HOUSTON - Matt Ryan has been a very good player in the NFL ever since the Atlanta Falcons took him third overall in the 2008 draft. Through his first eight seasons from 2008-15, Ryan put up terrific numbers and had four 10-plus-win seasons.
But it wasn't until this season, his ninth in the NFL, that Ryan took his game to a whole new level. He's set career highs in completion percentage (69.9), touchdowns (38), interceptions (7) and passer rating (117.1).
Ryan is the favorite to win the MVP, and has the Falcons playing in Sunday's Super Bowl.
It begs the question: Can Matthew Stafford make the same kind of leap heading into his ninth season in 2017?
Ryan and Stafford's first eight season in the NFL are similar. Ryan and the Falcons finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs to end his eighth season. Stafford and the Lions were one better at 9-7.
Ryan was just 1-4 in playoff games through his first eight seasons. Stafford is 0-3.
Even their numbers are similar.
Ryan threw for 32,757 yards with 202 touchdowns and 107 interceptions with a 64 percent completion percentage and a passer rating of 90.8 in 126 games over his first eight seasons.
Stafford's thrown for 30,303 yards with 187 touchdowns, 108 interceptions, a completion percentage of 62 percent and a passer rating of 86.8 in 109 games over eight seasons.
"I think the world of Matthew Stafford," Ryan said Thursday at the Super Bowl. "I think he's an incredible player. He's had some great seasons. He's had some really productive seasons and played at a high level."
"I know every time we watch their film going into games (against) a like opponent, you're just so impressed with what he can do. I think he's going to have a lot of really productive years in front of him just like he has up until this point."
The Falcons have done a good job over the last few years putting the right pieces around Ryan so that he can succeed. Ryan credits that, more than anything else, with his success this season.
Receiver Julio Jones was a big addition, obviously, but Ryan had the same five offensive lineman start every game this season, and the Falcons run game averages 120.5 yards per game, fifth best in the NFL.
"It's just one of those things as a team we hit our stride," Ryan said of why year nine of his career really took off. "We were young early in the year, but I think our coaching staff did a great job of constantly pushing us to improve and I think the good teams that I've been on in the past are ones that continue to get better throughout the year and I think that was the case for us this year."
Lions general manager Bob Quinn began addressing Detroit's offensive line right away after taking over last season. He selected three offensive linemen in his first five picks in his draft in 2016.
Quinn said after this season that he wanted to upgrade the run game this offseason.
Ryan said young players in Atlanta grew up fast this season and older players played like they were young again. The result was that everything just seemed to come together for him and the offense this season.
Stafford was having his best season on record in 2016, and was even in the MVP conversation, right up until he injured the right middle finger on his throwing hand that certainly appeared to affect his performance, though he'd never admit that.
Heading into his ninth year in the NFL in 2017, can Stafford and the Lions put it all together, make the right moves and put together a run Ryan and the Falcons have enjoyed in his ninth season?