The best rookie quarterback right now? The top NFL team not named the Titans or Giants? After watching all the film, Scouts Inc.'s pro scouts answer these questions and debate the other hot topics heading into Week 12.
1. Which quarterback would you rather have going forward: Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan?
Jeremy Green: Both have great physical tools, but whatever "it" is that makes great quarterbacks, Ryan has it. I love his leadership skills and poise. Flacco can get out of control at times when playing from behind, but Ryan has the demeanor of a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in those situations. It's difficult to tell whether he's winning or losing. He's nicknamed "Matty Ice" for a reason: He's cool under pressure -- and that's a trait that can't be taught.
Gary Horton: Ryan may be the most complete and mature rookie quarterback the league has seen in years. He entered a terribly difficult situation in Atlanta and not only has accepted his role as the face of the organization but embraced it. His numbers are solid, if not spectacular, but he makes good decisions and doesn't throw many bad balls or interceptions. His physical skills and mental preparations are terrific, but even more impressive is his poise under pressure. More than any young quarterback I have seen in years, Ryan pays attention to details and shows solid fundamentals -- qualities that will allow him to get better every year.
Keith Kidd: I'm going with Ryan. Give Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff a tremendous amount of credit for selecting Ryan with the third overall pick when a lot of NFL people had doubts about him developing into a franchise quarterback. And after drafting him, Atlanta could have held him back. But Ryan's maturity, smarts, poise and toughness have allowed him to step and compete immediately at probably the most difficult position to play in the NFL. In addition to his intangibles, Ryan has impressive arm strength, accuracy and a quick release. His command of the offense and the respect he already has earned from teammates is pretty impressive.
Doug Kretz: I'd go with Ryan. I don't doubt that both quarterbacks have a bright future, and there isn't a huge difference in the numbers: their pass attempts, completion percentages and quarterback ratings are relatively close. But I'm seeing things in Ryan that are truly rare in a rookie quarterback. The biggest difference, at least initially: pocket presence and leadership skills. Ryan has ice in his veins and appears to be in total control of the huddle. His teammates trust his ability to get the job done.
Ken Moll: I would rather have Ryan, who has poise, confidence and instincts beyond his years. Both players have great size and arm strength, but Ryan has a quicker release and appears to have better vision, anticipation and decision-making skills at this point. Ryan feels pressure better and will dump the ball off when a play breaks down. Going by the numbers, Ryan has a significantly better touchdown-to-interception ratio and a higher quarterback rating. Both have great tools, but in Ryan you already know what you have. Flacco needs more work to become a complete player.
Tag Ribary: Both have been impressive, but I'd have to take Ryan. He's very advanced for a rookie and his mechanics appear to be a little more consistent at this point. I like his accuracy. He does a really good job of managing situations and he seems to process information quickly.
Matt Williamson: Ryan. No knock on Flacco, who is very impressive and has a ton of upside. But Ryan has definitely earned his nickname. He's as cool as they come. He had very little in the way of weapons at Boston College, yet he led the Eagles to an ACC title. He has elevated the play of all his Falcons teammates in his rookie season, a very rare accomplishment. Ryan is who you want leading your team.
2. Removing the quarterbacks from the equation, which rookie would you select if you were building a team?
Green: Two spots stand above the rest in terms of team-building: quarterback and left tackle. Take the quarterback out of the equation, and I'm most impressed by Miami's Jake Long and Denver's Ryan Clady. I had some doubts about Long's ability to play on the left side, but he has held up well. Long is a player in the mold of former Broncos LT Gary Zimmerman, with the athletic ability to handle speed rushers and the size and strength to be a road grader in the run game. A big part of the Dolphins' success has been the team's efficiency on offense, and Long has played a major role in stabilizing that unit. I'd start my franchise with him.
Horton: Titans RB Chris Johnson is an integral part of a dominating run game, and he'll finish the season with well over 1,000 yards. He can run inside, but his big plays come on the edge, where his terrific speed and explosiveness put a lot of pressure on defenses. Plus, he's not only fast but also has the power and fearlessness to mix it up. Johnson has good receiving skills and, because he is so dangerous in space, Tennessee's coaches want to get the ball to him more often in the short passing game. He can even return kicks. Johnson is a game-changer who has the potential to go the distance every play, and his effort is consistent from week to week.
