Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks for a receiver in the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
FLOWERY BRANCH -- Mike Smith calls Matt Ryan a "tough Irishman."
The Falcons coach says that toughness helps make his quarterback a fourth-quarter winner.
Ryan was pounded by Philadelphia's pass rush for three quarters, but he was at his best at the end. He led two touchdown drives in a near-perfect final quarter to rally the Falcons to a crucial 35-31 victory over the Eagles on Sunday night.
"He's a tough Irishman," Smith said. "I've said that before. He gets hit and he takes that hit and he keeps going. He is a guy that will never give up. When you have a guy like that leading your football team, it's going to pay dividends in the long run."
Ryan was sacked four times -- all in the first three quarters -- struggling after one to rise from his knees. He was also hit six times, usually landing hard on the turf.
Despite the beating, the fourth quarter belonged to Ryan.
His No. 2 jersey commanded the respect of a Georgia Dome sellout crowd packed with Michael Vick's No. 7 -- in Falcons' red and Eagles' green. Ryan completed 8 of 10 passes with a touchdown to rally the Falcons from a 31-21 deficit.
Vick, the former Falcons star, left with a third-quarter concussion, spitting blood on his way off the field.
Ryan won the battle of endurance before winning the game.
A victory the Falcons needed. They were coming off a 13-3 season that ended with a disappointing home playoff loss to Green Bay and opened with an ugly loss at Chicago following a winless preseason.
Another setback would have left an opening for doubts to enter the Falcons' locker room before this week's game at Tampa Bay.
Ryan, in his fourth season, has led 14 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. Smith said this may have been Ryan's top showing with the game on the line.
"Matt was at his best in the fourth quarter," Smith said. "It would be hard to think of him in those two drives playing any better since we've been here."
Ryan passed for 76 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter while leading two touchdown drives. He had a 1-yard scoring pass to Ovie Mughelli to cap a 12-play drive that covered 80 yards and then led another 80-play drive which ended with Michael Turner scoring from the 3 with less than 5 minutes remaining.
"That is probably as well as I've seen Matt play in those circumstances," Smith said.
Overall, Ryan completed 17 of 28 passes for 195 yards with a career-high four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Smith said the fourth-quarter win also showed him more about his team.
"This is a team that doesn't blink," he said. "This is a team that stays focused, knows what the task is, and to the best of their abilities goes out and tries to perform."
The sacks are a growing concern, however. Ryan was sacked five times and hit 11 more times in the 30-12 loss at Chicago.
Ryan already is almost halfway to his career-high total of being sacked 23 times last season.
It's a pace the Falcons can't afford to see continue.
"We have got to protect the quarterback," Smith said. "We've got to make sure schematically that we put our guys in the best situations and we've got to win our one-on-one matchups. We've played two very good defensive fronts in the first two games and we have not fared the way that we wanted to in the sacks given up.
"This is a group that over the last three years has been one of the top teams in protecting our quarterback, and we've got to get back to playing with some continuity and some confidence in protecting our quarterback."
The Falcons' offensive line has played without injured center Todd McClure and is adjusting to the loss of guard Harvey Dahl, who signed with St. Louis as a free agent.
Ryan defended his line, which included second-year center Joe Hawley. Garrett Reynolds has replaced Dahl at guard.
Ryan said the unit played especially well in the fourth quarter.
"I thought our guys stepped up and did a great job," Ryan said. "They kept battling and on those last two drives they provided some really good protection. We were able to make some throws down the field."
The Falcons ran a no-huddle offense in the final quarter, limiting the ability of the Eagles' defense to have time for substitutions and adjustments.
It didn't take long for Ryan to look ahead to this week's game at Tampa Bay.
"I think anytime you get the first win of the year, it feels really good," Ryan said. "But we've got a long way to go. One of the things I say every week is that you can't get too high and you can't get too low. We've got a good Tampa Bay team that we're going to be going against down there. ... We need to move on."
NOTES: The Falcons are sticking with rookie punter Matt Bosher, at least for now. Bosher averaged only 35.6 yards on seven punts, including an 18-yarder out of the end zone. "We know that when you have a young player, especially one of the specialists, they're going to have some rookie moments and I think he had some of those yesterday," Smith said, adding Bosher "has good resolve" and will improve.