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2009 NEXT WINNER: MATT RYAN

James Dimmock

If NEXT is defined by the future, by an athlete's potential for greatness, well then, sorry folks, you picked the wrong guy. Matt Ryan isn't NEXT for the possibilities stored in his right arm or for all the accolades he's sure to collect this year and in years to come. He is NEXT because he is NOW—suddenly, unexpectedly.

Remember, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Falcons, a team coming off a 4—12 season and defined by the scandalous off-field actions of its former franchise QB. When Atlanta took Ryan with the third overall pick of the 2008 draft, the suits merely hoped the rookie would flash his $72 million smile, build a little anticipation for things to come and maybe, just maybe, keep his squad from drowning in the NFC South.

Ryan wasn't supposed to launch his first NFL pass 62 yards for a touchdown or earn NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in his eighth start or lead a playoff charge with pretty much the same supporting cast that finished last in the division a season ago—all the while winning over a significant segment of local fans who remained loyal to Michael Vick. Okay, so Ryan's rookie numbers (60% completion rate, 88.3 passer rating, 3,500 projected yards) don't quite compare with those of, say, Ben Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning. But Big Ben had Jerome Bettis, a veteran coach and nine Pro Bowl teammates in 2004. And for all of Manning's first-year records, you know where his Colts ended up in 1998? Exactly where they finished in '97: in the basement at 3—13.

Meanwhile, playing for rookie coach Mike Smith, all Ryan has done is fully live up to his nickname, Matty Ice. Equal parts cool, confident and affable, he quickly forged a connection with his teammates, particularly receiver Roddy White. And that has allowed Ryan to pull off feats such as engineering his first last-second, game-winning drive as a pro, against the Bears on Oct. 12. Two or three more wins down the stretch, and the Falcons might be making their first postseason since 2004.

"Because of Matt, people are talking about us now," says safety Lawyer Milloy, a 13-year veteran. "I don't have a lot of time left in the NFL, so I'm trying to ride him now. That's how much I believe in him." Adds receiver Michael Jenkins, who caught that first Ryan TD: "He's a Tom Brady/Peyton Manning type who can win multiple Super Bowls."

Those are no modest testimonials, but Ryan is handling his success with the same aw-shucks humility he displays in postgame press conferences. "You want your teammates to have confidence in you," he says. "But wow, there are high expectations. This still doesn't feel real. Every week we get to play another NFL team. We played the Bears … and the Lions … and the Eagles … and the Packers. I was a big Brett Favre fan growing up—Lambeau Field, the Lambeau Leap. To be out there playing and to win—it was surreal."

As for the comparisons to Brady and Manning? "It's so flattering," Ryan says. "But I've watched those guys for so long, it's weird to be, I guess, their peer. It's unreal."

Surreal? Weird? Unreal? More like the norm from here on in.