Submitted by Jim Hurley on Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Peyton Manning sure passed his first test for the Denver Broncos with flying colors. He didn’t just move well. He didn’t just throw well. He didn’t just run the shotgun offense like he’d never missed a minute…he beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-19 while passing for over 250 yards!
There were concerns that Denver would have huge troubles with an early schedule that featured Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston, Oakland, New England, San Diego, and New Orleans in succession. Had Manning been rusty, or not really back to full strength. The Broncos were legitimately looking at a 2-5 or 1-6 start…and 0-7 wasn’t out of the question if Oakland and San Diego had cleaned up their acts.
Now, just one week into the season, people are wondering if the Broncos can come out of that stretch with a winning record. Neither the Raiders nor Chargers knocked anybody’s socks off this past Monday. New Orleans lost at home to Washington. And, Manning looked like the Manning of old. The best Colts teams weren’t afraid of anybody anywhere. He could win at Atlanta as a three-point dog. He could squeeze out home wins over Houston and New Orleans in similar fashion to what we saw against Pittsburgh. Who knows?
The Falcons will certainly provide a tough test tonight. It’s more difficult to win on the road than it is at home, particularly when the out-of-shape Steelers were sucking oxygen by the second quarter. Atlanta looked very sharp last week vs. Kansas City. They’re a playoff caliber team with their eyes on a bigger prize this season. Hey, Peyton, win TONIGHT…and then we can talk about Houston and New England and New Orleans.
Let’s see what our indicator categories say about tonight’s game…
DENVER BRONCOS AT ATLANTA FALCONS (8:35 p.m. ET on ESPN)
Las Vegas Spread: Atlanta by 3, total of 51
The line opened at Atlanta by 3.5, and was bet down to the key number of three by early action. Right now the market sees these as relatively even teams…which is a testament to the respect they have for Manning. The Over/Under opened at 49 and was bet up right away. Some of that was a reaction to increased scoring all over the NFL back in Week One. But, it was also influenced by Manning and Matt Ryan passing for 253 and 292 yards respectively without any interceptions.
2011 WON-LOST RECORDS/SCHEDULE STRENGTH
Denver: 8-8 (10th ranked schedule according to USA Today)
Atlanta: 10-6 (16th ranked schedule according to USA Today)
This will be our final inclusion of last year’s stats in our NFL previews, as we transition to 2012 only from this point forward in next week’s games. Atlanta was a playoff caliber team playing exactly a league average schedule. They didn’t match up well with the NY Giants in the playoffs. Nobody else did either! Denver managed a crazy 8-8 last year vs. a tough schedule, which largely featured Tim Tebow playing horrible for three quarters before overpowering opponents in the fourth quarter when they got tired. Old news now.
2011 TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
Switching from Tebow to Manning should have a huge impact in this category. Denver is likely to be on the right side of zero unless the defense just can’t force anything. Atlanta does a nice solid job here finding a good balance. Most studies we’ve seen have shown that about +0.5 per game is the best you can do “on purpose” in this category before luck comes into play (unless you’re hyper-conservative like SF and prefer to punt all day). Atlanta does what it can do. Note that the Falcons were +3 last week vs. Kansas City in a stadium that often intimidates visitors into miscues. We’ll give the edge here to Atlanta since it’s their home turf.
2011 OFFENSIVE STATS
Denver: 316.6 yards-per-game on 5.0 yards-per-play
Atlanta: 376.6 yards-per-game on 5.6 yards-per-play
Solid stuff from Atlanta, though they may have to push that 5.6 up a smidge if they want to compete with the true elites in the NFC. Being good enough to win at least a Wildcard each year isn’t quite the same as being a championship contender every year. Denver averaged 6.6 yards-per-play vs. Pittsburgh last week, representing a huge upgrade from the woes of Tebow.
2011 DEFENSIVE STATS
Denver: 357.8 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play
Atlanta: 333.6 yards-per-game on 5.5 yards-per-play
Denver earned a defensive reputation last year…but it’s hard to find greatness in those numbers. That’s roughly league average per play and poor in yards-per-game. They will have a better chance to succeed this year because of Manning’s game management skills. Atlanta is in that range where they’re allowing less than what their own offense gains…but they’re not playing championship style defense. They have to decide if they’re going to play the Green Bay/New Orleans style and live with a medium defense…or the NYG/SF style and clamp down more when the other team has the ball. At this point, they’ve settled into a quality no-man’s land that wins just enough to get into the postseason before you lose to somebody more dynamic.
IMPORTANT CHANGES IN 2012
We’ve already discussed the addition of Manning to Denver. That was one of the most important chances for the whole league not just the Broncos. And, it’s the reason Denver started out 2012 playing a Sunday Night game on NBC followed by an Monday Night game on ESPN! The league knows a marquee draw when it has one.
LAST WEEK’S BOXES
DENVER 31, PITTSBURGH 19
Total Yardage: Pittsburgh 318, Denver 349
Rushing Yards: Pittsburgh 75, Denver 96
Passing Stats: Pittsburgh 22-40-1-243, Denver 19-26-0-253
Turnovers: Pittsburgh 1, Denver 1
Third Downs: Pittsburgh 58%, Denver 56%
Vegas Line: Denver by 1.5, total of 46
Denver did have a defensive touchdown that helped their lead swell late in the game. Manning played extremely well (check out the third down rates!), but the team as a whole was going to sweat the ending until that pick six off Ben Roethlisberger. The defense can’t hope to win here if they allow 58% on third downs again.
ATLANTA 40, KANSAS CITY 24
Total Yardage: Atlanta 376, Kansas City 393
Rushing Yards: Atlanta 84, Kansas City 152
Passing Stats: Atlanta 23-31-0-292, Kansas City 21-33-2-241
Turnovers: Atlanta 0, Kansas City 3
Third Downs: Atlanta 50%, Kansas City 68%
Vegas Line: Atlanta by 3, total of 43
Similar story here in terms of sharp play being boosted by cheap points. Nothing to complain about on the offensive side of the ball for the Falcons. The defense almost allowed 400 yards and let the Chiefs convert a ridiculous 11 of 16 third down tries. Manning will have a field day if the Falcons don’t pick up the pace defensively. Even rusty, he’s better than Matt Cassel.
If Manning doesn’t suffer a letdown, then this is likely to be a shootout. But, if he does drop back a bit now that the anticipation of the new season has worn off…then Atlanta could be in position to post a big result here. This is a dome…with a loud crowd…and a home team that doesn’t want to be embarrassed by Peyton Manning! It will be up to Manning to determine the team side and the total in our view. JIM HURLEY has been working very closely with his sources in Denver to get a read on the mindset of this team. Confidence would yield a dog-and-over-combo…complacency might set up a major release on the Falcons.
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