Ryan rapidly becomes Falcons' trusted leader

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ATLANTA --- Matt Ryan had just pulled off an improbable comeback when someone questioned his credentials.

So, are you sure you're a rookie?

"Yeah," Ryan said, breaking into a big smile, "I'm sure."

So far, his experience level has been nothing more than a technicality. With Ryan at the helm, the Atlanta Falcons (4-2) already have matched their win total for all of 2007 -- a shipwreck of a season that will forever be linked to the franchise's most visible player being led off to prison for dogfighting.

With each victory, Michael Vick becomes a more distant memory.

With each victory, Ryan becomes the new face of the team.

"He's got it," first-year coach Mike Smith said. "I don't know what 'it' is, but he's got it. The guys have really taken to Matt. He knows how to be a leader."

Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft, won the starting job in training camp. Trying to win over a fan base that is still sprinkled with Vick's No. 7 jersey, Ryan made quite a first impression when he threw for a long touchdown on his very first career pass.

While there have been a few stumbles since then, Ryan's poise and arm strength have largely erased any doubts about his ability.

The Falcons are in a three-way tie for first in the NFC South.

"A rookie quarterback is going to have disappointments," Smith said. "But, to this point, he's definitely exceeded our expectations."

The Falcons are off this week after Sunday's stunning comeback win over Chicago, time they will use to work out a few obvious kinks in their feel-good story. Most notably, they must have more success in the red zone after managing only one touchdown against the Bears.

"There's a lot of areas for us to improve in," Ryan said. "We have been getting better. We are becoming more comfortable with each other. But we still have a long ways to go."

But, thanks to a QB who's a rookie in name only, the journey looks a lot shorter than anyone would have expected.

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