As the NFL season enters Week 12, there are 19 teams within one game of first place in their divisions, the most ever through the first 11 weeks of a season.
In the NFC, three of the clubs in the thick of the playoff chase are led by quarterbacks drafted in the past three seasons – rookie SAM BRADFORD (No. 1 overall, 2010) of the St. Louis Rams, JOSH FREEMAN (No. 17, 2009) of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and MATT RYAN (No. 3, 2008) of the Atlanta Falcons.
"This is a quarterback-driven league," says Falcons head coach MIKE SMITH. "There is a group of young quarterbacks making a name for themselves very quickly. They're playing very efficiently. I'm impressed with these young guys."
Atlanta boasts the conference's best record at 8-2 and tops the NFC South. Leading the charge is Ryan, who joined Baltimore's JOE FLACCO in 2008 as the first rookie quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era to start all 16 games and lead his team to the postseason. Ryan was named the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and has posted a 28-12 (.700) record as a starter in his career. He has won 18 of his first 19 starts at home, including 14 in a row.
"Matt Ryan is a superstar in progress," says NFL Network analyst STEVE MARIUCCI. "He is the leader and face of that organization."
"Matt has not only the physical tools you look for in a starting NFL quarterback, but also the mental toughness," says Smith. "He's a very tough guy. He's resilient. He's always trying to get better and become a more consistent quarterback. His work ethic is second-to-none."
"This is Matt's team," says Atlanta tight end TONY GONZALEZ. "He's the face of this franchise. He's the future of this franchise. He's going to be one of the best quarterbacks in this league before it's all said and done."
One game behind the Falcons in the division are the Buccaneers, who are 7-3. Freeman has won nine of his past 13 starts, including six of the past seven on the road. He has also engineered six fourth-quarterback comeback victories in his young career.
"This kid is the real deal," says Mariucci. "He gives the Buccaneers hope now and for the future."
"From year one to year two, the opportunity to spend an entire offseason and work with our coaches has made a huge difference," says Freeman about his success. "Whether it's understanding our playbook, learning defenses and the protection aspect of things, there's not a lot of indecision in my game right now and it feels pretty good. I'm comfortable out on the field. I understand what we're trying to do offensively. All the points and protection calls are put on my back now. It really allows me to get a great understanding for what we're trying to do and what we're doing."
The Rams, who won just one game last year, are 4-6 and trail Seattle by one game for the NFC West lead. Bradford has started all 10 games for St. Louis and set an NFL rookie record by throwing 169 passes without an interception. He guided the Rams to a 4-1 start at home this season and is the only rookie quarterback selected No. 1 overall to win four of his first five starts at home since 1967, the first year of the common draft.
"I love Sam Bradford," says NFL Network analyst and Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver MICHAEL IRVIN. "As I watch this young guy, he reminds me of a young TROY AIKMAN. And he's already won more games than Troy Aikman did in his rookie season."
"Sam's come in and done a great job," says Ryan. "I've been impressed with the way he's handled things. We both got thrown in right from the start. You don't quite know what to expect but you're confident you can get the job done. It's an unbelievable opportunity and an incredible year. You go from being in college to transitioning to the NFL to starting in Week 1. It's a fast year. The toughest part is probably the schedule, just week after week. Every week is a tough challenge."
"Matt was put in a similar situation when he came into the league, so he's someone I can learn from," says Bradford. "He's done everything the right way. He's worked as hard as he could to get himself to where he is, so any time you can look at a guy like that and see what he's been able to do, it can only help you."