The Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons are two of the NFL’s more intriguing teams this year, and that makes their Monday night showdown something of a must-watch event.
With the New Orleans Saints obviously not themselves right now, there is a huge hole atop the NFC South that the Falcons and Carolina Panthers are both hoping to fill. The Panthers did their part this weekend – now it's Atlanta’s turn. On the other side of things, it appears as though control of the AFC West will come down to a two-team race between the San Diego Chargers and the Broncos. The latter is better, but the former has an easier schedule.
With all that in mind, here are three things from each team to keep an eye on during tonight’s game.
1. How does Peyton Manning look?
There was a noticeable shift in Peyton Manning’s attitude and the offense’s general flow when the Broncos opted to go no-huddle last week. Even though Manning was 4-of-7 before making that switch, you could just tell that he wasn’t comfortable. As soon as they went no-huddle, though, he went 15-of-19 and ultimately finished the day with 253 yards and two scores. How Manning chooses to play coming out of the gate is definitely something to keep an eye on.
2. Can the defense put pressure on Matt Ryan?
Von Miller is one of the fiercest young pass rushers around, but the Falcons (sort of) know how to protect Matt Ryan. Last week, even though they didn’t do much for the running game, the line was able to hold strong and only let Ryan get sacked once. He was pressured a few times and probably wasn’t as comfortable throughout the night as he wished he could be, but it wasn’t a Chicago Bears-type situation. If the line can keeps the likes of Miller, Elvis Dumervil and Joe Mays off Ryan, Denver’s secondary will have a tough time covering Roddy White and Julio Jones.
3. Can the run game get going early?
Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball combined for 91 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries last week. Peyton Manning probably wishes he could get a bit more support than that while he feels out his new receivers, but he isn’t going to get it. If Denver's coaching staff can get the same contributions from the ground attack this week that they got last week, they’ll probably be happy with that.
1. Can Matt Ryan avoid getting sacked?
Matt Ryan (mostly) managed to avoid getting sacked last week, and because of that he was able to torch the Kansas City Chiefs en route to 299 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-31 passing. Ryan has a couple of great targets in Julio Jones and Roddy White, it’s just a matter of him staying upright long enough to find them.
2. Will the running game provide any sort of support?
Last week the Falcons got 59 yards of rushing from Michael Turner, Jackquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. That’s not going to cut it. Denver is going to dare Atlanta to run the ball tonight and, if they can’t, that might ultimately seal this squad’s fate very early in the ballgame.
3. How does the secondary look?
Obviously the loss of Brent Grimes was huge, and it remains to be seen how the Falcons will compensate for that. Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson are Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson – but Peyton Manning has a strange way of making mediocre receiving options look good. The secondary’s ability to make Manning wary of airing it out will be just as important to the defense as the rushing attack will be to the offense.