The Denver Broncos and Sports Authority Field at Mile High will play host to the Atlanta Falcons in a high-profile Week 5 matchup between two of the NFL’s top teams. The defending Super Bowl champion Broncos improved to 4-0 on the season following last week’s 27-7 trouncing of the Buccaneers on the road. Denver is just one of three teams that remain undefeated and the only one in the AFC. The Broncos have won nine games in a row, a stretch that dates back to Week 16 of last season before their impressive Super Bowl 50 run.
In spite of all of their early-season success, the Broncos could be in for their biggest challenge to date this afternoon against a Falcons teams that boasts the league’s most productive offense. Denver’s defense is among the league leaders once again, but this unit will have its work cut out for it against an offense that is averaging nearly 480 yards and 38 points per game.
Thanks in large part to an explosive passing attack, Atlanta soars into Denver riding a three-game winning streak and holding a two-game lead in the NFC South. The Falcons’ high-powered offense overwhelmed the Panthers last week at home, en route to 48-33 victory. In that game, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones became the first quarterback-wide receiver duo in NFL history to combine for more than 500 passing yards and 300 receiving yards in the same game. As impressive as last week’s showing against a very good Carolina defense was, Atlanta’s offense will face its toughest test yet, trying to move the ball against the Broncos on their home turf. A victory this afternoon would not only extend the Falcons’ winning streak to four and solidify control of the NFC South, it also would give them back-to-back wins over Super Bowl 50 participants.
Atlanta at Denver
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 9 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Denver -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Atlanta Passing Attack vs. Denver Pass Defense
There is no question that this will be the marquee matchup in this game. The Falcons enter this game with the NFL’s most potent passing attack, leading the league in practically every statistical category, including yards (1,417), touchdowns (11) and pass plays of 20 yards or more (21). Matt Ryan has been absolutely on fire, following up his NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors with a monster 503-yard, four-touchdown performance last week against Carolina. Julio Jones also seems to be hitting his stride following a somewhat slow start to the season. Jones routinely torched Panthers cornerback Bene Benwikere last Sunday on his way to posting 12 receptions for 300 yards a touchdown. It was so bad that Benwikere actually lost his job and was released by Carolina earlier this week.
Jones will be in for a much bigger challenge this afternoon against lockdown cornerback Aqib Talib and an elite Broncos secondary. Ryan also will have a tough time trying to navigate his way around Denver’s “no fly zone.” That is if he can avoid a stellar pass rush led by Von Miller, whose 5.5 sacks helped him earn AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for September. While the Falcons’ aerial assault is currently hitting on all cylinders, Ryan and company will have a difficult time continuing that trend against a Broncos defense that that has lowest passer rating against (61.3) and is second in the league with 17 sacks (Arizona has 18 after playing on Thursday night). Denver also has surrendered just two touchdown passes and zero pass plays of 40 yards or more.
2. The Falcons’ Defense
The weak link for Atlanta is its defense. The Falcons rank near the bottom in both total (419.3 ypg) and scoring (31.0 ppg) defense. They have been particularly poor against the pass, allowing 317 yards per game, which ties them for second to last in the NFL. The pass rush has been almost non-existent with just four sacks on the season, tying them with the Giants for the fewest in the league.
Atlanta’s defense could catch a slight break if Trevor Siemian is unable to return from an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Regardless, you have to like the Broncos’ chances against an anemic Falcons defense, even with rookie Paxton Lynch starting at quarterback. Lynch was solid in relief duty of Siemian last week, and while Denver isn’t a juggernaut on offense, they still should be able to find some success moving the ball against what has been a generous Atlanta defense to this point.
3. Atlanta Running Game vs. Denver Run Defense
While much of the attention will be paid to the Falcons’ passing attack vs. the Broncos’ stout secondary and pass rush, Atlanta’s running game could an x-factor in this game. The Falcons enter this game ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing, averaging close to 125 yards per game. If Denver’s defense has shown any weakness, it has been against teams that can run the ball. The Broncos are giving up 114 yards per game and have surrendered more than twice as many touchdowns on the ground (five) compared to through the air (two). It’s also worth noting that three of the Denver’s opponents thus far (Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Cincinnati) rank 24th or worse when it comes to rushing offense, so the Broncos have benefitted somewhat from their schedule.
The Falcons’ ground game is led by Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who have combined for 451 yards and five touchdowns through four games. As a team, Atlanta is averaging nearly five yards per carry had has yet to lose a fumble when the Falcons run the ball. If Atlanta can get things going early on the ground, it will go a long way in helping open up the passing attack, whether it be taking shots downfield or utilizing more play-action. It will be crucial for Atlanta to find balance on offense, especially if Denver continues to give up some yards and big plays on the ground.
Atlanta’s offense has been spectacular thus far this season, Matt Ryan and the passing game in particular. Denver’s defense has been just as impressive in its own right. The difference is that we have seen flashes of greatness from the Falcons’ offense in the past, only to watch it flop at some point later in the season. The same cannot be said for a Broncos defense that has been the model of consistency over the last two seasons and was a big reason why Denver won Super Bowl 50. Atlanta’s offense may in fact be legitimate this time around. However, when you compare the track records of the two units, it’s only logical to favor the Broncos. Plus, a great defense almost always trumps a great offense in these types of matchups. There also is the matter of the Falcons’ defense, which hasn’t given any indication that it can stop any team on a consistent basis. Denver’s offense may not be able to match firepower with Atlanta, but there’s no comparison on the other side of the ball and home-field advantage certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Prediction: Broncos 27, Falcons 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.