One could argue the top story line heading into Week 5 should be the return of Tom Brady. After serving his four-game suspension for his role – or lack thereof – in the Deflategate scandal (hopefully the last time I ever mention those words), Brady rejoins the 3-1 Patriots in what should be a lopsided affair against the Browns. But, we’ve known for months that the future Hall of Fame quarterback would return on Sunday. For me, talking about Brady’s return is like beating a dead horse.
We need to be talking about the Broncos and the Falcons. Perhaps few experts would have guessed the Broncos would be undefeated at this point. Even fewer might have predicted quarterback Trevor Siemian, the unsuspecting Northwestern graduate, to be the ringleader of a solid offense.
As surprising as Denver’s season may be to many, I am pleasantly surprised by the offensive prowess of the Atlanta Falcons. For years we’ve been expecting big things from Matty Ice, but injuries, weak offensive line performance, and inconsistency derailed the Falcons in the past. Those troubles appear to be an afterthought now as Matt Ryan dominated the Carolina defense in Week 4 en route to a 500-passing-yard performance. Of course, you’ve already heard that Julio Jones was on the receiving end of 300 of those passing yards. The explosive duo set a record, becoming the first quarterback-receiver combo to pass for 500 yards and to tally 300 receiving yards in a single game in NFL history.
On Sunday at 4:05pm EST Atlanta’s incendiary offense will face off against Denver’s formidable defense at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. The 3-1 Falcons lead the NFC South and the 4-0 Broncos are atop the AFC West. In no way am I suggesting this match up as a potential Super Bowl preview, but I surely want to see how Atlanta’s play makers fair against the league’s top defense.
The Broncos’ defense definitely gives Denver the advantage here, but don’t sleep on the Falcons’ unit either. Earlier this week Atlanta signed former Packers’ and Bengals’ linebacker AJ Hawk to short-term deal to bolster the interior linebacker group. While he’s far from his prime, his experience will help a squad that lost Sean Witherspoon to a ruptured Achilles. Paul Worrilow (groin) and Deion Jones (calf) also suffered injuries in Week 4, necessitating the addition of Hawk.
Desmond Trufant is one of the top lock down cornerbacks in the NFL. He should be matched against Demaryius Thomas for most of the game, but don’t be surprised if he shadows Emmanuel Sanders too.
As a team, the Falcons don’t record a ton of sacks or force many turnovers. Atlanta has just four sacks and four interceptions to its credit through four games. But Vic Beasley and Dwight Freeney do generate enough pressure to force quarterbacks to make ill-advised decisions.
By comparison, the Broncos already have 17 team sacks and five interceptions in 2016. Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, and Shane Ray are some of the game’s best in terms of getting after the quarterback. If Denver is to win Sunday, they’ll need this group not only to hurry Matt Ryan, but also to invade the backfield and disrupt DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman on early down plays. Atlanta’s fearsome duo has the ability to break free and score on any carry or reception. Coleman already registered five touchdowns this season, and Freeman tallied two, despite being the lead back in each game.
Then, of course, is the question of how to defend Julio Jones. Perhaps he’ll dominate, but I suspect Chris Harris to “contain” him to about 125 yards or less. That may not sound like much of a definition of containment, but Jones drew three times as many targets as any other Falcons’ receiver in Week 4, and I don’t expect Matt Ryan to look in another direction just because Chris Harris and Aqib Talib will shadow him. Julio Jones will still put up solid numbers due to volume alone.
The most significant question facing the Broncos heading into Sunday is the status of Siemian. He left the Week 4 game early after suffering an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Reports from Tuesday indicate he’s feeling sore, but much better overall. The team has also said Siemian’s availability Sunday will not be conditional on his ability to practice this week. I expect him to start, but if his effectiveness is limited, then Atlanta will have a real chance to upset Denver on the road.
Stats courtesy of NFL.com