DENVER --It's easy to appreciate the accomplishments of Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones.
Fans can marvel at his precision, fluidity, ability to find space in almost any defense and quick acceleration after the reception, turning a moderate gain into a massive one. Fellow wide receivers and opposing cornerbacks respect his diverse collection of skills and how they allow him to rack up production that few can match. Coaches and players of all positions respect how he goes about his work with a minimum of fuss or showmanship; he is a true professional, devoted to his craft and not prone to extreme emotional swings.
"You have to give him a lot of attention because he can obviously just take over a game and he did that last week," Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips said.
Jones' arrival in 2011 as the centerpiece of a blockbuster draft trade helped cement the Falcons' status as early-2010s title contenders; in his second season, they had the league's best record and were the NFC's top seed before falling in the NFC Championship Game. But his injury in 2013 helped the Falcons tumble from the ranks of the elite; despite his play in the last two years, the Falcons are only now once again knocking at the door.
Jones' maturation into one of the league's elite players at any position could help lead the Falcons back into the conversation for the title they have sought for 50-plus seasons, but failed to achieve.
But to return to the playoffs, they will need to continue spreading the football around. Tight end Jacob Tamme, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu are all on pace for at least 44 receptions this year, and each is on pace for at least 600 yards from scrimmage.
As prolific as Jones has been, he only accounts for 25.5 percent of their yardage from scrimmage.
"They have other really good receivers too and that's the problem. You can't double [Jones] all the time. You have to take your chances and hope your people hold up in zone or man against him, especially not give up the big play," Phillips said.
Containing Jones while not compromising coverage is an obvious task for the Broncos on Sunday, and with their ability to defuse receivers via man-to-man coverage, they are better equipped than almost anyone else to contain Atlanta's offense.
What are the other keys to the game?
- TAKE WHAT'S THERE**
Injuries have exacted a toll on Atlanta's linebacking corps, and by extension, its defense as a whole.
With Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Paul Worrilow out with injuries and Sean Weatherspoon on injured reserve because of a torn Achilles tendon, Atlanta was forced to sign A.J. Hawk to provide depth and perhaps eventually start.
As a result, Atlanta is 27th in yardage allowed per play, 29th in points allowed, 31st in passing yardage allowed per game and 28th in yardage allowed per rush. If the Falcons mimic the Bengals and Buccaneers, the Broncos should have opportunities to take shots downfield; if they play to avoid the deep connection, then the Broncos should be able to crank up their ground game.
Either way, if the Broncos capitalize on what Atlanta concedes, they should be able to move the football well once again.
- MINIMIZE THE DAMAGE FROM ATLANTA'S OFFENSE**
"I don't think we've seen this good of an offense in a while in the league," Phillips said.
The Falcons will make plays; they have too much talent -- and the willingness to spread the football around to keep the opponent off-balance -- not to have some moments where they get the better of things, even against a defense as fast and active as Denver's.
If Denver's defense misses few tackles, limits yardage after contact and after the catch and stiffens in the red zone, the Falcons can be held in check. But against Jones in particular, that is difficult.
"They say, 'The big play,' and you think of a guy running behind everybody which he can do, but he also can catch slant routes and run for 75 yards for a touchdown," Phillips said of Jones. "That's the problem with him. He's such a great athlete and has such great speed and can run with it after catch. That's a big problem, also."
- SLOW THE FALCONS' FAST START**
Atlanta has scored 31 fourth-quarter points this season while conceding 10. And although the Falcons' running game is slightly less productive on a per-carry basis on the first 15 plays than in the rest of the game, Ryan's quarterback rating on the first 15 snaps is a sizzling 132.7 -- 8.3 points higher than his prodigious 124.4 rating for the rest of the game.
Meanwhile, the Broncos hope to avoid the kind of slow start that put them behind early against Carolina and Cincinnati and led to a tie score at Tampa Bay last week.
"We gave up a touchdown last week in the first quarter. We definitely can't have that," Marshall said. "We want to start fast; we want to finish fast."
The Broncos have the finish-fast part down pat; their plus-39 point differential in the fourth quarter is the league's best. A knack for halftime adjustments has helped make that possible.
But how do you do set up a fast start?
"I have no idea, I'll be honest with you, man," Marshall said. "I've been around football a long time, and they say, 'We've got to start fast,' 'It starts in practice,' whatever the case may be. It's tough, because you get out there, and of course everybody's juiced and everybody's amped up."