ESPN tried to throw a Peyton party Monday night. Some guys wearing red almost turned it into a pity party. The Worldwide Leader sought to show the world the greatness that is Peyton Manning; the Falcons almost made you feel sorry for the old guy.
Almost, I said.
We can only hope that some who tuned in to watch Peyton stuck around to appreciate the team in red. It ain’t bad, folks. It’s better than it was last season, maybe better than in the 13-3 run of 2010. In Week 1 the Falcons let Kansas City hang around before pulling away on the road. On Monday night they never let Denver get started. It was 10-0 barely five minutes in, 20-0 late in the second quarter, 27-7 midway through the third.
Of Peyton’s first eight passes, four were caught by Broncos; three were snagged by Falcons. In order, the interceptors were William Moore, Thomas DeCoud and Robert McClain. There were those who thought Manning would lay waste to a secondary minus the injured Brent Grimes, but he needed nearly all the first half to lead his team to its first points, and those came only after a replay review of a frankly outrageous Demaryius Thomas catch.
Which brings us to the officiating. It was awful. The first half lasted one hour, 48 minutes, and the inaction was largely because of the replacement refs — the regulars are locked out — having little idea what was what. One Atlanta touchdown was overruled by technology; the aforementioned first Denver score was posted only after TV corrected the man on the scene.
The low point — we’re talking sinkholes now — came when the Broncos’ Knowshon Moreno, who used to be a big deal around here, fumbled at the end of the first quarter. Players from both teams gave impassioned tutorials in the fine art of pointing. The refs stood around and gawked, apparently afraid to offend either side. A Broncos lineman nudged one official, perhaps in the effort to end the deliberation, and then the players started shoving each other, and Denver coach John Fox lent his perspective, and the Falcons’ Ray Edwards got himself flagged for unnecessary roughness.
Days later, it was determined that Sean Weatherspoon had recovered. The Falcons didn’t score off that turnover — Denver’s fourth of the quarter — and their lead remained only 10-0. For long moments it seemed as if they’d live to rue this squandered chance, but in the end there would be no cause for ruing. They were too good for Denver, too good for the famous Peyton Manning.
“When you get an opportunity to steal possessions against a very good offense, you’ve got to make them pay,” Falcons coach Mike Smith would say. “We played a good game, but there are lots of things we have to address.”
As we know, the Falcons changed both coordinators over the winter. Most of the attention has fallen on Dirk Koetter, the new offensive man, and he had his coming-out moment in Kansas City. This night was the time of introduction for Mike Nolan, charged with energizing a mediocre defense. Nolan’s schemes flummoxed Manning early, and if you do that you’ve done something.
“The way we were disguising things, I think we had him on his heels,” DeCoud said. “To be able to do that is a testament to how we’ve grown as a team. It’s a testament that we’ve taken the next step.”
Nolan’s No-Names won this one. The offense didn’t move much. Michael Turner went mostly nowhere, and Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez managed to drop two passes apiece. (The massively gifted Jones even flubbed a touchdown that would have made it 14-nil.) But this “D” kept giving the ball back to Matt Ryan, and finally the Falcons stitched together two nice-looking touchdown drives.
The second made the score 27-7, and even after the Broncos scored to draw within 13 points early in the fourth, there was no sense that this would be Peyton’s night. Those early turnovers would have taxed even the Manning of old’s comeback prowess, and this wasn’t quite the Manning of old — just an older Manning.
By beating such a famous opponent, the Falcons served notice that their time might well be hand. They’re still not a finished product — the running game needs serious work — but they have enough talent to make them a serious NFC player. They’ve had it for a while. Difference is, they’ve got coaches inclined to let that talent have its way.
Eight minutes left, Denver trailing by 13 points but facing third-and-6 at the Falcons’ 36. Remember the soft zones of Brian VanGorder? Remember how Nolan, in his introductory teleconference, said he’d like to have 10 guys getting four sacks apiece rather than four guys getting 10? Well, here was your moment of both departure and arrival. Moore, the strong safety, came clean off the left side and sacked Manning.
The Broncos would score with 3:25 left to draw within 27-21, and now it was nervous time. Would the Falcons flop again in prime time, this time blowing a 20-point lead? Would they, after all their good work, remind us that they’re still the feckless Falcons?
Nope. Ryan found Jones for a vital first down with 2 1/2 minutes left, Ryan dodging a hard rush to buy his receiver the needed nanosecond to shake loose. Then Turner finally broke free for the clincher, and the party-crashers had their victory. The Falcons were 2-0, alone atop the NFC South. Even better, they were 1-0 against Peyton Manning. And when last this team beat Peyton, it wound up in the Super Bowl. You could look it up.
By Mark Bradley