- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

ATLANTA (AP) - AFC vs. NFC. First place vs. first place. Talented offense vs. bruising defense.

Perhaps, even, a preview of what we’ll see in Big D on the first Sunday of February.

At the midway point of the NFL season, it’s become clear the Atlanta Falcons and the Baltimore Ravens are on a shrinking list of teams that actually have a chance to reach the Super Bowl in Dallas.

Let’s see how they stack up against each other in prime time Thursday, a game that might actually make it worth trying to find the NFL Network on your cable or satellite dial.

“I know it’s not going to be one of those games where it’s won in the first quarter,” Ravens running back Ray Rice said. “It’s going to be one of those fourth-quarter games.”

The Falcons (6-2), who hold a half-game lead over defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans in the rugged NFC South, hope that playing at home will be the deciding factor in a game where the teams appear so evenly matched. Atlanta is 17-3 at the Georgia Dome in Mike Smith’s three-year coaching tenure _ and 17-1 with Matt Ryan as the starter.

“We’ve been tough at home,” Ryan said. “Our fans have really done a great job this year, especially when we’re on defense. The Dome has been loud. It’s been a great environment, and hopefully we can keep that going.”

Baltimore (6-2) is tied for the AFC North lead with Pittsburgh and knows that every win is crucial in a conference that has seven teams at 5-3 or better. There’s only six playoff spots are available.

Plus, the Ravens wouldn’t mind scoring another blow for the AFC, which holds a 21-17 edge over the NFC in interconference games.

“It’s not as if we don’t know what’s going on,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “We know Atlanta is playing at a very, very high level in the NFC right now, and we’re playing at a high level in the AFC. So, we know what’s coming.”

Ryan and his Baltimore counterpart, Joe Flacco, provide yet another compelling subplot. They entered the league together in 2008, a pair of first-round picks who immediately claimed starting jobs and led their teams to the playoffs.

“They’ll be hooked together their entire career,” said Smith, comparing it to the great quarterback class of 1983 that included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. “When you come in at the same time, especially at the quarterback position _ which is probably the most scrutinized position in all of sports _ they’ll always be compared to one another.”

Neither team has any complaints.

Matt has been a starter from day one, since we drafted him, and I think he has become the leader of our team,” Smith said. “That’s something where you don’t anoint a player. It’s earned, and it’s earned by production on the field.”

Both quarterbacks have remarkably parallel numbers. Ryan has completed 62.5 percent of his passes, Flacco is at 60.8. Ryan has thrown for 1,949 yards, Flacco is right behind at 1,917. Ryan has 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions, Flacco has one less TD and one more pick. Their efficiency ratings are nearly identical as well: Ryan ranks 12th in the league at 90.2, Flacco is 14th at 88.9.

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