Numbers show defense likely to decide Broncos-Falcons winner; not QB

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Matt Ryan, left, and Peyton Manning will light up the night. But the numbers say the team with the best defense is more likely to win when the Falcons and Broncos meet.

Matt Ryan, left, and Peyton Manning will light up the night. But the numbers say the team with the best defense is more likely to win when the Falcons and Broncos meet. (CNN)

ATLANTA, Ga. — If the opening week wins for the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos last Sunday were debut albums, these were the title tracks: “Manning successful in Denver debut, 31-19” and “QB Ryan with 4 TDs as Falcons beat Chiefs 40-24.”

The naming credit for both singles goes to the Associated Press, who, despite their penchant for comprehensiveness, quickly anointed each group’s respective front man for a pair of victories that saw each team score over 30 points.

Appropriate? Seemingly. But somewhere buried on the b-side of both albums came a couple of diddies that may ultimately decide whether or not the Falcons and Broncos will be one-hit wonders in 2012.

For the Falcons: “Defensive coordinator’s half-time adjustments key to victory.” And the Broncos: “Roethlisberger throws late pick in 31-19 loss

Those latter headlines came from the networks of CBS and FOX, respectively. Both offer suggestions as to where the focus should be as the Broncos and Falcons prepare to share the stage on Monday Night Football.

It’s defense, not offense, that will likely decide the outcome.

Sure, with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner in tow, the Falcons put up 20 points in each half of last week’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Matt Ryan also carried my fantasy team — the What Would Jones-Drews — to victory by throwing for 299 yards and scoring four times.

Impressive? Yes. Decisive? No.

The Falcons were clinging to a 3-point lead at halftime despite their offensive production. It was defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s half-time adjustments — which keyed three second-half turnovers and kept the Chiefs scoreless until late in the fourth quarter — that led to a win.

Considering Nolan’s career record against Peyeton Manning is 1-7 (that includes a loss when he was a defensive coordinator in Denver), a win for the Broncos has got to lie in the hands of their new signal caller, right?

Not entirely.

In throwing for 253 yards and two scores, the Broncos’ maestro brought peace to the hearts of a fanbase that was one jump pass away from cardiac arrest last season. But had it not been for Tracy Porter stepping in front of a pass, folks in the Mile High City might be whistling a different tune this week.

So what do we know about these teams’ respective defenses? Not much. They have their headline-grabbing offenses to thank for that.

A brief glance at the back pages tells us this much: Both groups will be missing a key contributor this week.

For the Falcons, it’s starting cornerback Brent Grimes, who was lost for the season when he suffered a torn Achilles last week. For the Broncos, it’s starting defensive tackle Ty Warren, who was lost for the season when he suffered a torn triceps muscle.

A handicap spot at each team’s facility will be lost. That will be the extent of each team’s worry about these subtractions.

The Falcons will plug Grimes’ vacant spot with ex-Pro Bowler Duanta Robinson — that’s not to mention the team also has current Pro Bowler Asante Samuel starting on the opposite side of the field.

The Broncos, meanwhile, have never really gotten a chance to find out why they spent $8 million on Warren, considering he only played few downs in 2011 before going down the tubes with the same injury. They’ll fill his spot with spark plug Derek Wolfe.

In lieu of key players, let’s discuss the key statistics.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers proved anything with their successes and failures against the Broncos last week, it’s that Manning is still Manning. Therefore, keeping him off the field — like the Steelers tried to do — is still the best way to defend him.

Case in point: The Steelers took control of the game in the third quarter, holding Manning to just two snaps over that span. When Manning finally got the ball, only two of nine drives ended in punts.

Throw in the fact that Manning owns a 78-33 record in domes with a quarterback rating that is 10 points higher, and it appears keeping him on the sidelines may be especially important Monday.

How can the Falcons accomplish that task?

John Abraham, the NFL’s active leader with 113 sacks, could help by continuing his tear inside of the Georgia Dome. The veteran has 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his last two games at home.

Michael Turner could also play a role in keeping Manning cold by eating up yardage and clock for the Atlanta offense. Last week, the running back struggled with that task, though, as he was held to 32 yards on 11 carries.

The Broncos defensive keys might just begin with holding Turner to an similarly-dismal performance this week.

As it turns out, the Falcons are 27-2 when the big back carries the ball over 21 times. The Broncos did a decent job of slowing two big backs last week, holding Pittsburgh’s Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer to 63 yards on 20 carries. But per his “Burner” nickname, Turner has much better wheels than the Steeler duo.

The Falcons have said they want to increase Turner’s workload tonight, making it quite possible he’ll get to 21 carries regardless of how the game shakes out. With that being the case, the Broncos might do well to turn their focus to Ryan, who also holds a significant statistical stake in the Falcons’ winning percentage.

The Falcons are a perfect 24-0 when Ryan has a quarterback rating of 100 or better.