Atlanta Falcons at Denver Broncos (-5.5, 47.5 o/u)
I’m going to be honest, ardent NFL fan though I am, I have a hard time getting excited for some games. It’s not easy to hype a Jacksonville/Tennessee TNF matchup; the “color rush” jerseys just ain’t that exciting.
Then there are games that are so friggin’ intriguing that they don’t need any additional hype from yours truly. One such is on tap for this Sunday (4:05 PM Eastern) when the Atlanta Falcons (3-1 SU and 3-1 ATS) travel to Mile High to face the Denver Broncos (4-0 SU and 4-0 ATS) in a battle between arguably the best offense and best defense in the league.
The Falcons’ offense has been rolling since Week 1, averaging a league-best 38 PPG. A lot people chalked that up to bad opponents early on, but they’ve now posted back-to-back 45-plus point efforts, one of which came against the reigning NFC champs, Carolina.
Matt Ryan (1,473 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions) is back to the elite form he was showing a few years ago. With a couple new weapons, like WR Mohammed Sanu, he is no longer forcing the ball to Julio Jones at all costs. Coupled with a strong, two-headed run game (124.5 rushing yards per game; sixth overall) led by Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Ryan and the offense have been virtually unstoppable.
Ironically, the more balanced attack has actually worked out well for Jones (22 reception, 488 yards, three touchdowns), personally. With Carolina forced to focus some man-power elsewhere, Julio went off for 300 yards and a major last week, the first time he’s hit three bills in his storied career.
The flip side for Atlanta is that its defense is still a mess. The unit is 30th in the league in total defense and their four sacks on the year sit dead-last. (When a 36-year-old Dwight Freeney is your only real pass-rush threat, it’s time to restock the cupboards.) The lack of pressure has led to the Falcons surrendering 31 PPG (29th).
Denver doesn’t exactly have an All-Pro under center, but Trevor Siemian (824 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions, 99.6 passer rating) has showed well in his first year as a starter. He’s protected the ball well (since Week 1 anyway) and allowed Denver’s dominant defense to lead the team to wins.
The young pivot had to leave last week’s game against Tampa with a shoulder injury, but believes he’ll be good to go on Sunday. In reality, it might not matter much. Rookie Paxton Lynch (170 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions, 94.1 passer rating) looked decent in Siemian’s place. If he’s called upon again, he should only look more comfortable with a week’s worth of prep under his belt.
Having two top-flight receivers – Demaryius Thomas (21 receptions, 332 yards, two touchdowns) and Emmanuel Sanders (25 receptions, 293 yards, three touchdowns) – will make the rookie’s life all the easier.
Regardless of the QB situation, coach Gary Kubiak will be leaning on his running game. C.J. Anderson (73 car, 252 yards, three touchdowns) has slowed his pace since a phenomenal Week 1, but is still a reliable workhorse. Denver will be looking to Anderson to grind out first downs, keep the clock ticking, and shorten the game. That will keep Ryan on the sidelines and the Denver defense rested.
A rested Denver defense isn’t something that any QB wants to see these days. Led by early Defensive Player of the Year front-runner Von Miller, the Broncos lead the NFL with 17 sacks. And that’s with DeMarcus Ware missing the last two weeks. The indomitable pass-rush has teamed with a superb secondary to give the Broncos the fifth-ranked total defense in the NFL.
A lot of people doubted whether the Broncos could re-create the success they found last season, especially with an untested QB. But the defense hasn’t missed a beat, and that’s led to four straight wins, both straight-up and against the spread. Atlanta’s recipe for success is to run the ball – the one area where the Denver D struggles – but Coleman (sickle cell trait) is likely to miss the game because of the altitude. I’ll lay the points with the home team.
Pick: Broncos -5.5.
Photo Credit: Arnie Papp (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.