Peyton Manning passed his first true test in close to two years with flying colors. An even greater challenge may lie ahead for the comeback quarterback and his new teammates, however, when the Denver Broncos attempt to slow down the high-powered Atlanta Falcons in a marquee Monday night matchup from the Georgia Dome that will wrap up the Week 2 NFL schedule.
The uniform may have changed, but it very much the same old Manning who threw for nearly 55,000 yards and garnered four league MVP awards over 14 glorious seasons with the Indianapolis Colts in his ballyhooed Denver debut this past week. Making his first regular-season start since 2010, the 36-year-old threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns while spurring a second-half eruption that propelled the Broncos to a thrilling 31-19 victory over the powerhouse Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field.
Manning worked most of his magic over the final two quarters, in spite of the Steelers having the ball for nearly 18 1/2 minutes by utilizing a keep-away approach that nearly worked to perfection. The 11-time Pro Bowl honoree completed 9-of-12 passes for 155 yards against one of the league's premier defenses after the break, leading the Broncos to 17 points over their first three second-half drives to overcome a 13-7 deficit midway through the third period.
Both of Manning's touchdown strikes also came after intermission, with his 71- yard delivery to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas the 400th of his distinguished career. He also fired a one-yard pass to tight end Jacob Tamme with 9:23 to play that gave Denver a 22-19 lead it would not relinquish.
Denver's defense did its part as well, sacking Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger five times and getting a game-sealing 43-yard interception return touchdown from another new addition -- cornerback Tracy Porter -- with 1:58 remaining.
The unit now gets another difficult task in the form of an Atlanta offense that was flying high in its opener, with quarterback Matt Ryan racking up 299 passing yards and accounting for four touchdowns to spearhead an impressive 40-24 triumph over Kansas City in the usually hostile environment of Arrowhead Stadium.
Ryan threw for three scores and ran in another in directing an Atlanta attack that produced points on each of its first eight possessions and didn't punt until the 3:01 mark of the fourth quarter. Rising star wide receiver Julio Jones was equally as unstoppable, with the 2011 first-round pick registering 108 yards and two touchdowns on six catches.
The Falcons now take their formidable scoring machine back to the Georgia Dome, where the team averaged nearly 30 points per game last year and owns a stellar 26-4 regular-season mark in outings that Ryan has started since 2008.
"They can do it all," Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil said of the Falcons. "They can run, throw the ball, throw screens, slow down the rush. They do a variety of different things. They're a well-coached team."
Atlanta didn't come out of last week's contest unscathed, however. Cornerback Brent Grimes, a Pro Bowl selection in 2010, suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear against the Chiefs, leaving the secondary in a short-handed state as it prepares to face one of the sport's all-time greats in Manning.
"The most important thing is we have to play sound technique and make sure we're in the right place," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. "If you're in the wrong place by a half-yard, you're going to pay for it. (Manning) has a good understanding of how you're trying to defend him. If you give him pre- snap reads, he's going to know where to go with the football."
Broncos lead 8-4
Last Meeting: Broncos 24, Falcons 20 (Nov. 16, 2008 at Atlanta)
Broncos HC John Fox vs. Falcons: 7-11 overall, 0-0 with Denver Falcons HC Mike Smith vs. Broncos: 0-1 Fox vs. Smith Head-to-Head: Smith leads, 4-2
Notes: Teams also squared off in Miami in Super Bowl XXXIII, with Broncos registering a 34-19 win to capture the 1998 NFL Championship. The visitor has prevailed in six of the last nine bouts in the series, with Denver having gone 4-0 in Atlanta over that span. Falcons haven't topped the Broncos at home since Nov. 23, 1975 and last ousted Denver by a 41-28 count at Sports Authority Field on Oct. 31, 2004. Fox faced Atlanta twice annually while operating as the head coach of NFC South member Carolina from 2002-10.
BY THE NUMBERS
Offensive Team Rankings
Denver: 18th overall (334.0 ypg), 17th rushing (94.0 ypg), 19th passing (240.0 ypg), 8th scoring (31.0 ppg)
Atlanta: 13th overall (376.0 ypg), 18th rushing (84.0 ypg), 8th passing (292.0 ypg), tied 4th scoring (40.0 ppg)
Defensive Team Rankings
Denver: 9th overall (284.0 ypg), 9th rushing (75.0 ypg), 10th passing (209.0 ypg), 11th scoring (19.0 ppg)
Atlanta: 26th overall (393.0 ypg), 29th rushing (152.0 ypg), 15th passing (241.0 ypg), tied 18th scoring (24.0 ppg)
Denver: +1 (1 takeaway, 0 giveaway) Atlanta: +3 (3 takeaways, 0 giveaways)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Denver: 50.0 percent (4 possessions, 2 TD, 1 FG) -- tied 14th overall Atlanta: 57.1 percent (7 possessions, 4 TD, 3 FG) -- 7th overall
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Denver: 50.0 percent (4 possessions, 2 TD, 2 FG) -- tied 11th overall Atlanta: 100.0 percent (2 possessions, 2 TD, 0 FG) -- tied 26th overall
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
With Manning (253 passing yards, 2 TD) unequivocally proving he's fully recovered from the career-threatening neck injury that kept him out of commission for the entire 2011 campaign, expect the Broncos to attack an Atlanta secondary that's been weakened by the tough loss of Grimes. The crafty and always-prepared veteran should be able to find a few soft spots he can exploit, whether it's short underneath routes to two of his sure-handed former Colts teammates, Tamme (5 receptions, 1 TD) and seasoned slot man Brandon Stokley, or taking advantage of the dynamic after-the-catch abilities of the physically gifted Thomas (5 receptions, 110 yards, 1 TD), who demonstrated those skills on his dazzling and critical touchdown against the Steelers. Counterpart Eric Decker (5 receptions) brings another big body into the mix against a set of Atlanta cornerbacks that aren't overly large in stature, and the front line held up very well against a usually potent Pittsburgh pass rush despite not having the services of right guard Chris Kuper (broken arm). Denver can still run the ball if need be and won't be afraid to do so if the situation dictates, as 10th-year back Willis McGahee (64 rushing yards) is still a capable grinder between the tackles who provides a solid alternative to the team's efficient short passing game.
