Bucky Brooks
Tuesday November 11th, 2008

Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco will forever be bound as the only quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but their stellar play as rookies will also be noted in the history books. They have led their respective franchises to six wins apiece in their first nine starts and are proving to be the franchise cornerstones league observers envisioned when they were selected in April.

Ryan, the third overall pick, has been instrumental in the Falcons' surprising 6-3 start. The unflappable rookie has compiled an impressive 89.9 passer rating while completing 59.6 percent of his passes for 1,909 yards with 11 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Those numbers rival Pro Bowlers Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger and Jeff Garcia in several categories. Though his statistical success has been impressive, it doesn't compare to the leadership and poise the rookie has displayed since his arrival.

"He is mature beyond his years," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith earlier in the season.

Ryan's maturity and tireless work ethic has drawn comparisons to a young Peyton Manning. But it has been his cool demeanor under pressure that has earned him respect throughout the league. Many witnessed Ryan's signature moment against the Bears as he snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat. With his team down a point with only 11 seconds to play, Ryan fired a 26-yard pass to Mike Jenkins on the sideline with only a second remaining. After Jason Elam successfully booted a 48-yard field goal to clinch the victory, the legend of Matt Ryan was born. With a string of impressive showings in the team's last five games -- including four victories -- Ryan has continued to raise his profile.

While Flacco's start hasn't garnered the same kind of national attention, the rookie has also keyed a surprising franchise turnaround. The Ravens have reeled off four consecutive victories to sit atop the AFC North, and the solid play of Flacco has been instrumental in the surge.

After getting off to a shaky start to his career (Flacco completed 62 percent of his passes with only one touchdown and seven interceptions during his first five starts), he has settled in and started playing like a playmaker instead of game manager in recent weeks. Completing around 61 percent of his passes, Flacco has thrown six touchdowns without an interception in the past four games. By avoiding the big turnover, he has allowed his team to win on the strength of its dominating defense and powerful ground attack.

"The thing about Joe we've said from the very beginning, he may make a mistake and he'll make plenty of mistakes throughout his career, but he's not the kind of guy that doesn't learn from them," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told the Carroll County Times.

Though Flacco's avoidance of the big mistake has been critical, his ability to throw the ball down the field has made the Ravens offense more explosive. In the past four games, Flacco has completed 12 passes over 20 yards and four of his touchdowns have been for 28 yards or more. With the long ball in play, the Ravens' scoring offense has surged from 28th to 12th in a four-week span. Thus, Flacco deserves an enormous amount of credit for the Ravens' recent winning streak.

Ryan and Flacco have already made league history by being the first pair of rookie quarterbacks to open the season as starters since 1971 (Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning), but the duo's outstanding performance will have them vying for the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year Award at season's end.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (Ranking last week: 2)

2. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (1): He's the AFC's second leading rusher (723 yards), and though he was held to eight yards last week against the Bears, he's still one of the biggest reasons the Titans are unbeaten.

3. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (3): With quarterback Kyle Orton out of the lineup nursing an ankle injury, Forte responded well to the challenge of shouldering more of the workload. His 126 yards from scrimmage kept the team afloat and showcased the versatility Forte has added to the Bears' lineup.

4. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (NR)

5. Eddie Royal, WR, Broncos (NR): The Broncos' speedster leads all rookies in receptions (52) and receiving touchdowns (four).

1. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (Last week's ranking: 2): The former league MVP continues to post big numbers while directing the Cardinals' offensive juggernaut. Warner surpassed the 300-yard mark for the third consecutive game (fifth time this season) and is the league-leader in passer rating (106.4).

2. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (1): The league's second-leading rusher has carried the 'Skins' offense during the first half of the season. With the division title still up for grabs, the team will need him to continue his torrid pace.

3. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (3): He's enjoying the best season of his career while leading the team to a sizzling 8-1 start. Manning has compiled a career-best 88.8 passer rating, with 14 passing touchdowns.

