GameDay: Denver at Atlanta

Week 1 produced a plethora of stories but few were more encouraging than Peyton Manning looking like the Peyton Manning of old and the Atlanta Falcons finally looking like a team ready to Dirty Bird their way to the franchise’s first Super Bowl since 1998.
In a rematch of said Super Bowl both teams have all the momentum in the world and, ironically enough, will have all the eyes of the world watching their respective performances tonight.  What’ll be crazy when the final whistle sounds tonight is that, after two weeks of the NFL season only six teams will be undefeated at 2-0. (Another six will be 0-2 while 20 will be muddle in the middle at 1-1).
Will it be Peyton’s Broncos or Matty Ice’s Falcons soaring above the rest? We’ll know soon enough.
Tonight’s Important Numbers (5Dimes)
LINE: Atlanta -2 1/2 (-135), Denver +2 1/2 (+115)
OVER/UNDER: 51 (O: -110, Under: -110)
The Breakdown
The hardest part about breaking down any Denver game this season is Denver hasn’t played a season with a reputable quarterback since John Elway’s swan song in 1998. Peyton changes everything about Denver, especially lines and the potential for usually safe over/under bets to be crushed by one of those lethal Peyton-type games. Take last week as an example. While everyone expected the Broncos to put up a fight there were few, myself included, who thought Denver would handle Pittsburgh. That’s exactly what happened as Peyton surgically dissected the Steelers defense en route to a 31-19 victory. Denver was a slim 3-point favorite at kickoff, a number given strictly since Denver was playing at home. Was it all Peyton? Could Denver have scored 31 points on a Pittsburgh defense with Kyle Orton under center? Is this the end of the road for the vaunted Steelers defense, which is getting older and older?
The Falcons, one of the betting favorites at the start of the season, looked like one of the league’s elite teams in throttling the Chiefs, on the road, in Week 1. Remember, Kansas City was supposed to contend for the AFC West crown led by a stellar (and finally healthy) defense. That assumption seems silly given Atlanta putting up 40 points on Kansas City in a game that could have been worse. Matt Ryan threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns in what felt like a near-perfect game. While the Falcons couldn’t run the ball (23 total carries for 84 yards) it was still able to mix in enough change-of-pace runs to keep Kansas City’s defense off balance.
So much has changed since these teams last played each other. It was a mid-November game in 2008 with the Broncos going on the road and beating the Falcons, 24-20. (Denver was a 6.5-point underdog in that game with Jay Cutler at quarterback). It was a nip-and-tuck game throughout but it was a Cutler TD pass to TE Daniel Graham with 5:35 to play that gave Denver the lead and ended the scoring.
Michael Turner was enjoying his role as a first-time starter at running back that year. He did tote the rock for a pair of touchdowns but 81 yards on 25 carries (3.2 ypc) wasn’t great. Matt Ryan tossed for 250 yards that day but did throw an interception. While some Atlanta faces are the same (Roddy White had 5 catches for 102 yards that day) most of the Broncos offense is different. That makes looking at that game for any help almost pointless. But, it’s still interesting to look at nonetheless.
While both teams would love to run the ball, let’s not be fooled: These teams will light it up through the air. Teams that struggle to run the football (read: the Detroit Lions) use short passes to running backs or tight ends to act as a running game. While the Falcons and Broncos aren’t on that level of ineptitude of running the football, both have the ability to utilize the short pass if running between the tackles is proving to be as useful as banging their heads against a wall.
Let’s look strictly at Peyton’s history: In his last six regular season games, obviously dating back to his 2010 season with the Colts, Peyton has guided his offense to at least 30 points in five of those six games. His team is 5-1 in those games, though it should be noted the loss came in a 38-35 defeat to Dallas, not the one game where his team didn’t top 30 points (a 23-20 win vs. Tennessee). Now, when you get into the playoffs things change (see: NY Jets 17, Indianapolis 16 in the 2011 playoffs). But this isn’t a playoff game. There will be some intensity but it won’t come close to a playoff atmosphere.
When Atlanta wins it tends to cover the spread. In the Falcons’ 10 wins last year, Matt Ryan guided his team to a cover in seven of those games with another push. One of the failed covers was a 23-17 win against Tennessee when Atlanta was a 6.5-point favorite. In the team’s six losses, it failed to cover the spread every game.
The pick
This all boils down to how you feel about the Falcons’ chances. If you’re sure Atlanta is going to hold serve at home it would make sense to follow Atlanta’s trend of covering when winning.
I came across an amazing stat today compliments of Michael Collins at RantSports: Atlanta has made 33 Monday Night Football appearances and won just nine games. That’s right. Atlanta is 9-24 on Monday Night Football, a whopping .273 winning percentage that is the second worst in NFL history. It trails only the Houston Texans (1-3, .250).
It might also behoove of you to notice Peyton Manning is 11-3 all time on Monday Night Football, the best winning percentage of any quarterback.
There have been so many surprises already this season (New Orleans at 0-2, Arizona winning at New England to name a few) that it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the new-look Broncos roll the Falcons tonight in the Georgia Dome. Will it happen? I doubt it, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see another 31-20 score in favor of Peyton’s gang. I would be leery of the over/under of 51 as it could go either way or, as luck would have it, end up right on the number in a 27-24 or 31-20 game. I'd lean toward the under but would advise passing on that tonight. But, I do advise taking Denver +2 ½ knowing the statistics back up your thinking.