Falcons prey on Peyton Manning misfires in NFL marathon
Matt Ryan made sure he threw the ball to his teammates.
That was more than Peyton Manning could say.
During a stunning first quarter, Manning was picked off once, then twice, then a third time.
Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons seized on all the mistakes, building a big lead before halftime and holding off the Denver Broncos for a 27-21 victory Monday night.
"He's an excellent player. He played well," Manning said. "I think he's going to have a great season and a long and great career."
Manning has already had a great career.
This was one game he'd prefer to forget.
"Each turnover has its own story that no one really wants to hear," he said. "I've just got to take care of the ball better."
Ryan threw the 100th touchdown pass of his career, Roddy White had 102 yards receiving and the Falcons (2-0) made a 20-0 lead stand up, if just barely.
Willis McGahee scored on two two-yard touchdown runs in the fourth quarter to give the Broncos (1-1) late hope. But, on third down, Ryan connected with Julio Jones on a six-yard pass that gave Atlanta a crucial first down with less than two minutes to go.
They managed to run out the clock from there.
"It's the way you want to close out the game," Ryan said. "We had some more opportunities to do it [earlier]. But fortunately, we got it done when we needed to."
He didn't even realize he had reached 100 touchdowns in his career until told by a member of the media relations staff.
"I guess I'm getting old," the 27-year-old Ryan quipped. "It's special to throw many touchdown passes. It's pretty cool."
For Manning and the Broncos, it's back to the drawing board.
Even though his velocity is supposed to be nearly the same as it was before four neck surgeries and missing his entire final season in Indianapolis, Manning threw a number of wobbly passes that seemed to just hang in the air long enough for the Falcons to step in front of them. Other times, it looked as though he had to put everything he had on the ball to get it where he wanted, even if it wasn't necessarily a deep route.
He finished 24 of 37 for 241 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas just before halftime.
The only other time Manning was picked off three times in the opening quarter was with the Colts in a 2007 game at San Diego.
Ryan was much more efficient than the four-time MVP, completing 24 of 36 for 219 yards. He hooked up with Tony Gonzalez for a 1-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, then went to White on a 4-yard score in the third period.
Matt Bryant kicked two field goals for the Falcons, and Michael Turner scored Atlanta's first TD on a 1-yard run, the play set up by the first of Manning's picks. Hours later, Turner was arrested on charges of drunken driving and speeding.
Turner was released on bail after spending barely two hours in jail. The team said it was aware of the arrest but did not have any immediate comment.
McGahee finished with 113 yards on 22 carries.
The Falcons appeared to be solidly in control heading to the fourth quarter, up 27-7 after Ryan hooked up with White on consecutive passes of 21 and 20 yards, then went to him again for the touchdown.
The Broncos at least made a game of it. Manning completed 7 of 11 for 89 yards in the final period, but two sacks helped stifle the comeback.
"I thought we could find a little momentum there, find some rhythm, which we did," he said. "We had a chance to win that game. I think we will learn from it and we'll be better for it."
A week after he won his Denver debut with a home victory over Pittsburgh, the Broncos had turnovers on four on their first five possessions. It was an uncharacteristic prime time start for Manning, who began the night with an 11-3 career record on Mondays.
On the game's third play from scrimmage, he threw into triple coverage to Jacob Tamme, but Falcons strong safety William Moore stepped in front of the tight end for an interception.
Moore ran down the left sideline 33 yards before Orlando Franklin tackled him at the 1.
"I watched [Manning] growing up, and it was good to go out and play against him," Moore said. "I hope he remembers No. 25."
Maybe in his nightmares. Turner ran twice over the left side of the line before jumping over a stack of Atlanta and Denver linemen to put the ball over the goal line for a 7-0 lead with 13:20 left in the first quarter. That summed up Atlanta's problems running the ball — Turner totalled only 42 yards on 17 carries.
The Broncos ran two plays before Manning faked a play-action handoff and threw down the right seam to Eric Decker. This time, free safety Thomas DeCoud picked him off and returned it 15 yards.
After Jones dropped what would have been a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ryan in the left corner of the end zone, Bryant followed with a 37-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
Manning's third pick went to Robert McClain, a reserve cornerback who was taking his first snap because Asante Samuel injured his neck on the previous play.
On Sunday, Manning's younger brother, Eli, threw three interceptions in the first half. But he rallied the New York Giants to a 41-34 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
No such luck for big brother.
Samuel returned to the field on Denver's next possession, whiffing on Willis McGahee's 31-yard run, but stopping Tamme 1 yard short of a first down to force a punt two snaps later.
On the next-to-last snap of the first quarter, Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas forced a fumble by Knowshon Moreno near the Denver sideline and Sean Weatherspoon recovered for Atlanta — Denver's fourth turnover.
A scrum began after the Falcons were awarded the ball.
Denver coach John Fox was on the field trying to restore order as players from both teams shoved each other. As Samuel was walking away, Broncos guard Zane Beadles ran into him and knocked him down. Samuel quickly jumped up, and Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards appeared to throw a punch at a Denver player.
No one was ejected.
After Moreno's fumble, the Falcons ran 10 plays before Bryant kicked a 42-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead.
Then, Ryan found Gonzalez all alone in the end zone. The tight end who has caught the second-most passes in NFL history was left wide open in the back of the end zone on a crossing route. His quarterback froze the Broncos defence with a nifty play fake before delivering the pass that made it 20-0, punctuated by Gonzalez's dunk over the goal posts.
The Broncos finally got on the board with six seconds left in the half, though it took the replacement officials a second look to get it right. They initially ruled Thomas had been pushed out of bounds without getting both feet down. The replay clearly showed otherwise, Fox challenged the call, and the call was reversed in Denver's favour.
Another time, the replacements had to huddle just to make sure they knew where to place the ball after a defensive holding penalty on Denver's Champ Bailey.
The Falcons snapped a six-game losing streak on Mondays, including 0-3 under coach Mike Smith. Their last Monday win came over New Orleans on Dec. 12, 2005.