Kidd: Without a doubt, the NFL's best teams are built from the inside out. That's why I'd take Long, who has stabilized Miami's offensive line and given the team a premier talent at the line's most critical position for years to come. He's smart, tough, competitive and skilled. Nobody expected the Dolphins to be in the hunt this late in the season, and some of the credit for that goes to offensive line coach Mike Maser and his work in Long's development.
Kretz: The cornerstones of quality NFL franchises frequently are the quarterback and left offensive tackle. With Flacco and Ryan out of the discussion, Clady seems like as good a place to start as any. He has taken over the position in Denver as a rookie and performed like a seasoned pro. He is very athletic, with nifty footwork and natural knee-bend. He could stand to improve his strength, but coming out of a relatively small program (Boise State) Clady hadn't been exposed to the same level of weight room work other top prospects had. After a year or two in an NFL strength-building program, he could become a dominant left tackle.
Moll: I have to go with the Titans' Chris Johnson. He doesn't have great size, but he has deceptive strength between the tackles. With excellent vision, in-line foot agility, burst and speed, he has been the NFL's most explosive young ball carrier -- and on undefeated team that features a conservative passing offense. Johnson also is a solid receiver who often is the target QB Kerry Collins finds when he needs to move the chains. Again, Johnson's size is a bit of a concern, but he has the frame to carry another 10-15 pounds, which will help him withstand the rigors of the league.
Ribary: Good left tackles are hard to find in the NFL, so that would be the first position I'd try to solidify after quarterback. Clady has impressed me. In the Broncos games I have seen, he has been consistent in pass protection and physical in his run blocking. He has good strength, uses proper technique and has very good balance and body control.
Williamson: Compared to other positions, running backs are somewhat interchangeable. Put them in optimal surroundings, and drafting a productive ball carrier just isn't all that difficult. But left tackles don't grow on trees, so if I'm picking from this year's crop of rookies, I take either Long or Clady. Both would be excellent selections, but I think Clady has been slightly more impressive overall. He has outstanding athletic ability and a bit more upside.
3. It's a consensus opinion that the Titans and Giants are the NFL's best teams right now, but who is No. 3?
Green: Though they have one fewer win than the 8-2 Carolina Panthers, I'm going with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every team has a weakness, and in the Steelers' case it's pretty glaring: pass protection. That said, I love this team in every other area. The Steelers stop the run and can run it themselves when they commit to it. I like QB Ben Roethlisberger's ability to create, even it sometimes gets him in trouble. Pittsburgh is sound across the board, and when the offensive line plays well, it is as dangerous a team as any in the league.
Horton: The New York Jets have playmakers at almost every position, and they are starting to look like a team with no major weaknesses. Their biggest improvement has been in the run game. The success of RBs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington means they no longer have to rely on QB Brett Favre to carry the offense. And though Favre has made his share of mistakes, he eventually will make the offense more explosive as he gets more comfortable with his receivers and they get in synch on sight adjustments. The Jets are rock-solid against the run and rank among the NFL leaders in sacks. The win at New England was a huge confidence-builder, but they have another titanic battle this week, at Tennessee. If the Jets can somehow get by the Titans, they likely will be favored in all five remaining regular-season games. This team could finish 11-5 and win the AFC East.
Kidd: It's an ever-changing season, but right now I'd say the Carolina Panthers. They are winning ugly, and that can go a long way toward building a team for the postseason. Coach John Fox has gotten back to his philosophy of pounding the rock but still has a Super Bowl quarterback in Jake Delhomme. On defense, DE Julius Peppers is playing at an unbelievable level and LB Jon Beason has become a big-time force in the middle. And they have three very good corners who can match up on the back end, which is critical against any passing offense.
Kretz: I'd go with the Pittsburgh Steelers. There shouldn't be any argument about their defense. It's an aggressive, high-pressure unit that leads the NFL in both rushing and passing defense. A dominating defense can keep a team in virtually every game. On offense, they do just enough to get the job done. With RB Willie Parker and QB Ben Roethlisberger getting healthier, that group should finish the season strong.
