Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 9/18/12

After a weekend full of exciting football matchups, I was excited to watch the Monday night game featuring the meeting of two undefeated teams, the Denver Broncos visiting the Atlanta Falcons.

Ok, the league has only played one week, but Denver was impressive in beating Pittsburgh 31 to 19 at home on September 9 in the Sunday night game while Atlanta used a dominant second half in beating Kansas City 40 to 24 on a Sunday afternoon. 

The fan bases of each respective team were thinking bold thoughts of championship potential, but they would need to show well in the matchup to build upon those expectations. 

Atlanta took advantage of four first half turnovers to stake themselves to a 20 to 7 lead and extended it to 20 points before Peyton Manning and the Broncos rallied with two late touchdowns to get the game to 27 to 21, but they couldn’t get any closer as Atlanta held on for the win. 

Denver drops to 1 and 1 on the year with the loss and returns home to host Houston while Atlanta travels to the west coast to play San Diego, one of Denver’s key rivals in their division. 

While my bold predictions didn’t exactly pan out as much as I’d like, we did learn five things from the proceedings:

1. The game tempo and flow was irreparably harmed by the replacement officials.  

Football fans are well aware of the issues surrounding the NFL and their regular officials, so we’ve borne witness to two weeks of odd calls, player and coach frustration, and everyone hoping the league would finally reach out to their veterans to resolve their impasse. The Monday night game took almost four hours to complete, and featured two incorrect pass interference calls, multiple errors in marking the correct yardage after a penalty, two near scuffles in the first half after tension filled plays, and a near constant verbal assault from Denver head coach John Fox.

While I agree that players and coaches need to show some respect and realize the replacements are doing the best they can, their cause isn’t being helped with some glaring errors. I hope everyone involved realizes the embarrassment of the situation and that both sides can come to a quick resolution.

2. Peyton Manning is actually capable of making mistakes, but he’s also capable of rallying his team when needed.  

I had to look back to find a previous game where Manning threw three interceptions in a game much less within one quarter and while Manning has had some tough efforts in his career, it’s rare to see him make too many mistakes repeatedly.   However, Atlanta was able to play aggressive defense and forced the Denver quarterback into three picks in the first 15 minute period. Denver actually had four turnovers overall as running back Knowshon Moreno fumbled after a carry, allowing Atlanta to build up an early lead.

What impressed me about Manning is after all the mistakes in the first quarter, he still kept his composure and helped the Broncos pull the game to within six points late in the fourth quarter. He might not be 100 percent physically yet, but mentally, he’s one of the best quarterbacks to have ever suited up in the NFL.

3. Matt Ryan is the real deal for Atlanta and has become a true team leader for the Falcons.

Atlanta has dealt with much during the past 20 odd years in the NFL from the Glanville era to Dan Reeves to Michael Vick, and they’ve been searching for a leader to rally around. Since being drafted in 2008 by Atlanta with the third overall pick in the Draft, Ryan has been a near constant presence under center for the Falcons.

Decisive with the ball, having a cannon for an arm but nimble enough to scramble for yards when needed and a master of the two minute drill, Ryan has become the complete deal for Atlanta.

Against Denver, he took advantage of the Denver turnovers to stake his team to a lead until Denver turned up the defensive pressure. While it took some time to adjust, Ryan was able to hold onto the ball late and run out the clock to secure the win.

4. The Atlanta defense was able to confuse the entire Denver Broncos offense with their scheme.

Is it an all out blitz, or is it zone coverage with a stunt from the line? Considering that Atlanta’s defense was in near constant motion before every Denver offensive snap with constant adjustments and they varied their attack and blitzes each time, it’s no wonder that Denver struggled to find room to work for most of the first half.

Atlanta harassed Manning into three interceptions early, and while Denver eventually started to find running room to make the game close, Atlanta made some key stops late in the game to help their team hold on for victory.

5. Atlanta will be a serious factor in the NFC playoff race, and could be a Super Bowl contender. 

In two weeks, the Falcons have amassed 67 points on offense, two impressive wins, and some remarkable offensive statistics. Where I came  away impressed with the Falcons is that they are incredibly balanced with a defense that is capable of pressuring the opposing quarterback, creating turnovers with solid defensive backs and safeties, and special teams players that aid in the field position game.

Falcons Coach Mike Smith has put together a solid group of players capable of winning anywhere, but Atlanta is aided with a very winnable schedule that should favor them each week out. If they can remain healthy and avoid costly mistakes, this team could be a huge factor in the NFC playoff race.

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