ATLANTA — 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 that 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.
“(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.”
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,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “Well, we’re pretty strong down the middle on defense.”
The Falcons will be without their first-round draft pick, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who’s still recovering from a knee injury. Even with Weatherspoon, they don’t have nearly as much star power on defense as the Ravens.
Flacco described Atlanta’s defensive scheme as “pretty basic,” though he did take note of one player: 5-foot-9 cornerback Brent Grimes. With Dunta Robinson at the other corner, teams tend to pick on Grimes relentlessly — with mixed results.
“He’s pretty short,” Flacco said. “But he can go out and play. He can run. He can jump. He can be a little aggravating out there, too.”
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.”