Moll: I'll go with the Panthers. They have an excellent ground attack in the 1-2 punch of RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Both lines are physical and help set the tone. The offensive line has yielded just 13 sacks, and though the passing attack isn't flashy, WR Muhsin Muhammad (a big, physical veteran) and WR Steve Smith (one of the league's most explosive athletes) are an excellent perimeter duo. Carolina has very solid special teams, including an outstanding veteran kicker in John Kasay. The Panthers, winners in six of their last seven games, find ways to win even when they don't play their best. Fox is a good coach who always has his team ready to play.
Ribary: At this point, the Panthers look like the NFL's third-best team, with the Steelers right behind them. Williams, Stewart and Smith give Carolina excellent balance on offense. The defense is playing very well, and the special teams are improved. Fox has these guys prepared every week, and their confidence just seems to keep growing.
Williamson: I'll take Tampa Bay, though I don't feel that strongly about it. I understand the praise for Carolina, but the Bucs thoroughly abused the Panthers in Week 6 and I'm having trouble getting past Delhomme's last two performances. (His outing against Oakland two weeks ago may have been the worst by any NFL quarterback this season.) In their three defeats -- all on the road -- the Bucs have lost by a combined 11 points. I can't fall in love with any team at this spot, but Tampa Bay is very well-coached and fundamentally sound.
4. Who will have a huge game this week?
Green: I'm going with QB Peyton Manning. I know the Colts have struggled to match up against the Chargers in the past, but that has mostly been due to the troubles Indianapolis' offensive line had in protection against the 3-4 defense. San Diego hasn't been creating much pressure, and the result has been a league-worst 267.0 passing yards allowed per game. Manning and the Colts' passing game is starting to click, and the offensive line is healthy and back playing at a high level. Expect a huge game from Manning on Sunday night as the Colts continue their surge toward the playoffs.
Horton: I really like Marion Barber this week against an overmatched San Francisco 49ers defense. The Cowboys learned last week that their offense, loaded with flash and marquee names, is at its best when Barber is allowed to wear down defenses. He is considered a between-the-tackles power runner, but Barber also is very effective on the edges and has very underrated pass-catching ability. With Dallas likely to take an early lead, Barber -- the best finisher in the game -- should stay busy and wear out the 49ers in the second half.
Kidd: I'm going with QB Aaron Rodgers against the Saints' pass defense. With RB Ryan Grant and the Packers' running game starting to crank up and the offensive line jelling in protection, Green Bay should get a chance to exploit plenty of mismatches against New Orleans' depleted secondary. Packers coach Mike McCarthy excels at creating formation designs that attack opponents' back-end weaknesses. WRs Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson, TE Donald Lee and sub-package RB Brandon Jackson should create a lot of problems for the Saints on Monday.
Kretz: Chicago Bears RB Matt Forte probably will wind up getting a lot of touches against the St. Louis Rams this week. In a dome environment, visiting teams tend to run more frequently than normal in an attempt to neutralize the crowd noise. The Rams have the league's fourth-worst run defense (158.4 yards allowed per game), so the Bears are apt to avoid the inconsistencies in their passing game and let Forte carry the load.
Moll: I expect the Steelers' Parker to have a big day against a marginal Bengals defense. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin likely will want to pound the ball with a physical ground attack to set the tone, and Cincinnati (131.1 rushing yards allowed per game) is in a poor position to do anything about it. Parker is healthy again and coming off a productive performance, while the Bengals' defense is banged up and missing one of their best young defenders (LB Keith Rivers). The Bengals have missed a lot of tackles this season, and Parker is capable of gashing any defense that doesn't get him to the ground before he reaches the second level.
Ribary: Manning could have a big game against San Diego. The Chargers are last in the league in passing yards allowed, and Manning and his teammates in the passing game continue to play better and better. Indianapolis' offensive line is holding up better in protection in recent weeks, and WRs Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Anthony Gonzalez, TE Dallas Clark and RB Joseph Addai ensure that the Colts won't have any shortage of playmakers.
Williamson: Tony Romo. I respect the job Mike Singletary is doing to get the 49ers to play harder and with conviction, but their secondary is in for a long day in Dallas this week. Romo's injured right pinkie finger still is an issue, but the Cowboys' offense is ready to erupt at any time. There are just too many weapons in the lineup for opposing defenses to keep under wraps. Dallas is on the rise.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.