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Matt Ryan has proved he belongs in the NFL

His first NFL pass went for a touchdown. His first NFL start was a win. His first NFL season? Well, Matt Ryan is drawing comparisons to a young Dan Marino, not so much for his downfield prowess but for his ability to breathe life into a team that was expected to finish last.

Come on, who wins in the NFL with a rookie quarterback?

“He’s taken that team by the helm, and he’s producing,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Chris Hovan said.

Hovan was speaking more of a proud Boston College alum than he was an opponent, even though, health permitting, Hovan will be on the field today when the Bucs meet Ryan and the Falcons in Atlanta.

“If you love football,” Hovan said, “you have to appreciate what this kid is doing.”

A 62.0 completion percentage, 2,940 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. The Falcons are 8-5 and are still very much alive in the playoff picture.

It’s not all because of Ryan. With Michael Turner, who is second in the NFL in rushing, and Jerious Norwood, the Falcons run the ball awfully well. But with Ryan, they throw the ball well, too.

And with Ryan, they have that all important leader that every offense needs.

“He doesn’t look like a rookie to me,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. “He looks like he’s played a long time.”

In an attempt to dig themselves out of the on-field and off-field problems that turned 2007 into a disaster for the franchise, the Falcons used the third overall pick in the draft on Ryan and pretty much handed him the keys to the offense.

That’s a lot to put on any player. Ryan wasn’t just competing against NFL defenses this season, he was also trying to beat the Falcons immediate past.

Having a strong running game helps. So does playing in an offense that is identical to the one Ryan played in at Boston College.

Same blocking schemes.

Same pass protection terminology.

Pure genius on the part of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey if you ask me.

That accelerated the Ryan’s learning process and allowed his talent to take over much earlier than you would expect from a rookie.

“Matt has definitely improved every week of the season,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

After his stunning debut against the Detroit Lions, the Bucs introduced Ryan to an NFL defense in Week 2, forcing him to misfire on his first nine pass attempts and holding him to 13 of 33 passing, 158 yards and two interceptions in a 24-9 Bucs win.

But Ryan bounced back with a win the next week.

“You just have to keep playing,” Ryan said. “You have to keep grinding, and that is what I did.”

Ryan’s progression is such the Bucs figure they are facing a different quarterback this afternoon.

“He’s grown up,” Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon said.

And the Falcons have gown up with him.

“Not many guys have done what he’s done,” Gruden said. “It’s a hard league to start as a rookie.”

Playing in an NFL-style offense at BC helped just as playing in a BC-style offense has helped Ryan this year, Gruden said.

You see what Ryan is doing, you see how the Falcons have responded, you look at the standings and you think this is a team that can be very good for a long time.

“He’s a premier kid. He’s smart. He’s got great football awareness,” Gruden said. “He’s just one of those rare guys. Unfortunately the Falcons drafted him.”