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The top matchups to watch in Falcons - Broncos Week 5

Stellar cornerbacks versus stellar receivers, a brutal pass rush versus an improved offensive line, and an effective ground game against an improving run defense.

Los Angeles Rams v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

This is a big game, which we’ve been telling you all week. Lose here and nobody’s going to panic about the Falcons’ fortunes, but win here and you’re 4-1 and have just taken out the best defense in the NFL, giving you tremendous confidence and a path to the playoffs. The season won’t turn on this game, in other words, but a victory would still be quite meaningful.

Here’s three matchups we fully expect to influence the outcome of this Week 5 battle.

Falcons cornerbacks versus Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders

Let’s just be honest with ourselves and say the Falcons don’t have a great shot at getting after Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch. Both can move a little in the pocket, the Denver line is at least decent, and the Falcons are showing an improved but still largely ineffective pass rush thus far in 2016. That means time in the pocket for whoever is under center in Denver, and that means plenty of targets for Thomas and Sanders.

Unless Desmond Trufant has an uncharacteristically poor game, he should be able to largely hold either Thomas or Sanders in check. That leaves Jalen Collins (who may be on a pitch count), Robert Alford, and maaaaaybe a little bit of Brian Poole against the other receiver, and that’s dicey no matter who the matchup is. Alford has the skill to be great and sometimes genuinely is, but he’s gotten himself into trouble with penalties and coverage lapses at times this year, and certainly Thomas and Sanders have the ability to punish him for that.

Poole should be able to handle assignments that don’t involve those two, and I have higher hopes for Collins than I did a year ago, but the Falcons’ success will hinge on how well Trufant and Alford fare.

Broncos pass rush versus Atlanta offensive line

Here’s a fun stat: The Broncos currently have 17 sacks, which is tops in the NFL, and 13 more than the Falcons currently have. This is a truly intimidating pass rush

The Falcons, of course, no longer have a shaky offensive line. Alex Mack has been one of the best free agent acquisitions in football and has shored up the interior of the line, Andy Levitre has looked leaps and bounds better than he did in 2015, and Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder remain one of the NFL’s most effective tackle tandems, even with some penalty hiccups along the way from Matthews. The weak link here is Chris Chester, who can be bullied, but he’s been decent enough to not become an active liability. This line is, I believe, one of the NFL’s best.

The question is whether it’s going to be able to keep Von Miller and his friends at bay. Miller has a preposterous 5.5 sacks through four games, while Derek Wolfe has another 4, and those two will keep the line busy basically by themselves. Denver has one of the most creative, talented pass rushes in the league every year, and regardless of where the pressure’s coming from, Matt Ryan’s going to need to make his reads and get rid of the ball quickly. That’s not an easy task when you consider how good the Broncos’ secondary is, either.

With a good gameplan in place, though, the Falcons can limit the damage. I’m not concerned about this one turning into a fiasco because I think Ryan is up to the challenge and the line is up to the task of protecting him, but there will be rough stretches. Atlanta simply has to work around them and avoid the kind of turnovers Denver so often forces.

Devonta Freeman versus the Denver run defense

Tevin Coleman is going to play, but his role will likely be limited, and the Falcons may be more inclined to feature him in the short passing game they’re likely to lean on against Denver. That means Devonta Freeman will be asked to do a lot.

The good news is that without Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan, in particular, Denver’s run defense is not a true strength. They have a stout presence up front and will certainly make life difficult for Freeman, but they can be beat, and Freeman has looked very strong this season, particularly over the last couple of weeks. If he manages 100-plus yards and can keep rolling when the passing game has its inevitable struggles, the Falcons might just win this one.