- Associated Press - Thursday, November 11, 2010

ATLANTA (AP) - Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco just can’t get away from each other.

Thrown together on draft day in 2008, these two quarterbacks set off on remarkably parallel NFL careers. Both earned starting jobs as rookies. Both led their teams to unexpected playoff appearances right out of the gate. And now, in Year 3, they continue to put up carbon-copy numbers.

“They’ll be hooked together their entire career,” said Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith, who’s got Ryan on his side. “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.”

They’ll finally be on the same field Thursday night. Flacco’s Baltimore Ravens take on Ryan’s Falcons in a game that might just be a preview of the get-together they’d really like to have on the first Sunday of February in Big D.

“They both have all the skills to lead their team to great heights,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “It’ll be interesting to see how they develop over the next couple of years.”

So far, so good _ and so similar.

This season, 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.

“(We’re) just two bigger guys that throw well from the pocket. Both of us have been able to get outside the pocket and make plays, too,” Ryan said. “We’re probably more similar than different.”

Their teams are, too.

At the midway points of the NFL season, it’s become clear the Falcons and the Ravens _ both 6-2 and leading their respective divisions _ are on a shrinking list of contenders for the Super Bowl in Dallas.

Heck, this game might actually be worth the trouble of 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, 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 Smith’s three-year coaching tenure _ and 17-1 with 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 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 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.”

The comparisons don’t stop there.

Michael Turner has carried the ball 155 times for the Falcons, Rice has gotten it 153 times for the Ravens. Atlanta would seem to have the edge in the receiving department with NFC-leading Roddy White (58 catches, 796 yards, five TDs) and Canton-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez, but the Ravens aren’t too shabby either with Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. Overall, the Falcons appear to have an edge on offense with their balance and big-play capability.

That said, the Ravens appear to have the clear advantage on defense, especially since safety Ed Reed returned from an injury to hold down the back end. Haloti Ngata anchors the defensive line, Terrell Suggs provides pressure off the edge in the 3-4 scheme, and the 35-year-old Lewis, despite losing a step or two, remains the heart and soul.

“They always talk about being strong down the middle in baseball,” Harbaugh said. “Well, we’re pretty strong down the middle on defense.”

The Falcons will surely test that defense if White is healthy. He hurt his right knee in last Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay and barely practiced in the short lead-up to this game. But he’s expected to play against the Ravens.

“He’s just spectacular,” Harbaugh said. “I’m very impressed the fact that he’s a threat to the field in both directions. He can stretch it horizontally coming across the field. He can stretch it vertically.”

For Smith, this is a chance to face the team he once worked for. He was a defensive assistant under his brother-in-law, Brian Billick, when the Ravens won the Super Bowl during the 2000 season.

“When I think about the Baltimore Ravens, I think about a team that each and every year is one of the top teams in the league,” Smith said. “That’s what we’re trying to do here in Atlanta.”

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