One of the topics of conversation that dominated the week in the lead-up to Super Bowl LI Sunday night at NRG Stadium - other than what halftime histrionics Lady Gaga had planned for the intermission - was legacy.

Tom Brady's legacy.

The Patriots quarterback was trying to set an NFL record with his fifth Super Bowl title and cement himself as the greatest of all time, not only at his position but pretty much any position.

But for three quarters, it looked like it was Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, not Brady, that was going to send his reputation into a different stratosphere.


Ryan, who helped build a stunning 28-3 lead over the Patriots, appeared poised to deliver the city of Atlanta its first Super Bowl championship in the franchise's 51-year history.
Brady's legacy was going to be secure, even with a loss.

Ryan was coming off a career-best regular season that included 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he needed this win a lot more than Brady did as far as his legacy was concerned.

On Saturday night, Ryan had beaten out Brady for the league MVP honours. One night later, though, a furious, record-shattering comeback engineered by Brady that ended in a frenetic, scintillating 34-28 overtime New England victory left Ryan crushed and his legacy standing in place.

"That's a tough loss," Ryan said. "Obviously, very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done. It's hard to find words tonight."

Ryan had been brilliant, completing 17-of-23 for 284 yards, two touchdowns and a 144.1 passer rating. Through three quarters, he was 13-of-16 for 202 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

Ryan leading Atlanta to a Super Bowl title would have changed everything for him. A win Sunday night would have put him on the fast track to the Hall of Fame.

Before Saturday, only one quarterback in NFL history had won a league MVP and a Super Bowl and was not in the Hall of Fame. That man was Kurt Warner, who was voted into the Hall on Saturday.

So, well, you can do the math. Now that math means nothing.

It means nothing because Ryan and the Falcons failed to finish when they had the chance to bury the Patriots late in the fourth quarter, when Ryan and the Falcons took possession of the ball with 5:53 remaining in regulation clinging to a 28-20 lead.

Ryan hit Devonta Freeman for a 39-yard catch-and-run on the first play of the series.

Then he made what looked like it might be the pass of his life - a 27-yard on-the-run strike to Julio Jones on the right sideline for a first down at the New England 22.

An Atlanta field goal and the game is over, too far out of reach for even Brady.

But Ryan took a killer sack for a 12-yard loss to the New England 35.

"I could have done a better job trying to get rid of the ball," Ryan said.

Then Jake Matthews, the Falcons' top-flight left tackle, was called for a holding penalty on the next play.

"As a lineman on offense, we put that on ourselves," Matthews said. "We have to extend our lead and win it, and it didn't work out that way. It sucks."

After the sack and holding penalty, the Falcons were out of field-goal range, and as it turned out, they were out of gas, too. They were forced to punt, and you know the rest.

Ryan, for the balance of his nine years in the NFL, had been a lot more "Matty Nice" than "Matty Ice," the nickname he acquired at Boston College for the remarkable 25 fourth-quarter comebacks he engineered there. To some degree, Ryan perpetuated that nickname with his 33 game-winning drives with the Falcons.

But just as the world's best golfers are judged by how many major championships they win, quarterbacks are measured by their postseason success, specifically how many Super Bowls they win.

Ryan began this postseason with a 1-4 playoff record. He was poised to go 3-0 this postseason while leaving three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks - Seattle's Russell Wilson (in the NFC divisional playoff), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (in the NFC Championship) and Brady - in his wake.

Until Brady changed everything and left Ryan to start all over again next season.

So Ryan's legacy remains on hold until further notice (read: a Super Bowl victory).

And Brady's legacy, the thing we all were talking about all week, is set in granite.