severely tested when the Falcons play the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on December 27 in the Georgia Dome. (Atlanta won in overtime at New Orleans in September.)

"For him to realistically have the chance to be the MVP, they almost have to win out and end up with two losses, or at worst three," Brandt said.

He likes the Falcons' chances.

The Patriots, the other team with an 11-2 record and Super Bowl ambitions, may have a tougher road.

(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)