4. Kerry Collins, QB, Titans (NR): The inclusion of the 14-year veteran on this list will be surprising to some, but his effectiveness as a passer has given the Titans offense an added dimension. Collins' 289-yard passing day against the Bears served notice that the Titans can move the ball through the air.

5. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (NR): The second-year back has rushed for over 100 yards in six games this season. His 192-yard output against the Packers was his season's best, and the league's third-highest single game rushing performance of the year. With the Vikings overcoming a 1-3 start to return to playoff contention, Peterson deserves credit for leading the impressive resurgence.

1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (1): If not for the Saints' losing record, Brees would be the frontrunner for the MVP trophy. With a 422-yard passing day against the Falcons, Brees has topped the 300-yard passing mark seven times in nine games. He is on pace to surpass Dan Marino's single-season passing record of 5,084 yards.

2. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (3)

3. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (4): The Chargers' star has thrown for over 300 yards in three of his last four starts. Rivers' two touchdown passes against the Chiefs pushed his league-leading total to 21.

4. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2)

5. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (5)

1. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (1): The monstrous Pro Bowl defender is the game's most dominant force at the line of scrimmage. Haynesworth not only eliminates the inside running game, but also creates a push up the middle that allows defensive ends to feast on quarterbacks off the edge.

2. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (2): The relentless edge rusher turned in an outstanding performance against the Colts. Although his 11-tackle, one-sack effort didn't lead to a win, Harrison's constant harassment helped keep the Colts' offense under wraps for most of the day.

3. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (3): The three-time Pro Bowl linebacker continues to reclaim his status as one of the league's top pass rushers. Porter leads the league in sacks (12), and is the difference maker on a defense that is peaking at the right time.

4. John Abraham, DE, Falcons (NR): The "one-man pass rush" is terrorizing opponents off the edge. Despite playing in only half of the Falcons' defensive plays, Abraham leads the NFC in sacks (11) and is the co-leader in forced fumbles (three).

5. Charles Woodson, CB, Packers (NR): The four-time Pro Bowl corner is reprising his role as the game's best lock-down defender. Not only is Woodson shutting down the opponent's top receiver, but also he's picking off passes at an alarming rate. He's the NFL's co-leader with five.

1. Jeff Fisher, Titans (1): The decision to insert Kerry Collins into the starting lineup has been Fisher's best move this season. The 14-year veteran quarterback has given the offense the balance it needs to make a run at the Super Bowl title.

2. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2): The no-nonsense coach has built this blue-collar squad into the league's best. Without a glaring weakness on either side of the ball, the Giants may be on their way to back-to-back titles.

3. John Harbaugh, Ravens (3): The Ravens are quietly becoming a title contender behind their punishing defense and smash-mouth running game. If Joe Flacco can continue to avoid the mistakes, the Ravens will be hard to beat down the stretch.

4. Mike Smith, Falcons (4): The humble coach has the Georgia Dome rocking again. The Falcons' surprising win over the Saints has the team in contention for the NFC South crown.

5. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (NR): The rookie coach deserves kudos for transforming the Dolphins into legitimate postseason contenders in his first season.

1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (1): The Patriots' young tackling machine keeps chugging. His 65 stops lead all rookies, and are part of the reason the team's defense has performed better of late.

2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): The unheralded stalwart has been surprisingly consistent in the middle of the Falcons' D. His stellar play has allowed Keith Brooking and Michael Boley to roam freely on the perimeter.

3. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (3): The 'Skins' seventh-round pick has been a pleasant surprise this season. His versatility and playmaking has been a welcome addition to the team's stingy defense.

4. Chris Long, DE, Rams (4): The energetic rookie has come on in recent weeks. Although the Rams' D has been awful this season, Long has flashed some of the talent that made him a highly coveted prospect.

5. Dwight Lowery, CB, Jets (5): The former San Jose State star is developing into a solid complementary corner. Although he hasn't recorded an interception, Lowery's cover skills have been superb for a rookie starter.

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