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Peyton Manning endures tough night thanks to a dangerous Falcons team

Peyton Manning Peyton Manning threw three first-quarter INTs for just the second time in his 14-year career. (John Bazemore/AP)

If last week was the welcome back celebration for Peyton Manning, then Monday night was a little reminder of just how long he's been away. Playing on the road for the first time since taking the Colts to Oakland on Dec. 26, 2010, Manning endured a nightmare opening quarter.

His second pass of the game: High, wobbly and intercepted by William Moore down the middle.

His fourth pass: Underthrown, wobbly and intercepted by Thomas DeCoud down the middle.

And pass No. 8: Well, you get the idea.

Robert McClain jumped that route to give Manning three picks on the night. Knowshon Moreno then put the ball on the turf later in the first quarter, giving the Broncos a staggering four turnovers in the first 15 minutes.

"It was a disappointing start," Manning said. "Anytime you come on the road and throw three interceptions in the first quarter, you put your team in a hole, put your defense in a hole."

Atlanta failed to take total advantage of those errors but still built a 10-0 lead after one quarter and a 20-0 edge with 4:39 left in the second. Manning finally found a little groove in the final stanza, leading a pair of touchdown drives to give his Broncos a shot. But it turned out to be too little, too late, as Atlanta held on for a 27-21 win.

So, the Broncos are 1-1, and we all may have jumped the gun by proclaiming Peyton back and Denver a Super Bowl threat after Week 1.

But what about the Falcons?

A quick glance at the NFL standings shows that 20 of the league's 32 teams now sit at 1-1. Another six are 0-2 to start the year, including Atlanta's NFC South rival, New Orleans. Very few teams have come out of the gate and established themselves as legitimate contenders.

Atlanta is one that has.

The Falcons went on the road in Week 1 and clobbered the Chiefs, then turned in a brilliant defensive game plan early to fluster Manning on Monday night. Matt Ryan did not repeat his 299-yard, three-TD performance from last Sunday, but if a 67 percent completion rate, two touchdowns and a 101.5 QB rating counts as an average outing, then it's hard to imagine many teams shutting Atlanta down.

"I think it's ... we're 2-0, we've got a long road ahead of us, a lot of tough games ahead of us," Ryan told the NFL Network after the game when asked how important this win was. "But we'll enjoy it tonight and then get ready for San Diego."

Give credit to Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who entered Monday with a 1-6 career record vs. Manning but drew up an intelligent game plan. Knowing that Manning is still trying to get his arm strength back, Nolan dropped his safeties early and dared Manning to beat them.

He couldn't. And the Falcons took advantage.

"Our defense did a great job," Ryan said. "The first quarter was unbelievable to get some of those turnovers and give our offense some field position."

Said Atlanta coach Mike Smith: "I'm really proud of the performance we turned in tonight, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Those four turnovers were huge, and we were able to provide a lot of pressure on the quarterback."

The fourth quarter, in which Denver ran off 14 unanswered points and forced Atlanta to a 3rd-and-5 just before the two-minute warning, will give the Falcons plenty to work on heading into Week 3. Still, with the Saints off to a slow start, the door is wide open for the Falcons to take control of the NFC South.

For Manning and his Broncos, meanwhile, there's no doubt that these early games are being used to establish a new identity and, in Manning's case, to kick off some of the rust. He may not be quite as locked in as he showed in Week 1 -- he's probably not quite as off-kilter as he looked early in Atlanta, either.

In his postgame press conference, Manning quickly shot down the notion that his three interceptions were caused by lingering effects from the neck injury that sidelined him last season, but even if his health is not a concern, the decision-making and old Manning form were not there early Monday.

"Obviously, I'd like to have all three of them back," Manning said. "Just three bad decisions, and I'm sure when I see the film, I'll see somebody open short, underneath on a check down.

"But I'll learn from it, our team will learn from it."

Two weeks, no matter how good or bad they go, do not a season make. Ryan knows that -- his Falcons still have to get better, especially on the ground, if they want to take the next step this season.

Manning knows it, too. He never pretended that he would be able to step back onto the field and dominate like he used to, nor should anyone expect him to. He'll have a few outstanding games, as he did in the Broncos' win over the Steelers. He may also endure a few more clunkers like Monday night.

Which end of the spectrum he lives on more consistently will determine how this Denver season plays out.

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