With the Atlanta Falcons off to their best nine-game start since last reaching the playoffs in 2004, expectations continue to grow for rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who so far has been able to exceed them all.
Atlanta’s reward for a 4-12 record last season was the third overall pick, a selection they used on Ryan. Forced to step in after Michael Vick’s prison sentence left Atlanta without a reliable quarterback in 2007, Ryan has helped turn the Falcons (6-3) into a playoff contender. He’s been particularly impressive at home, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 902 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Ryan was 16-of-23 for 248 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday in Atlanta’s 34-20 home win over New Orleans, keeping the Falcons tied for second place in the NFC South, one game behind Carolina. The Falcons haven’t been this successful after nine games since they were 7-2 in 2004.
“I’m not trying to compare anybody to Peyton Manning,” Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said of Ryan, “but for somebody to do this that early in their career and have that much maturity and that much control of the offense and be able to dictate to us the thing they wanted to do, I was impressed with him - and frustrated and (ticked) off at the same time.”
Ryan was helped by a defense that held the Saints to just two field goals through the first three quarters. Although the Falcons gave up a season-high 521 yards of offense, most came in the fourth quarter, and they picked off Drew Brees, who had just one interception in the previous three games, three times.
“Statistics can be deceiving,” Atlanta first-year coach Mike Smith said. “Our number one goal as a defense is to limit points and were able to do that.”
That defense will be in for another stiff challenge against Cutler and the Broncos (5-4) after the Denver quarterback had one of the best games of his career in a 34-30 win over Cleveland on Nov. 6, snapping a three-game losing streak.
Cutler was 24-of-42 for a career-high 447 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, helping Denver rally from a 13-point, third-quarter deficit.
Cutler has passed for 2,616 yards and 18 touchdowns this season and has completed 211 of his 342 pass attempts - all stats among the AFC leaders. The Broncos will likely need another strong performance from Cutler after their struggling running game was dealt another setback in last week’s win.
Rookie Ryan Torain, who missed the first half of the season with a knee injury, ran for 68 yards and one touchdown against the Browns, but he re-injured his knee and will miss the rest of the season. Torain’s injury further depletes Denver’s backfield, which lost Michael Pittman (spinal cord) and Andre Hall (hand) to season-ending injuries on Nov. 2. Selvin Young, meanwhile, has just one carry since sustaining a groin tear on Oct. 5, an injury he aggravated last week.
The Broncos averaged 120.3 yards on the ground in the first six games, but just 81.0 yards in the last three.
“It’s going to take guys playing for 60 minutes,” said fullback Spencer Larsen, a rookie who was converted from linebacker. “As banged up as we are, guys have to step up.”
Denver signed free agents Alex Haynes and Tatum Bell this week for some help. Bell, who was drafted by the Broncos and spent three seasons in Denver before being traded to Detroit in 2007, has rushed for 2,524 yards and 14 touchdowns in his career.
The injury situation isn’t much better on defense, where the linebacking corps has also been hit hard. Nate Webster is expected to miss a few weeks with a strained MCL, the same injury that sidelined leading tackler D.J. Williams two weeks ago. Boss Bailey, meanwhile, suffered a season-ending knee injury last month.
The injuries could do further damage to an already struggling defense that ranks fourth in total yards allowed (401.9).
Despite the mounting injuries, the Broncos have a one-game lead over San Diego in the AFC West.
“We are sticking together as a team,” linebacker Louis Green said. “There is no ‘offense’ or ‘defense’ - we are a team. We are going to take the momentum and ride it the rest of the season.”
This is Denver’s first trip to Atlanta since a 29-21 win in 1997. The Falcons snapped a six-game losing streak to the Broncos - including a loss in Super Bow XXXIII - when the teams last met in 2004, winning 41-28.