- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday, the next generation of NFC South rivalry really could take root. Both teams are 5-2 and tied for first place in the division.
There's been some bantering back and forth over Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris' comment two weeks ago that the Bucs were the best team in the NFC South. And the matchup between Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib and Atlanta receiver Roddy White promises to be highly entertaining because both players like to talk -- a lot.
But the real story in this game and what could make this rivalry special for the next decade or so is Ryan and Freeman.
“I've been real impressed [with Freeman],'' Ryan said.
He should be. Looking at Freeman should be like looking into a mirror for Ryan. In a lot of ways, they are the same guy. One year apart, each was drafted to be the franchise quarterback for a franchise in disarray.
To varying degrees, each has displayed the abilities of a franchise quarterback and quickly helped turn his franchise around. New Orleans' Drew Brees still has time in his reign as the NFC South's best quarterback. Still, we're going to be hearing a lot more about Freeman and Ryan. They could spend the rest of their careers tied together.
Talk to either one for a few minutes and you see the same traits. Both are cerebral, polished and engaging and seem to have a natural knack for dealing with people, whether it's the media, fans or teammates.
It's the same way out on the field. Watch Ryan and Freeman play and you see the same thing from both. Natural leadership abilities, uncommon calm and a couple of very big right arms. Yes, Freeman's got a noticeable advantage on Ryan when it comes to mobility.
“[Freeman] has extended plays,'' Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “He's one of the top quarterbacks in the league in explosive plays and he can extend plays with his feet.''
Ryan never is going to be known for his feet, but he and Freeman have both hit the ground running in starting their NFL careers.
Let's start with Ryan. When he was drafted in 2008, the Falcons were in a state of chaos. Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino had torn down the franchise.
More quickly than anyone could have imagined, Ryan built it back up. He led the Falcons to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth as a rookie and followed that up last season by giving Atlanta the franchise's first back-to-back winning seasons. A third straight winning season seems almost a certainty at this point, but the Falcons want more than that.
They built their offseason marketing campaign around the theme “Rise Up'' and the Falcons are showing signs they're on the verge of that. They have a new and improved defense and a strong supporting cast on offense.
Ryan hasn't put up the numbers of a Brees or a Peyton Manning because that's not the way the Atlanta offense is designed. With running back Michael Turner, the Falcons pride themselves on a balanced offense. But they make things happen in the passing game and Ryan has been a major reason White has emerged as perhaps the NFL's best wide receiver this season.
“[Ryan] is certainly a guy that can force you into a lot of mistakes,'' Morris said.
So can the guy who runs Morris' huddle. Freeman came into a situation that might have been even worse than the one Ryan inherited, but he suddenly has made the Bucs so respectable that they're playing for first place in November.
Drafted in the middle of the 2009 first round, Freeman joined a franchise that had just shown Derrick Brooks and a cast of veterans the door. Mercifully, the Bucs let him sit for half a season as they changed offensive coordinators on the eve of the season and lost a bunch of games. But you could see some instant promise the moment Freeman got on the field.
What he's done so far this season has been to turn that promise into reality. Freeman's shown a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks and big plays.
“There is very little indecision in my game right now,” Freeman said. “I understand what coverage we're getting. I understand the protections. There aren't any 'Oh man, look out I have to throw it up plays.'''
But Freeman has permission to throw it up, something few Tampa Bay quarterbacks have had in the past. With a running game that's struggled and a cast of very young wide receivers, the Bucs have put their whole offense in Freeman's hands. He's responded well and the supporting cast is starting to emerge with rookie wide receiver Mike Williams and rookie running back LeGarrette Blount taking on larger roles.
Ryan already has the supporting cast. The Bucs still are working on what's around Freeman. But the Falcons and Bucs have one thing in common.
Each team already has a franchise quarterback firmly in place. They're playing for first place on Sunday. It could be just the start of a generation of showdowns between Freeman and Ryan.