ATLANTA -- America's game.
Briefly emerging from his Georgia Dome radio booth more than an hour before the Atlanta Falcons would face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, Falcons radio voice Wes Durham made that assessment of the 662nd installment of "Monday Night Football."
"This is America's game tonight," Durham said with his signature enthusiasm. "The whole country watches this one."
What the country watched inside the Dome just might be the best football team in the NFC, if not the entire NFL. Winning with ridiculous ease for the second straight week against a solid foe, the Falcons flummoxed Manning and his new teammates throughout so much of this 27-21 victory in what too often is becoming MidNight Football.
Much as they went on the road to crush Kansas City 40-24 in their season opener last week, the Falcons never were threatened in this one from the time they made their grand entrance onto the field by running through a fire and fireworks show.
But those fireworks weren't nearly as impressive as a Falcons defense that intercepted Once Perfect Peyton three times in the first quarter alone.
Read that again: Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter, including two on the Broncos' first two possessions, which resulted in 10 Falcons points before Denver crossed midfield.
To add to the Denver Dissolve, the Broncos fumbled away a fourth possession with two seconds left in the period.
Maybe last Saturday's Tennessee-Florida football game got Peyton to thinking he was playing the Gators again.
How crazy was this game early on? Not three minutes into the second quarter, Denver coach John Fox threw his red challenge flag to question a call. Thinking Fox was throwing the flag at an official in frustration, another official appeared to throw a second yellow flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The review showed the first flag for 12 Broncos on the field was correct, which gave the Falcons a first-and-5 rather than a first-and-10. But the unsportsmanlike-penalty flag (if that's what it was) just disappeared.
Either way, Fox's toss was a better throw to that point than his quarterback had attempted.
And NFL commissioner Roger Goodell desperately needs to settle the referee strike and get these replacement officials off the field for good.
But while all this drama was surrounding the Broncos, the Falcons were calmly building a 20-0 lead on two field goals, a deft 1-yard scoring toss from Atlanta QB Matt Ryan to ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez and a short run from Michael Turner.
Watching Ryan hit 13 of 19 passes for 103 yards and zero interceptions was like watching Peyton in the old days with the Indianapolis Colts, when he took everything a defense gave him without giving back anything by forcing something they didn't.
Moreover, good as those Colts offenses were, these Falcons may be deeper, bigger, faster.
Naturally, Manning made it competitive. He hit the gifted former Georgia Tech wideout Demaryious Thomas for a TD just before halftime to cut the margin to 20-7 at the break.
Then -- after Ryan found Roddy White for another TD midway through the third quarter to put Atlanta up 20 again -- Manning pulled his team within 27-14 early in the fourth.
Finally, with a little over three minutes to play, a third Manning march closed the gap to 27-21, which meant a Denver touchdown and extra point would make what had been one of the biggest, best nights in Falcons history a total bust.
But Matty Ice, under pressure, hit Julio Jones for a first down on third-and-5 to all but, well, ice the game.
We've been watching "Monday Night Football" since 1970, watching since Dandy Don Meredith, Flat-line Frank Gifford and the loquacious Howard Cosell became the most famous trio since the Three Stooges. And when Dandy and Howie were at their best, they were almost as funny.
But Cosell called it quits in 1983, Meredith decided the party was over a year later and America's game suddenly became a little less talk and a lot more action.
At least until this season, when, to slightly alter the signature line Dandy Don borrowed from Willie Nelson, somebody needs to turn out the light on the replacement refs before America's MNF party misses curfew.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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