DENVER — Quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have plenty more in the vault than just superstar receiver Julio Jones — and maybe there’s a lot more to these Atlanta Falcons than just some early season feasting on the NFL’s defensive dregs.
The Falcons deciphered Denver’s dazzling defense and wrecked Paxton Lynch’s first NFL start with a 23-16 win over the Broncos on Sunday, snapping the Super Bowl champs’ nine-game winning streak with a dominant and perhaps prescient performance.
They did it without coming close to the numbers that Ryan and Jones put up last week when they became the first duo in league history to sport a 500-yard passer and a 300-yard receiver in the same game.
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.
“Today, they came out and doubled me. They took me away and they were like, ‘All right, you’re not going to beat us today,'” said Jones, adding he welcomed such attention because “everybody else is going to step up.”
That, they did.
Using a steady diet 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.
Denver’s “No Fly Zone” defense was unimpressed with Jones becoming the sixth 300-yard receiver in NFL history. They dismissed that performance as a bad day by the Panthers, and they stifled Jones all afternoon in Denver.
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. He caught a 31-yard touchdown pass 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.
“We just didn’t think he was ready,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said before he was taken via ambulance to a hospital because of flu-like symptoms.
Actually, it was Lynch who showed he wasn’t ready Sunday.
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 .
“I’m upset obviously because we lost but I’m happy I got the first one under my belt,” Lynch said. “If I get put in this situation again, I’ll play better.”
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 75 yards and 2.8 yards a carry in their last three games.
MILLER TIME: Even in defeat, Von Miller got to the quarterback. He recorded a sack and now has 6½ on the season.
LAST GASP: Brandon McManus kicked a 45-yard field goal with 14 seconds left to get the Broncos within a touchdown but his onside kick was smothered by Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo, and Ryan took a knee in victory formation.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton