MINNEAPOLIS — A little more than six years ago, Matt Ryan made his NFL debut.
Now, he's in the top five in the league in most statistical categories for passing, in position to lead the Atlanta Falcons back from a rough 2013 that was the only losing season of his career.
Ryan has made the playoffs four times, been on a pair of 13-win teams and reached the NFC championship game once.
Those are quite the feats for Teddy Bridgewater to match, or beat, but maybe in six years he will. That's the beauty of a first-round draft pick's first NFL start.
"It's a lifelong dream to play and to start in this league. It's a really special day, one that you'll never forget. I think Teddy will do a great job," Ryan said.
"Obviously he's a talented player who had an unbelievable college career. He's going to be excited this week. But once you get out there and settle down, it's the same game you always played."
Matt Cassel broke his foot last Sunday, so Bridgewater will be in the huddle and behind center this week for the Minnesota Vikings (1-2) against the Falcons (2-1).
"It came very fast," Bridgewater said, adding: "I always had my antennas up. I was always alert. Tried to prepare myself for when that time came."
That time has come.
"We're going to have to be prepared for a very athletic quarterback," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
Here are some key themes to watch today:
Devin Hester of the Falcons became the all-time NFL leader last week with his 20th career return touchdown, four of which have come against the Vikings. In 15 games against them, Hester has a total of nine touchdowns. So while Vikings will be as wary of his ability as any other team, kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson has looked at Hester as a player to emulate since entering the league last season.
"Just watching film of him just gets me excited," Patterson said.
Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, has been vulnerable against the pass rush. The coaches have been urging Kalil to not let one bad play affect him on the next snap. Coach Mike Zimmer compared his struggles to a golfer letting frustration of missed putt linger at the next tee box to distract the focus on the drive.
"We've had corners get beat, we've got linebackers that get beat, we've got guards that get beat, but everybody is on this Kalil kick," Zimmer said. "For 93 percent of the game he plays pretty good, but unfortunately the three or four bad plays he has show up, and then guys get on him. I'm not that discouraged, as everybody else is."
The Falcons, who use both a 4-3 and a 3-4 alignment, were the only team in the league without a sack after two games. They had three last week against the reeling Buccaneers, but still have the third-fewest in the NFL.
"It was good to get the monkey off our backs. There's been a lot of talk in the building about it," said Falcons defensive tackle Corey Peters, who had one of the sacks.
Julio Jones, the NFL's leader with 365 yards receiving, is a familiar foe for Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.
They overlapped as NFC South opponents the past three seasons when Munnerlyn played for the Carolina Panthers and in 2008 in the mighty Southeastern Conference when Jones was a freshman for Alabama and Munnerlyn was in his last year at South Carolina. Their ties stretch deeper still, to the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Munnerlyn went to Murphy High School in Mobile, and Jones came from Foley, about an hour away across the bay.
The Falcons have started a 65-day stretch with only one game at the Georgia Dome, since they had a home date against Detroit moved to London as part of the NFL's overseas series. Including a 24-10 decision at Cincinnati two weeks ago, the Falcons have lost seven straight outdoor games. Their last such win was Nov. 25, 2012, at Tampa Bay.
The Vikings lost their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota and haven't won outside in six games since last Sept. 29 against Pittsburgh in London. Outdoors at U.S. stadiums, the Vikings are winless in their past 13 games since Dec. 24, 2011, at Washington.
Falcons rookie defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman will return to his hometown and alma mater, where Hageman developed into an NFL prospect after leaving Minneapolis Washburn High School. Two of his former Gophers teammates, punt returner/cornerback Marcus Sherels and tight end MarQueis Gray, now play for the Vikings.
Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice will also spend the weekend in a familiar place. He played the last three seasons of his career for the Vikings and spent 10 years on staff, including as head coach from 2002-05.