DENVER (AP) – Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons didn’t need another 300-yard performance from Julio Jones to decipher Denver’s dazzling defense and wreck Paxton Lynch’s first NFL start with a 23-16 win over Broncos on Sunday.
Using a steady dose of I-formation runs and short passes that put Denver’s linebackers in coverage, the Falcons (4-1) handed the Super Bowl champs their first loss since Dec. 20 at Pittsburgh and left the Minnesota Vikings (5-0) as the NFL’s last unbeaten team.
The Broncos (4-1) were on their heels having to respect the play-action because Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were so effective running the ball, combining for 119 yards and a 4.4-yard average.
A week after setting a franchise record with 503 yards passing in a runaway win over Super Bowl 50’s other participant, the Carolina Panthers, Ryan threw for 267 yards Sunday and only two of those (covering 29 yards) went to Jones.
Last week, Jones became just the sixth 300-yard receiver in NFL annals, not that Denver’s “No Fly Zone” defense was impressed. They dismissed that performance as a bad day by the Panthers, and they stifled Jones all afternoon.
Not that it mattered.
Coleman, who played despite having sickle cell trait, which can sometimes be exacerbated at altitude, showed off his breakaway speed by catching four passes for 132 yards to go with his 31 yards on six carries.
Ryan’s rather modest total included a 31-yard touchdown toss to Coleman following Ricardo Allen’s interception at the Denver 42 in the third quarter that made it 20-3.
That sequence sent some flustered fans streaming for the exits as the Falcons finished off the Broncos, who hadn’t lost at home since Dec. 13 against Oakland.
The Broncos don’t have much time to digest the loss. They play at San Diego on Thursday night, and their hope is that Trevor Siemian’s bruised left shoulder is healed by then.
Lynch, the 26th overall pick out of Memphis last April, got the starting nod because Siemian’s bruised A.C. joint in his non-throwing shoulder was still bothering him a week after he was flung to the turf in Tampa.
It was Lynch who showed he wasn’t ready Sunday, however.
He completed 23 of 35 passes for 223 yards with a late TD to Demaryius Thomas and an interception. He was sacked a half-dozen times, including 3½ times by outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who burned right tackle Ty Sambrailo on three of those takedowns.
Lynch’s footwork was a mess and his overthrows and misfires ruined any chance the Broncos had of capitalizing on the league’s 30th ranked defense, including the NFL’s next-to-last pass defense and a patchwork linebacker corps .
Unlike Siemian, Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, all of whom did enough to allow Denver’s stout defense to secure the win during an NFL-best nine-game winning streak, Lynch couldn’t avoid mistakes that doomed his team to defeat. He constantly held onto the ball too long and too often didn’t make decisions or moves fast enough.
PROTECTION PROBLEMS: It didn’t help Denver that right tackle Donald Stephenson (calf) was deactivated for a third straight week. Ty Sambrailo was repeatedly burned by Beasley before the Broncos moved right guard Michael Schofield over and inserted Darrion Weems.
GROUNDED GROUND GAME: The Broncos’ ground game has ground to a near standstill ever since Stephenson and tight end Virgil Green pulled calf muscles in Week 2. After averaging 141 yards and 4.7 yards a carry in their first two games, the Broncos nosedived to 70 yards and 2.5 yards a carry in next two games. Green and Stephenson were surprise holdouts Sunday and the Broncos gained just 84 yards on two dozen handoffs.
MILLER TIME: Even in defeat, Von Miller got to the quarterback. He recorded a sack and now has 6½ on the season.