In Super Bowl XXXIII, quarterback John Elway famously led the Denver Broncos to victory over the Atlanta Falcons with an MVP-caliber performance. Elway is now the executive vice president of football operations in Denver, and both teams once again have championship aspirations after making the playoffs in 2011. The winning team on Monday night takes a big step toward proving it has the chops to reach the promised land.
1) It's all about pressure
Both teams managed to get to the opposing quarterback regularly in their respective season openers. Atlanta sacked Matt Cassel three times while routing the Kansas City Chiefs, and Denver somehow brought down Ben Roethlisberger five times in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Neither Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning nor Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan is exactly known for being athletic. However, Ryan was sacked just 26 times in 2011 (only the 26th-highest total among qualified passers), and Manning has a legendary ability to avoid pressure by moving within the pocket (he was sacked just 16 times in 2010, his last healthy season). Denver's dynamic pass-rushing duo of Von Miller (who sacked Big Ben twice in Week 1) and Elvis Dumervil must get to Ryan to help the Broncos' secondary (see below) keep Atlanta's big-play tally to a minimum. The Falcons, meanwhile, need defensive end John Abraham, his linemates and their blitzing linebackers to at least make Manning throw more quickly than he wants to; the veteran has already proven he's healthy enough to lead the Broncos' attack with deadly efficiency.
2) Tracy Porter will earn his money
Though he signed just a one-year deal for $4 million, Porter was the Broncos' top defensive free-agent acquisition of the offseason. He made an immediate impact in the win over the Steelers, collecting eight tackles and defending five passes -- including an interception that was returned 43 yards for a touchdown, harkening back to the pick-six that helped Porter and the New Orleans Saints beat Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. With erstwhile veteran Champ Bailey on the other side of the field, opponents will challenge Porter throughout 2012 -- and "challenge" is a good word for what the Falcons figure to do with Roddy White and Julio Jones. Porter's certainly not shy about making contact, but his 5-foot-11, 189-pound frame will be tested by Jones (6-3, 220) and White (6-1, 208), whether they're separating at the top of routes or trying to elude or run through Porter after the catch. Keep an eye out for second-year nickel back Chris Harris, who is fighting an ankle injury. If he can't go, the small but feisty Tony Carter and rookie Omar Bolden will have to hold their own against Ryan's favorite slot receiver, Harry Douglas. They also might have to fight future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez over the middle.
3) The Falcons' secondary must step up
Atlanta lost Brent Grimes, its best pure cover corner, to an Achilles injury in Week 1, news that was certainly not welcomed by Falcons coaches going into a game against Manning. Atlanta has Asante Samuel (acquired via an offseason trade with the Philadelphia Eagles) and Dunta Robinson, but the increasingly important third cornerback spot will have to be manned by Chris Owens or Robert McClain. Manning will be looking for veteran slot man Brandon Stokley in critical situations, so even if Samuel and Robinson do their jobs outside against larger targets Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, whoever lines up inside must trail Stokley effectively to prevent the kinds of eight-to-12-yard plays that can keep Denver's offense moving.
Wyche: Think fast!
Manning won his last game in Atlanta, leading the Colts to a 31-13 victory in 2007, but that was a lifetime ago in NFL terms -- and the Falcons' quarterback on that day was Joey Harrington. The Ryan Express and tough running back Michael Turner will present a much more difficult challenge for the future Hall of Famer in his return to the Georgia Dome. I suspect Manning and Denver's solid defense will keep things interesting, but the Falcons will pull out a hard-fought -- and highly entertaining -- home victory.