Thursday November 11th, 2010

Welcome to Quarterback Week in the NFL, as if every week in Roger Goodell's league isn't QB-centric in some form or fashion.

But Week 10 is particularly heavy with storylines revolving around the passing set, and it starts with Thursday night's Baltimore at Atlanta showdown, where Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan will share the field for the first time in the regular season since they were the top prizes in the opening round of the 2008 draft.

PETER KING: How Matt Ryan was nearly a Raven

But the Flacco-Ryan duel is just the appetizer. Before the NFL weekend is out, we'll be treated to games featuring 14 quarterbacks drafted in the first round, with multiple-Super Bowl winners and Heisman Trophy winners squaring off against each other, and three different games pitting young, promising quarterbacks who were high draft picks in the past three years.

This week has it all on the quarterback front:

• A second Michael Vick-Donovan McNabb face-off of former teammates in Washington, after last month's first meeting in Philadelphia ended almost before it began. (Or will it be Kevin Kolb vs. Rex Grossman?)

• A battle of Super Bowl heroes Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, where No. 12 and No. 7 will meet and discuss how they combined to win five rings in the eight-year span of 2001-2008.

• Our first chance to watch ex-Heisman winners Sam Bradford (2008, Oklahoma) and Troy Smith (2006, Ohio State) square off in renewal of the once-fierce Rams-49ers rivalry in San Francisco.

• The Bus Cook Bowl in Chicago. There may be more, but Brett Favre and Jay Cutler definitely share a well-known agent, a pair of very strong right arms that have been known to throw interceptions, and the fact they both made high-profile moves into the NFC North in 2009. And if that's not enough for you, there's always the traditional Vikings-Bears divisional rivalry to fall back on.

• The re-emergence of Chad Pennington in Miami, where the new/old Dolphins starter will play against Vince Young and a Titans team that will be debuting another former Marshall University star, an ex-collegiate teammate of Pennington's named Randy Moss.

• A glamour matchup of former No. 1 overall picks Carson Palmer (2003) and Peyton Manning (1998) in Indianapolis. Palmer won the Heisman at USC in 2002, and we still don't know how Manning failed to beat out Charles Woodson for the college game's top piece of hardware in 1997.

• And lastly, after the Flacco-Ryan top draw, two more first meetings of young guns who were headline names in the 2009 and 2010 drafts. The Jets' Mark Sanchez (first round, 2009) gets to play the grizzled vet when he takes on rookie Colt McCoy (third round, 2010) and the improved Browns in Cleveland. The story is roughly the same when second-year Bucs starter, Josh Freeman (first round, 2009), squares off against rookie Jimmy Clausen (second round, 2010) and the struggling Panthers in Tampa.

But first things first. The Flacco-Ryan matchup tonight at the Georgia Dome is a superb kickoff to Quarterback Week. Though both passers are only mid-way through their third NFL seasons, it feels like we've been watching them play forever.

Maybe that's because Flacco and Ryan both started since day one of their rookie years, when they led the NFL's two best turnaround teams of 2008 into the playoffs. The 2007 Falcons (4-12) and Ravens (5-11) both self-destructed with double-digit loss seasons, and then followed those disasters up by hiring rookie head coaches (Mike Smith and John Harbaugh) and drafting franchise quarterbacks in the first round.

The results of the Flacco and Ryan eras have been dramatic. In Baltimore, the Ravens have made two consecutive playoff trips as a wild-card entry, becoming just one of two teams in the league to win road playoff games in each season. In Atlanta, the Falcons didn't make back-to-back playoff trips, but they did manage to post consecutive winning seasons for the first time in the franchise's 44-year existence -- ending the longest such streak in league history. And now both teams are in first place at midseason 2010 and on track to return to the playoffs.

Flacco and Ryan, of course, will be forever linked by when they entered the league. But this Ravens-Falcons game features third-year quarterbacks who have strangely become almost mirror images of one another, with far more in common than just their draft class. Even the teams they lead, while playing in opposite conferences, have fallen in line with the symmetry. The similarities of their careers and their respective franchises are almost eerie. For instance:

-- Since drafting Ryan third overall in '08, the Falcons have finished 11-5, 9-7 and are currently 6-2 and in first place in their division. Since drafting Flacco 18th overall in '08, the Ravens have finished 11-5, 9-7 and are currently 6-2 and in first place in their division. That's a 26-14 record (.650) for both franchises in the past 2½ regular seasons.

-- Flacco hasn't missed a start and is 26-14 in the regular season. Ryan is 26-12 (.684) as a starter, having sat out two games due to injury last season. But while Ryan's remarkable 17-1 record at home stands out, Flacco's trump card is he's already 3-2 in the playoffs, compared to Ryan's 0-1 career mark. All five of Flacco's postseason starts have come on the road, as did Ryan's one.

-- Both of them play for teams that believe in running the football, but have still rolled up impressive and near-identical early-career passing statistics. Ryan has thrown for 51 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the regular season, compared to Flacco's 47 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Ryan has 8,305 passing yards with an 85.7 passer rating, but Flacco nips him on both fronts, with 8,501 yards and an 85.8 rating.

And the parallel tracks have continued to unfold this season statistically for Ryan and Flacco. Ryan has thrown for 1,949 yards thus far, with a passer rating of 90.2. He's got 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions. Flacco, despite a disastrous four-interception performance in a Week 2 loss at Cincinnati, is right there with Ryan. Flacco has 1,917 passing yards, with a rating of 88.9. His 12 touchdowns and six interceptions don't tell the whole story, since in his past five games he has 11 touchdowns and just one pick, with three consecutive games of passer ratings of 111.0 or higher.

As Quarterback Week in the NFL opens, Ryan and Flacco will be center stage. It has been almost impossible to distinguish between their careers so far, but tonight's game may help us start breaking the tie.

Throughout the league, quarterbacks are the story in Week 10. There's even another QB in the spotlight this week, even though Jason Garrett probably will try not to dwell on it. The longtime ex-NFL backup quarterback turned down both the Ravens and Falcons head coaching jobs in early 2008 in order to stay on in Dallas as offensive coordinator. This week he was elevated to interim head coach of the reeling 1-7 Cowboys, replacing the fired Wade Phillips.

Garrett probably has plenty of work to do, but you know he'll be sneaking a quick peek at Ryan and Flacco as they square off tonight on national television. As his Cowboys debut looms, could you blame him if he's trying to fight off a pang or two of wondering what might have been?

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