Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons: What Happens When Dome Teams Play at Mile High?

A study on the results of offensively-minded dome teams playing in Denver.

Sunday's 2 p.m. tilt between the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons represents the 2016 season's first real instance of an unstoppable force taking on an unmovable object.

The Broncos defense is still the Broncos defense, but the Falcons offense has recently caught fire in their second year under OC Kyle Shanahan. Through the first four games of the season, they've scored 152 points, amassed 1,915 yards, and won their last three games.

Their quarterback, Matt Ryan, has resurrected his career after three seasons spent in relative obscurity, transforming himself from NFC afterthought to legitimate MVP candidate at the 2016 quarter pole. His weapon of choice, among many others, is wide receiver Julio Jones, whose stat-line jumped from one catch for 16 yards in Week 3 to 12 catches for an absurd 300 yards and a touchdown in Week 4. Throwing the ball isn't all the Atlanta offense does well, either. The running back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have followed the zone blocking of their offensive line for a combined 451 yards and five touchdowns through this season's first four games.

There's always been the slightest outline of an asterisk next to some of the highest-powered NFL offenses of the last 25 or so years, however. There's no doubting that teams like the Falcons, Saints, earlier iterations of the Colts, Lions, Rams, and Vikings have gotten a slight edge from playing indoors, free to run wild on a fast track and climate-controlled environment.

It's when these teams step outdoors into the untamed wild of an open-air NFL stadium that their high-octane attacks begin to lose steam.

The Broncos, of course, possess one of the most unique and stifling home-field advantages that the league has to offer, benefiting from both a raucous home crowd as well as the thin air that can only be found at 5,280 feet above sea level. Are teams that play under the luxury of an insulating roof and short turf able to keep up in the altitude, or do they wither when they reach a mile high?

Let's take a look back at the history of dome teams travelling to Denver, dating back to the start of the 2012 season.

Sep. 23, 2012: Broncos 25, Texans 31

2012 Houston Texans average home score: 29 PPG

The first of the series is a bit of an aberration, but this instance of the Texans offense travelling well is a result of their potent running game to match a solid aerial attack. The 2012 Texans were an incredibly balanced team, throwing for 22 touchdowns and running for 19. They also ran for 2,123 yards, a great recipe to win for winning on the road. Also, because this game took place in Week 3, the conditions invited a pretty high output for both offenses. 

Oct. 28, 2012: Broncos 34, Saints 14

2012 New Orleans Saints average home score: 31 PPG

Having been ravaged by the penalties of Bountygate, the 2012 season was particularly odd for the Saints. However, they still managed to rack up points at home, as illustrated by their average mark of 31. Drew Brees and co. ran into a Denver offense that controlled the clock and a defense that was hitting their stride. Brees, who had just broken the season record for passing yards the previous year, put up just 201 yards in this game.

NOTE: The Broncos did not play a dome team in Mile High during the 2013 season.

Sep. 7, 2014: Broncos 31, Colts 24

2014 Indianapolis Colts average home score: 28 PPG

The Colts didn't necessarily lag on offense in this game, but they didn't match their home average of 28 points. Being the first game of the season, the conditions were perfectly fine, but it took Indy's offense a while to warm up, scoring just seven points in the first half.

Oct. 5, 2014: Broncos: Broncos 41, Cardinals 20

2014 Arizona Cardinals average home score: 20 PPG

For this game, it's worth noting that the Cardinals had to resort to a quarterback duo of Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas in this game. Their home offensive output also took a major dip when Carson Palmer tore his ACL in Week 10. Outside of a fluky 81-yard touchdown pass to Andre Ellington (the only completion of Logan Thomas's career), Arizona really struggled to move the ball and score points.

Jan. 11, 2015: Broncos 13, Colts 24

2014 Indianapolis Colts average home score: 28 PPG

The Colts scored the exact same number of points they did in the first week of the season, but this time Denver's offense just couldn't get rolling after the first drive. Indy's best work on offense was controlling the clock for nearly 35 minutes and making an injured Peyton Manning throw outside the numbers. Still, they didn't reach their average home output for a second time in Denver that year.

NOTE: The Minnesota Vikings played at Mile High in Week Four of the 2015 season, but that year they played at TCF Bank Stadium, an outdoor field.

Sep. 18, 2016: Broncos 34, Colts 20

2016 Indianapolis Colts average home score: 31 PPG

This isn't incredibly telling as the Colts have only played at home twice so far this season, but when they have they've put up points (in spite of their offensive line and suspect running game). We can expect the Colts average home score to dip a little throughout the season, but 27-30 PPG at home seems like a reasonable expectation for that Luck-led offense. Again, Denver held them below what they're used to putting to seeing on the scoreboard at Lucas Oil.

There you have it. Since 2012, it's been a relatively small sample size, since most dome teams play in the NFC, but the results show these teams typically struggle offensively when they travel to Denver. On average, these teams sampled have scored an average of six points less in Denver than they have at home. One might argue that Denver's defense has been good enough throughout these last five years to slow down any offense regardless of location, but the Broncos are just 3-4 when travelling to play inside domes in that same period.

What does this all mean? Atlanta, who has played three of their four games inside a dome, is averaging 38 points this year, far and away the highest in the NFL. Meanwhile, Denver, who was not yet set foot in a dome in 2016, is giving up just 16 points per game.

This doesn't mean that Atlanta, a strong and balanced offense, will see the wheels come off on Sunday, but we should expect a lower offensive output than the video-game numbers they've been totaling so far this season.

Whether that "lower" score means 37 points or just 13 will go a long way to deciding who wins this first-place matchup between the Broncos and the Falcons. 

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Will Keys is an Editor for Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @WillKeys6.

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