For the Falcons to succeed in their quest to keep Manning's damage to a minimum, getting better pressure than the Steelers did a week ago will be a must. Experienced coordinator Mike Nolan dialed up a lot of blitzes that were effective in frustrating Kansas City's Matt Cassel in the opener, but that could be a risky strategy against one of the league's most perceptive quarterbacks. Nolan will have to rely more on the front four to get the job done, but has a few proven players on a line headlined by sack artist John Abraham (3 tackles), who's tallied 113 takedowns over an outstanding 13-year career and got one against the Chiefs. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux also notched a sack last week and possesses the quickness to be a factor coming from the interior. They'll need to be as well in order to protect a depleted secondary that will now have marginal talent Chris Owens taking over in the slot with usual nickel back Dunta Robinson (3 tackles) kicking outside to Grimes' old post opposite veteran ball-hawk Asante Samuel (3 tackles, 1 PD). Linebackers Stephen Nicholas (12 tackles) and Sean Weatherspoon (7 tackles, 1 sack) are both pretty adept in coverage, however, as each demonstrated with a pick of Cassel last week, and also rank as the key members of a run-stopping effort that did permit 152 yards on the ground to the Chiefs.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
The days of Atlanta employing a run-based philosophy centered around bruiser Michael Turner (32 rushing yards) appear to be long gone, replaced by an up- tempo, no-huddle pass-oriented scheme that the heady Ryan (299 passing yards, 3 TD) deftly oversees. It helps that he has a trio of terrific targets to work with in the continually rising Jones (6 receptions, 108 yards, 2 TD), two-time 100-catch receiver Roddy White (6 receptions, 87 yards) and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (5 receptions, 1 TD), who's still a very relevant player at age 36. With Denver sporting two quality cornerbacks in Porter and venerable veteran Champ Bailey, Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas (3 receptions) could find themselves an integral part of the game plan come Sunday. Turner now splits time with the smaller but quicker Jacquizz Rodgers (22 rushing yards, 2 receptions) in the backfield, though neither made an impact in rushing for a pedestrian 54 yards on 18 carries against Kansas City. The line gave Ryan ample time to hit Jones, White and Gonzalez for several big gains, however, with Atlanta producing four passing plays of 25 yards or more in last week's victory.
An injury-riddled Kansas City defense wasn't equipped to handle Atlanta's fast-paced aerial assault, but the Broncos may have the personnel to fare better this week. Dumervil (4 tackles) and reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller (4 tackles) are both tremendous pass rushers who constantly wreaked havoc upon Roethlisberger in last week's big win, with Miller compiling two sacks and four tackles for losses from his outside linebacker spot. Porter had a stellar night as well in his Denver debut, with the ex-New Orleans Saints registering eight tackles and five passes defensed along with his pivotal interception touchdown to earn AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He teams with 11-time Pro Bowl participant Bailey to form a high-caliber cornerback duo, though the rest of the ranks are somewhat thin with nickel back Chris Harris (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks) questionable for Monday's game due to a sprained ankle. If he can't go, the replacement would be Tony Carter, a journeyman who's been on four times in four professional seasons. That's a potential issue along with creating stops on third down, where the Steelers went 11-of-19 in such situations in the opener. Stopping the run wasn't a problem for Denver last week, though, with Miller and weakside linebacker Wesley Woodyard (12 tackles, 1 sack) leading a swarm that held Pittsburgh to just 75 rushing yards on 26 tries.
This game should be a treat to watch, with two explosive offenses led by outstanding quarterbacks -- one among the league's young guns in Ryan and the other an esteemed member of the old guard in Manning -- capable of putting up copious amounts of points and splash plays. That said, the deciding factor may come down to which defense is better able to slow its opponent down. If that's indeed the case, Denver appears to have the advantage in that area with a greater number of playmakers in Miller, Bailey, Dumervil and Porter. Add in a superior running game to Manning's masterful mind, and the Broncos may just be one of the few teams built to withstand Atlanta' usual dominance in the Georgia Dome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 28, Falcons 23