By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts NFC South Analyst
The Falcons spoiled Peyton Manning's resurgence with a 27-21 Monday night beatdown.
Here are five things we noted during the game:
1. There has been a changing of the guard in the South.
Six years ago, Drew Brees led the 2-0 Saints against the formidable Falcons on Monday night.
The Saints were still nursing the wounds of their orphaned season, and they shocked the national audience by storming a sound Atlanta team and earning their third victory on an improbable 10-6 run.
The win was electric, and New Orleans showcased the energy and proficiency that would carry them to three of the next five division titles.
The Falcons were out-gained on the ground and through the air by Peyton Manning's Broncos. Their margin of victory was only a single score. They moved the ball inconsistently after halftime. And somehow, despite all that, the game was never really in question.
Atlanta showed an aggressive, opportunistic, punishing defense, and dynamic offensive theories that chewed up yard markers like hungry wolves. If history proves consistent, these could be the traits that carry Atlanta to some long-awaited postseason success.
2. The Falcons have the best quarterback in the division.
Matt Ryan isn't a gunslinger. He's a sniper.
Atlanta's fifth-year passer has shown tremendous ability throughout his career, and the organization has done its best to surround him with the talent necessary to overwhelm opposing defenses.
So far, in the preliminary stages of 2012, Ryan has shown the poise and precision required to hit all areas of the field. He's deploying pinpoint strikes on deep, intermediate, and short passes; he's attacking the perimeter, the flats, and the holes between hash marks.
The versatile passer looks like the perfect point guard in Dirk Koetter's dynamic offense. The league's leader in Real Quarterback Rating (116.6) out-dueled an NFL legend on prime time, going 24 for 36, for 219 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. He excelled in every situation, despite the lack of consistent running game, and some steady pressure in his peripherals.
On Monday night, he became the fourth-fastest quarterback to throw 100 touchdowns, and if he keeps evolving as a passer and a leader, he'll be better than fourth-fastest to 200.
3. Jones, Gonzalez, and Turner aside, Roddy White still greases Atlanta's engine.
Since Ryan joined the league in 2008, he and Roddy White have been professional football's most prolific offensive duo. Five years later, White remains a premier threat and regular Pro Bowler, but his accomplishments are swallowed in an offense that features all-time tight end Tony Gonzalez and the record-setting (and expensive) Julio Jones -- a player who's on pace to set the record for most 100-yard games in his first two seasons.
But against Denver, White showed the veteran prowess that makes him Atlanta's most reliable weapon. He caught eight balls for a game-leading 102 yards, including some ridiculous drive-extending plays that helped stifle the Peyton Manning comeback attempt.
If he maintains his pace, he'll catch 112 passes in 2012. That'd make three consecutive seasons with triple-digit catches, a feat matched only five times in NFL history.
4. The Falcons are built to win the division.
We know relatively little about the league after two weeks, but as of September 18th, we're pretty damn sure that the rest of the NFC South has forgotten how to play pass defense. The Saints and Panthers, combined, are surrendering 250 passing yards per game, and after a meltdown against Eli Manning, the Buccaneers are on pace to surrender a comical 6408 yards through the air in 2012.
None of Atlanta's division rivals have shown any sort of consistent defense in two weeks. None of their schemes are yet proven, and all of them showcase weaknesses in both zone and man-to-man.
Versatility is key for the Falcons. Mike Smith has constructed his team to exploit every defense; Atlanta's equipped with the power running game, the perimeter rushing attack, deep threats, timing routes, zone eaters, and red zone options. Their personnel -- combined with a new offensive scheme -- makes them a vicious squad to defend.
But they need to keep their corners upright and healthy. They'll be defending a lot of late leads this season.
5. These aren't Gene Hackman's replacements.
After a surprisingly competent debut a week ago, Roger Goodell's legion of striped scabs earned the ire of the nation on the national stage. Questionable calls in the first half inspired the Broncos to burn both of their challenges early. The referees called a wretched pass interference on a deflected pass. They ignored a Denver fumble recovery, and awarded Atlanta a loose ball. They signaled an incompletion on Peyton Manning's lone first-half touchdown pass.
When the commentators -- ESPN representatives, paid to maintain the league's infallible image -- start making excuses (equating the referees to late-round rookies), the NFL has a problem. When those objective voices of reason spend the entire first half harping over blown calls like bitter fans, it demands attention.
In an odd way, the replacements owe the Falcons a thank you, because bad calls aren't as magnified in a vacuum of ass-whupping. Bad calls or not, Atlanta was the better team on Monday.