Last week, Peyton Manning dissected the Pittsburgh defence with the precision of a biology master gutting a frog. These days, slicing up the Steelers’ defence is as rare as seeing an amphibian carved by a scalpel-wielding eighth-grader. Carrying out such acts is apparently frowned upon. Especially in Pittsburgh. And by anyone named Kermit.

Manning, the brother with just the one Super Bowl ring, has many believing that he can give more than the kiss of life to the ugly AFC West frog that is Denver.

There comes another big test on Monday night, as the Broncos travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons (BBC Red Button, 1.30am).

The Falcons were dominant on the road against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1, as Matt Ryan was allowed to complete 74.2% of his passes at a very healthy 9.65 yards per attempt, which shows just how valuable his offensive line is – and it is also a testament to the understanding he has with his receivers, particularly Julio Jones, who has benefited from a pre-season that was truncated in his rookie year due to the lockout.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the clash is how Atlanta will fare against a pass rush of some repute. Kansas City generated very little pressure on Ryan last week, but the Broncos will not only benefit from the schemes of new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, but also from a now-healthy defensive end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller. The Broncos, who also appear to have another excellent pass-rusher in rookie Derek Wolfe, managed to rattle Pittsburgh passer Ben Roethlisberger and they will cause a few problems for the Falcons.

Another dynamic to a fascinating match is how Atlanta’s new defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan – who was Del Rio’s mentor – puts pressure on Manning. While Sean Weatherspoon, Jonathan Babineaux and Jon Abraham all recorded sacks against Kansas City, they didn’t generate too much pressure in the first half, and Matt Cassel is no Manning. The sure-fire Hall of Famer gets rid of the ball a lot quicker.

Both the Broncos and the Falcons like to use the no-huddle offense, which limits what blitz packages can be used. Nolan and Del Rio will have to choose their moments carefully. They will have to know when to jump.

The key here could be the running game. As expected, Denver got precious little out of the Pittsburgh run defence, with Willis McGahee averaging four yards per carry. Michael Turner had an easy afternoon, as Ryan picked on the Chiefs’ pass defence, but his 11 carries yielded just 2.9 yards per pop. Then again, Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick picked on Kansas City’s pass defence again on Sunday night. It is nothing new.

The team with a better balanced attack will have the best opportunity to set up play-action passing situations.

Stopping Manning from making good yardage of first down is going to be interesting. If they give him manageable down and distance, he has the whole playbook at his disposal, so limiting him to three yards must be key for the Falcons.

Mike Nolan will have Atlanta playing in more nickel formations than in previous years and an overall more aggressive system, one that utilises players such as Weatherspoon in blitzes, rather than relying solely on the defensive line. Whereas before teams could double team John Abraham coming off the edge, it should, in theory, be tougher to stop a blitzing combination. The best defences benefit from aggressive playcalling. You have to be proactive in attacking the quarterback, instead of sitting in a conservative zone defence, as had been the case previously in Atlanta under Brian Van Gorder.

The trouble with Manning is he makes ordinary receivers look otherworldly and the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will have the best seasons of their respective careers as a result. It is great to see him back after sitting out last year. He’s a quarterback who polarises opinion.

He’s the NFL equivalent marmite. The fact that he’s a country boy at heart also makes him more appealing. He even likes Kenny Chesney, which can’t be a bad thing, can it? So, just for him, the Monday Musical Interlude is dedicated to Manning and his followers…

Manning’s job on Monday night is made somewhat easier by the unfortunate injury to Atlanta’s starting cornerback Brent Grimes, who was lost for the season with an Achilles injury last week. That is a huge blow for Atlanta moving forward, one that cannot be overstated.

Dunta Robinson will move to right cornerback and Chris Owens will take over at nickel back. This could prove problematic, for while Owens is speedy, he often gets lost in zone coverage and is far better at playing man-to-man. If he doesn’t get help from Asante Samuel – who has had numerous big games against Manning in the past – the four-time League MVP will pick on Owens.

However, Nolan is, as I have said before, the missing link to get Atlanta over the playoff hump. With more aggressive playcalling, you are sure to see more hit and miss games from Atlanta, with big plays against them highly possible.

But what is intriguing, from Nolan’s point of view, is the test he will present to Manning. Does Manning still have the arm strength or the same velocity on the ball as he had before his neck surgeries? Does Nolan get aggressive without the safety of Grimes back there blanket-covering receivers.

The guess is Nolan will try a few zone blitzes, perhaps bring the strong safety close to the line of scrimmage or drop the safeties to their traditional spot 12 yards off the line of scrimmage, roll the two cornerbacks up to within three yards of the line of scrimmage and present Manning with what looks a nine-man front.

Too technical? Alrighty, then. Let’s just say that whatever Nolan does, this is a major test for his defence.

The BETDAQ handicap sees the Falcons as three-point handicap favourites.

Historically, it is rare that defences dominate when these sides square off. In fact, plenty of points are guaranteed.

Denver have won on their last four trips to Atlanta and the Falcons have only won four of 13 games against the Broncos (and just once in the last eight meetings since 1982).

The Broncos still have problems in their secondary and Roddy White and Jones should get plenty of change out of Champ Bailey and company.

So it all points to more of the same – a high-scoring points-fest. The Falcons, despite their poor record against the Broncos, get the nod. Home advantage is worth a three-point start.

And given that Manning has had four neck surgeries in 21 months, has played one competitive game in that time and is playing on the road in a loud, domed stadium with artificial turf under him, it will be interesting to see if he gets jumpy. The chances are he won’t. Even so, the Falcons should be able to do enough offensively to keep their noses in front on their own pad.

Back – Atlanta -3
Back – Over 51 points in total

Twitter: @simonmilham

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