In what is easily the marquee matchup of Week 5 in the NFL, the 3-1 Atlanta Falcons fly into Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the undefeated Denver Broncos.
The Falcons are currently one of the best teams in the NFC and lead the NFC South by two games. The Broncos are the only team in the AFC that has not sustained a loss.
The Falcons' offense comes into this game on a high. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards and four touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers in Week 4. Wide receiver Julio Jones had 300 yards receiving.
This is the first time in NFL history a quarterback/wide receiver duo had 500 yards passing and 300 yards receiving in the same game. That is rarefied air. Not unlike the altitude the Falcons will be playing in Sunday in Denver.
"We are hitting on all cylinders as far as the passing game because we had a great week last week in the run game. Carolina figured they were going to come out here and stop the run game and they tried to do that. They left me one-on-one out there and we made some explosive plays down the field," the three-time Pro Bowl selection Jones said.
The Falcons' passing attack of Ryan to Jones will face a distinctly different test this weekend. Atlanta's No. 1-ranked passing attack in the NFL will face the No. 2 pass defense of the Broncos. The Falcons average 354.2 yards passing per game. The offense has scored 152 points to lead the league. With Ryan leading the aerial attack, the team has 21 pass plays of more than 20 yards.
In contrast, the Broncos' defense designed by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has only allowed an average of 169.5 yards through the air. The secondary, led by cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., has only allowed six passes of 20-plus yards and zero of 40 yards or more. The Denver defense also leads the NFL in sacks with 17 this season.
One of the main in-game battles to focus on will be Atlanta's Jones going up against Talib. Both have Pro Bowl credentials. Both players are physical players at the line of scrimmage and when the football is in the air.
Jones enters the game leading the NFL in receiving with 488 yards. Talib is tied for second in the NFL with three interceptions. Jones and Talib have a history of facing each other.
In a 30-23 New England Patriots win over the Falcons in 2013, Talib covered Jones almost exclusively. The cornerback defended four passes and added an interception. The winner of this matchup could go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
The Falcons' offensive line has played well all season and has only allowed nine sacks. The front five, led by center Alex Mack, will need to play strong against the best sacking team in the NFL.
"I think all five of those guys have really played extremely well through the first quarter of the season," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "An offensive line is all about the chemistry. I think we've got a good group of five guys that are playing really good ball right now."
The Broncos have their own defensive chemistry in outside linebacker Von Miller, who leads the NFL with 5.5 sacks, and defensive end Derek Wolfe, who has four sacks. While Miller has all the commercials, the big contact and the notoriety, Wolfe's teammates rave about him.
"He's the anchor up front. He stops the run. He can rush the passer. We love Wolfe, man. He's definitely a Pro Bowl guy, I think. He just goes unnoticed because we have so many stars on our team," Harris said.
Both of the Broncos' quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, played in the win over the Buccaneers. Siemian was knocked out of the game with a left shoulder injury, but head coach Gary Kubiak expects the second-year signal caller to start against the Falcons. However, Kubiak isn't ruling out having the rookie Lynch ready either.
He said, "We're probably going to need them both. It's just kind of the nature of the business now-a-days. Here we are, four weeks into the season, and we've used them both to get to where we're at. It's exciting to watch both of them grow and both of them prepare each week. I think they both have bright futures. That's great for our organization."
The Broncos have been solid on offense but not spectacular. The main key has been their lack of turnovers. Denver is plus-three in turnover ratio and will need to protect the football against a Falcons defense that has caused five turnovers. Four of those turnovers have been interceptions. Whichever quarterback plays for Denver will need to be leery of cornerback Robert Alford, who has two interceptions this season.