Where Does Matt Ryan Rank Among NFL's Elite QBs?

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst ISeptember 18, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Quarterback Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after a play in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos during their game at the Georgia Dome on September 17, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

That dreadful night in January 2011, all Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan could do was sit back and watch as one of the NFL's young quarterbacks began his transformation from very good to elite. 

Aaron Rodgers, the 27-year-old Green Bay Packers quarterback, completed a ridiculous 31-of-36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns as Green Bay torched both the Georgia Dome and Atlanta's 13-3 season to the ground. 

Rodgers would later go on to win MVP of Super Bowl XLV, before leading the Packers to a 15-1 season and a regular season MVP award in 2011. 

Rodgers ascension to elite status in the NFL was complete. Ryan's, despite the anticipation of so many, was put on hold. 

The 2011 season saw Ryan again get so close to grabbing that elite fruit. Ryan threw for over 4,000 yards for the first time in his career with 29 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. Yet the Falcons again flamed out in the playoffs, and any chance that Ryan had at stamping his name amongst the NFL's top quarterbacks was again lost. 

Granted, it's only been two games into the 2012 season, but Ryan appears to finally have an edge to his game that screams "ready to take the next step." The elite status that has evaded him for so long now looks on the cusp of reality.

Facing two teams to open the season that many thought would compete for the AFC West crown, Ryan has been hands-down the best quarterback in football in 2012. 

He calmly led the Falcons into Arrowhead Field, the site that saw Rodgers' undefeated chances in 2011 go up in smoke and walked out with a convincing 40-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Ryan threw for 299 yards and three scores while running for another. 

It was a performance that, at least statistically speaking, looked a lot like Rodgers' masterpiece in Atlanta during the 2010 playoffs. Obviously not the same stage or pressure, but a masterpiece nonetheless. 

There was no letdown for the fifth-year quarterback to follow, either. Ryan used the national stage of Monday Night Football last night to deliver another convincing performance against one of the kings of primetime football. 

With Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning—and his 11-3 lifetime record on MNF—struggling on the other sidelines, Ryan took over. If there was any doubt who the best quarterback on the field was Monday night, Ryan put it to bed early.

He found the holes in Denver's zone. He beat blitzes with his legs to the edge. He made the difficult throws into tight pockets. 

He made the plays that you expect an elite quarterback to make, against a defense that made Ben Roethlisberger look pretty average in Week 1. 

The final numbers—24-of-36 for 219 yards and two touchdowns—didn't jump off the page, but Ryan had done more than enough to lead the Falcons to a sparkling 2-0 record.

Atlanta is one of just five teams to reach that mark in 2012. 

Ryan also became the only passer in 2012 with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. His passer rating—a very Rodgers-like 117.6—is the best mark in the NFL after two games. For the sake of comparison, Rodgers also had a 5-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio after two games in 2011. 

Could Ryan be the 2012 MVP in the making?

Ryan has certainly made quick work of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's high-tempo passing game, a style of offense that finally looks tailor-made for a bright, quick-thinking quarterback like Ryan.

Ryan also has a pair of receivers (Roddy White and Julio Jones) that can up against the best cornerback duo the NFL has to offer. Veterans Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner can hold their own, too. This is an offense constructed to score truckloads of points. 

That said, Ryan's lack of a playoff win will continue to be something critics dog on, whether he's in the MVP running by season's end or not. It's only natural, as even Rodgers needed his historic playoff run in 2010 to be considered among the big boys.

But Ryan understands that he can't win a postseason game in September.

The focus is on being the best quarterback he can be now, so that when the 2012 playoffs roll around—and the Falcons are looking like a solid bet to be one of the NFC's top seeds—he'll be more prepared to be the one burning the defense to the ground, not watching the wreckage as another elite quarterback lights the match. 

Few will doubt Ryan hasn't looked like an elite quarterback through two weeks. But there's 14 more regular-season games—and potentially as many as four in the postseason—where Ryan needs to continue proving he belongs among that upper echelon of NFL passers. 

The baby steps he's taken in 2012 look like a promising start to that eventual goal.