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They've got the right stuff

Falcons' Ryan, Ravens' Flacco direct troops to huge victories

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Let's count the things Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco have in common. Both play quarterback. Both were selected in the first round of this year's draft. Both have birds on the sides of their helmets. Both have won 10 games this season. And both led their teams to wins of monumental importance on the road this past weekend.

At a sold-out Metrodome that was hoping to celebrate the Vikings' first division title in eight years, Ryan and his Atlanta Falcons spoiled the party. Atlanta's 24-17 win clinched a playoff berth that seemed eons away as the Falcons were sputtering to a 4-12 record last year in the aftermath of the Michael Vick debacle.

The turnaround certainly isn't Ryan's doing alone. First-year head coach Mike Smith has been a master motivator, and free-agent running back Michael Turner has provided the kind of consistent running game that any rookie quarterback needs to succeed.

With that said, it's still impossible to overstate just how well the rookie has played. Ryan's stat line against the Vikings -- 13-for-24, 134 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions -- hardly jumps off the page, but he has already mastered the art of not losing the game for his team. Some quarterbacks play a decade without figuring this out.

While the Vikings were turning the ball over four times, including two fumbles by Adrian Peterson, Ryan and his offence protected the football.

The Falcons probably don't have the defence to go deep in the playoffs, but they must feel like their five-year plan is two years ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, Flacco's Ravens can join the Falcons in the post-season with a home win over the Jaguars next Sunday.

Playing in the final game at storied Texas Stadium, Baltimore upset the Cowboys on Saturday night, 33-24. As has been the case all year, Flacco was solid if unspectacular. He let his defence control the tempo of the game and relied on a solid running game to do most of the offensive heavy lifting.

Like Ryan, Flacco has shown a flair for making big plays at key moments. Unlike Ryan, he's shown that he can scramble for a first down when the pocket breaks down.

The Ravens, coming off a 5-11 season, are also doing it with a rookie head coach in John Harbaugh. And the way their defence has been playing, a couple of road upsets in January shouldn't surprise too many people.


Some random observations from

a snowy Week 16...


"ö What a statement that was by the Tennessee Titans. Coming into yesterday's battle for AFC supremacy with the Steelers, the Titans had lost two of their last four games and two of their best defensive players. All that negativity merely fuelled the Tennessee defence as it forced Ben Roethlisberger into four turnovers in a 31-14 win to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. If the Steelers make a return trip to Nashville for the AFC Championship game, they know they can expect another slugfest.

"ö On the first day of winter, the snow was falling all over the NFL, as were the playoff hopes of several teams. The Jets, Broncos and Eagles all deserve to be watching on TV in two weeks after losing to inferior opponents yesterday afternoon.

Seattle dealt the Jets a 13-3 loss that crushed New York's playoff hopes and gave the Patriots a chance to sneak in with some help from the Jets next week.

The Broncos inexcusably lost at home to the Bills 30-23, and now will face the Chargers next Sunday night in a winner-take-all contest for the AFC West.

And the Eagles were stifled all day by the Redskins, losing 10-3 when Reggie Brown came up inches short of the goal line on the final play of the game. Philly's loss, along with Tampa Bay's loss to San Diego, gives the Cowboys a reprieve heading into the final week.

"ö The Dolphins outlasted a game Kansas City team 38-31 in a half-empty Arrowhead Stadium to improve their playoff chances. A win over the Jets next week would clinch the AFC East for the 10-5 Dolphins, who, in case it hasn't been mentioned enough, were 1-15 a year ago.


"ö Offensive player of the week: Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego. With his team playing for its playoff life, Rivers was spectacular in the Chargers' 41-24 win over the Bucs. Rivers was 21-of-31 for 287 yards and four touchdowns, the final two coming in the fourth quarter after the Bucs had taken a lead. As disappointing as the Chargers' season has been, Rivers has had a breakout year individually. He leads the league with 32 TDs, has thrown only 11 interceptions, and, as improbable as it may seem, can lead his team to the playoffs with a win next week over Denver.

"ö Defensive player of the week: Jason Taylor, DE, Washington. Taylor has hardly had the type of year the Redskins expected when they brought him over from Miami. But he brought back memories of his former dominant self yesterday, sacking Donovan McNabb twice and forcing a fumble that set up the game's only touchdown. The Eagles went three-and-out five times, had only two drives of more than 17 yards and were 3-of-14 on third down in a game they had to win.

"ö Special teams player of the week: Stephen Gostkowski, K, New England. In a good old-fashioned New England blizzard, Gostkowski was perfect on four field goals and five extra points as the Patriots pounded the Cardinals 47-7. Only one team in NFL history has missed the playoffs with 11 wins, but the Patriots could become the second if they beat the Bills next week and don't get any help from other teams. That would just seem wrong for a team that has played all but 15 plays without arguably the best player in the league.


"ö Tonight's menu: The oldest rivalry in the NFL commences for the 177th time when the Bears (8-6) host the Packers (5-9). The Bears are still alive in the NFC North, thanks to the Vikings' loss to Atlanta, while the Packers have only pride to play for. If Chicago wins its last two games and Minnesota loses to the Giants next week, the Bears win the division. Since beating the Bears 37-3 at home, the Packers have lost four straight games. Green Bay will be motivated to snuff out its rival's playoff hopes, but the Bears have too much to play for.

"ö The pick: Chicago 27, Green Bay 26



Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2008 C3

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