The Atlanta Falcons (3-1) own the NFL’s highest scoring attack and two of their three consecutive wins have come by 13 points or more. It's a hot start for a team that hasn't finished above .500 since 2012.
But the NFC South leaders can truly join the NFL’s elite by racking up yards and points against the defending champion Denver Broncos' (4-0) defense in Sunday’s marquee showdown at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Most of the Falcons early success and contention stems from the dynamic duo of quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones. Ryan, who leads the NFL in at least 12 different passing categories including yards, touchdowns, and passer rating, is on pace to shatter his previous career highs with 1,473 yards and 11 touchdowns to only two interceptions through four games.
Ryan connected with Jones 12 times for 300 yards and a touchdown in Week 4’s 48-33 drubbing of reigning NFC champion and division rival Carolina, pushing Atlanta to first in the NFC South and taking full command of the distinction as the top scorers in the league.
Jones posted the sixth-highest, single-game receiving yard tally in league history, busting out of a minor slump after notching just 188 yards and 10 receptions in Atlanta’s first three games.
Following a disappointing season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, the Falcons are now averaging an NFL-best 38 points per game and rank sixth in the league in rushing yardage at 124.5 per contest thanks to running back Devonta Freeman’s 322 yards and another 149 yards from Tevin Coleman.
But Coleman’s status for the trip to face the AFC’s last undefeated team remains uncertain. Coleman carries the sickle-cell anemia genetic trait and his health could be in jeopardy if he plays in Denver’s low altitude.
"With my sickle cell, I have no idea if I’ll play there," Coleman said to ESPN.com. "I really don’t know how I’ll feel or how it will be like. I’ve never been to Denver."
It’s a potentially major blow to the Falcons as they will need every one of their playmakers to combat a Denver defense that looks just as strong, if not stronger than last season’s Super Bowl-winning unit.
Like Ryan peppering the top passer rankings, the Broncos defense has continued to carry the AFC West power by ranking in the top 10 in total yards allowed, points allowed per game, opponents passing yardage, takeaways, and sacks. The No. 22 ranked rushing defense stands as the only drawback, surrendering 455 yards and 4.2 yards a carry through four games.
Denver’s defense, led by pass rushers Derek Wolfe and Von Miller’s 9.5 combined sacks and cornerback Aqib Talib’s league-best three interceptions, has looked all the more impressive given the Broncos quarterback situation.
The Broncos successfully transitioned from Peyton Manning to Trevor Siemian in 2016, but the second-year quarterback suffered a minor setback when he sprained his non-throwing shoulder in Week 4’s 27-7 domination of Tampa Bay.
Rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch stepped in to go 14-for-24 for 170 yards and a touchdown, though Siemian told Denver Sports 760 on Tuesday that he could have re-entered the game if Lynch was hurt and that he’s “feeling pretty good,” according to the Denver Post.
The Post also reported that Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said he won’t decide who will start against an Atlanta defense allowing 31 points a game (No. 29 in the NFL) until the end of the week and that Siemian is still the team’s top quarterback on the depth chart. He also added that Siemian has started even after missing a full week of practice before, earlier in the preseason this year.