Denver Broncos (5-4) at Atlanta Falcons (6-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS (Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon)
SERIES: 12th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 7-4, Falcons lost the one postseason matchup -- a 34-19 Broncos win in Super Bowl XXXIII. The Broncos have not played in Atlanta since the 1997 season, when Denver won 29-21.
PREDICTION: Broncos 24-23
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos will start rookie FB Peyton Hillis at tailback and he'll be spelled by recently re-signed Tatum Bell. But that doesn't mean Denver can afford to simply spread the field and throw the ball all day. The Broncos' defense is facing a very physical opponent, so the offense has to do what it can to sustain drives. Still, QB Jay Cutler will carry the offense and he gets excellent protection, so yards should be easy to come by. ... The Falcons are second in the NFL with 157.8 rushing yards per game. The Broncos are 31st in the league allowing 5.1 yards per carry and will be without all three of their starting linebackers. That plays right into the hands of a Falcons offense that likes to use RB Michael Turner early to set up the passing game. Denver will probably be without CB Champ Bailey and has an AFC-low three interceptions while allowing 242.8 passing yards per game.
KEY INJURIES: Broncos: Bailey (groin) has an outside chance to play; LBs Nate Webster (knee) and D.J. Williams (knee) are out; RB Selvin Young (groin) is not expected to play. Falcons: LT Sam Baker (hip) is out.
FAST FACTS: Cutler has a 98.8 passer rating with five touchdowns and one interception in his past three games against the NFC. ... Falcons DE John Abraham has 11 sacks, just two shy of his career high set in 2001.
-- RB Selvin Young missed another day of practice Thursday. He is very unlikely to play this week, and might not be ready to return next week either.
-- RB Tatum Bell was praised by Broncos coach Mike Shanahan for being in good football shape after Bell's second day of practice this week. Bell, who was signed Tuesday, is likely to play Sunday against Atlanta.
-- TE Tony Scheffler said he isn't fully healed from a groin injury that kept him out a few weeks. He has practiced in full all week and had 92 yards in limited snaps last week at Cleveland, so he can still be a productive target while he plays through discomfort.
-- WR Chad Jackson made enough of an impression on the team since he was picked up that when Denver needed a roster spot they released receiver Glenn Martinez, who can return punts. Jackson is a former second-round pick.
-- WR Brandon Marshall hasn't had a huge game since early in the season. After a fast start Marshall has gone six straight games without breaking 100 yards, and his only touchdown the last five weeks came in the final minute of last week's game at Cleveland. Marshall has been getting a lot of attention from opposing defenses, which has freed up Eddie Royal for some big games.
--RB Michael Turner has posted 203 carries for 890 yards and seven touchdowns. He set a Falcons single-game record with 220 yards against Detroit in Week 1.
--RB Jerious Norwood is second on the team in rushing with 365 yards on 64 carries while adding three touchdowns. He has also returned 24 kickoffs for 660 yards and a career-long return of 85 yards.
--LCB Domonique Foxworth has made three starts. He had five tackles and five pass breakups against the Saints.
--SS Lawyer Milloy ranks third on the team in tackles with 68 (43 solo) while adding one interception and four pass breakups.
--RE Chauncey Davis has recorded 15 tackles (13 solo), one fumble recovery and one pass breakup.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Broncos need reinforcements on defense, and cornerback Champ Bailey looks like he is getting close to returning to the lineup.
Bailey has been out for three weeks since injuring his groin against New England on Oct. 20. He was supposed to be out four-to-six weeks, but returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday.
"I'm not exactly where I want to be but I'm making great progress," Bailey said.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he wouldn't have a problem putting Bailey into the lineup if he doesn't practice much during the week, as long as he is healthy. Shanahan said Bailey made some strides during practice.
"He didn't look too bad," Shanahan said.
Bailey is motivated by this week's opponent. The game is at Atlanta, which isn't far from his hometown of Folkston, Ga., and he wants to play.
"It's back at home - it would mean everything," Bailey said.
The Falcons knew when so many rookies made the starting lineup and became top reserves that they'd encounter the rookie wall at some point this season.
The team has been planning for that day.
They've played 13 games -- counting exhibitions -- and for the first time there isn't a month to rest up before the big bowl game.
Left guard Justin Blalock, who started last season as a rookie, slammed into the wall around Week 14 last season.
"It's legit," Blalock said of the invisible rookie wall. "It kind of snuck up on me." Some dismiss the notion, but Blalock is a believer.
"It's definitely out there," Blalock said. "It can set you back. It can be very detrimental as the season progresses."
The Falcons have relied heavily on their rookie class.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, linebacker Curtis Lofton and left tackle Sam Baker all won starting jobs. Wide receiver Harry Douglas and cornerback Chevis Jackson have key situational positions. Defensive end Kroy Biermann is also getting anywhere from 15 to 20 snaps a game.
Safety Thomas DeCoud is serving more of an understudy role and hasn't been active for the last four games. Rookie running back Thomas Brown and linebacker Robert James are on injured reserve and tight end Keith Zinger is on the practice squad.
The rookie class meets regularly with Kevin Winston, the team's director of player programs on Mondays.
"They are voluntary (meetings) and are not mandated by the league, but we put programs together for them," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "So they spend a lot of time together."
Winston had the rookies write down some of their goals and one of them was to kick down the rookie wall.
"I don't really believe too much in the rookie wall," Lofton said. "If you just take care of your body, and get rest, you'll be all right. The rookies all made a pact to do that."
Ryan, who played 14 games at Boston College last season, including the ACC title game and the Champs Sports Bowl, is feeling fine now.
"I'm holding up pretty good," Ryan said. "That's really a credit to our guys up front."
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