ATLANTA – Peyton Manning's second game with the Denver Broncos looked nothing like his first.
Manning threw interceptions on Denver's first three possessions, and the Broncos could not recover from the poor start in a 27-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
"We put ourselves in a hole," Manning said. "I thought we could find a little momentum there, find some rhythm, which we did. I thought we could give ourselves a chance to win. I never once thought the game was over. It would be difficult."
In a 3-hour, 27-minute game marred by questionable decisions from replacement officials and long clock stoppages, Denver (1-1) had turnovers on four on its first five possessions, but the Falcons (2-0) didn't put the game away until they converted a third down with 2 minutes remaining and ran out the clock.
Manning, the NFL's only four-time MVP, completed 24 of 37 for 241 yards, one touchdown, the three picks and a 58.5 passer rating.
"You know he is going to get better," Denver coach John Fox said. "I think we learned a lot about our team tonight and realizing you can't be minus-4 in the turnover ratio and expect to win many games."
The Broncos got a big boost from running back Willis McGahee, who finished with 113 yards on 22 carries. McGahee scored two 2-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter as Manning tried to rally Denver from a 20-point deficit.
Demaryius Thomas finished with 78 yards receiving on eight catches, including a 17-yard TD that cut the lead to 20-7 with 6 seconds remaining in the first half.
The Broncos' franchise dropped to 7-26 in Monday road games.
A week after he won his Denver debut with a home victory over Pittsburgh, Manning looked to be suffering from a wobbly release on his passing attempts, and the raucous Georgia Dome crowd of 70,427 made it tough for him to communicate with his teammates.
The last time Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter was in Indianapolis' 23-21 loss at San Diego on Nov. 11, 2007.
It was an uncharacteristic prime time start for the four-time NFL MVP, who dropped to 11-4 on Mondays.
The poor start doomed him.
On the game's third play from scrimmage, Manning threw into triple coverage to Jacob Tamme, but Falcons strong safety William Moore stepped in front of the tight end for an interception.
Moore ran down the left sideline 33 yards before Orlando Franklin tackled him at the 1.
Falcons running back Michael Turner soon jumped over a stack of Atlanta and Denver linemen to cross the ball over the goal line for a 7-0 lead with 13:20 left in the first quarter.
On Manning's next possession, free safety Thomas DeCoud picked him off for a 15-yard return. After Julio Jones dropped what would have been a 19-yard touchdown pass from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the left corner of the end zone, Matt Bryant followed with a 37-yard field goal to make it 10-0 at the 9:46 mark.
"I think coach (Mike) Nolan and their defense did a good job of disguising and mixing it up on us," Broncos receiver Eric Decker said of the Falcons' defensive coordinator. "Unfortunately, if you turn the ball over, you can't win ballgames against a good team. "Manning's third pick went to Robert McClain, a reserve cornerback who was taking his first snap because Asante Samuel injured his neck on the previous play.
Samuel returned to the field on Denver's next possession, whiffing on McGahee's 31-yard run, but stopping Tamme 1 yard short of a first down to force a punt two snaps later.
On the next-to-last snap of the first quarter, Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas forced a fumble by Knoshown Moreno near the Denver sideline and Sean Weatherspoon recovered for Atlanta.
A scrum began after the Falcons were awarded the ball.
Fox was on the field trying to restore order as players from both teams shoved each other.
As Samuel was walking away, Broncos guard Zane Beadles ran into him and knocked him down.
Samuel quickly jumped up, and Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards appeared to throw a punch at a Denver player.
Fox sidestepped whether the game's unsteady flow hurt his team.
"In this league, you have to overcome a lot of things," Fox said, "and we don't use officiating as an excuse."
Manning, who had a 31.2 passer rating in the first quarter, wasn't interested in dissecting each mistake, though he did accept the blame.
"Each turnover has its own story that nobody really wants to hear, I don't think," Manning said, "so I've just got to take care of the ball better."
On Sunday, Manning's brother, Eli, threw three interceptions in the first half then rallied the New York Giants to a 41-34 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After Moreno's fumble, the Falcons ran 10 plays before Bryant kicked a 42-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead.
The Falcons snapped a six-game losing streak on Mondays and improved to 1-4 under coach Mike Smith.
Atlanta hadn't won on a Monday since Dec. 12, 2005 against New Orleans.
It appeared that Denver's last chance to get back in the game ended midway through the fourth when Moore blitzed off the right side and sacked Manning for a 13-yard loss back to the Broncos' 45.
But Atlanta's offense followed with its second straight three-and-out, and the Broncos pulled within six of the lead when McGahee, with 3:25 left in the game, ran for his second 2-yard touchdown of the first quarter.
"The turnovers didn't help us, but you can't blame anything on one person," Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. "(Manning) gave us a chance to win in the end. It is what it is. The defense made as many mistakes as the offense, but no matter what, we can build on this."
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