ATLANTA — Peyton Manning knew there would be some stumbles along the way.
There had to be after four neck surgeries, a year away from the field, and the transition to a new team.
But even at his most pessimistic, Manning surely never envisioned a quarter like this.
One pick. Then another. Then a third.
All before he made it through the opening period Monday night.
Manning’s three interceptions in the first 8 minutes helped the Atlanta Falcons build a big lead, and they held off the Denver Broncos for a 27-21 victory.
“Just a really tough start,” Manning said. “I won’t make any excuses for it. We made poor decisions. We have to eliminate those mistakes.”
Matt Ryan threw the 100th touchdown pass of his career, Roddy White had 102 yards receiving and the Falcons (2-0) made an early 20-0 lead stand up, if just barely. Denver (1-1) rallied for a couple of touchdowns in the fourth quarter and were a defensive stop away from getting one last chance to pull it out.
Still, the feel-good optimism from Week 1, when Manning deftly guided the Broncos to an impressive win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in his Mile High debut, was largely erased at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons, of course, had a grand ol’ time against Manning.
“I watched him growing up, and it was good to go out and play against him,” said Falcons safety William Moore, who had the first of the picks against Manning, setting up a quick touchdown. “I hope he remembers No. 25.”
Maybe in his nightmares.
Thomas DeCoud and Robert McClain also had interceptions as new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan kept mixing up his formations and moving players around the field, confusing Manning enough to put the Falcons in position to pick off passes that seemed a bit wobbly and lacking the zip he had during his glory days in Indianapolis.
“Each turnover has its own story that no one really wants to hear,” Manning said. “I’ve just got to take care of the ball better.”
He finished 24 of 37 for 241 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas just before halftime. Willis McGahee rushed for 113 yards and scored on a pair of 2-yard runs in the final 12 minutes.
Ryan was much more efficient than the four-time MVP, completing 24 of 36 for 219 yards. He hooked up with Tony Gonzalez for a 1-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, then went to White on a 4-yard score in the third period.
Matt Bryant kicked two field goals for the Falcons, and Michael Turner scored Atlanta’s first TD on a 1-yard run, the play set up by the first of Manning’s picks. Hours later, Turner was arrested on charges of drunken driving and speeding.
Turner was released on bail after spending barely two hours in jail. The team said it was aware of the arrest but did not have any immediate comment.
Atlanta appeared to be solidly in control heading to the fourth quarter, up 27-7 after Ryan hooked up with White on consecutive passes of 21 and 20 yards, then went to him again for the touchdown.
The Broncos at least made a game of it. Manning completed 7 of 11 for 89 yards in the final period, but two sacks helped stifle the comeback.
“I thought we could find a little momentum there, find some rhythm, which we did,” he said. “We had a chance to win that game. I think we will learn from it and we’ll be better for it.”
The only other time Manning was picked off three times in the opening quarter was with the Colts in a 2007 game at San Diego. The Broncos, in fact, had turnovers on four on their first five possessions.
On the third play from scrimmage, Manning threw into triple coverage looking to connect with Jacob Tamme. Instead, Moore stepped in front of the tight end for the interception and ran down the sideline 33 yards before he was tackled at the 1. Turner took it in from there.
The Broncos ran two plays before Manning faked a play-action handoff and threw down the right seam to Eric Decker. This time, DeCoud picked him off and brought it back 15 yards. After Julio Jones dropped what would have been a touchdown pass from Ryan in the left corner of the end zone, Bryant followed with a 37-yard field goal to make it 10-0.
Manning’s third pick went to Robert McClain, a reserve cornerback who was taking his first snap because Asante Samuel injured his neck on the previous play.
On Sunday, Manning’s younger brother, Eli, threw three interceptions in the first half. But he rallied the New York Giants to a 41-34 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
No such luck for big brother.
On the next-to-last snap of the first quarter, Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas forced a fumble by Knowshon Moreno near the Denver sideline and Sean Weatherspoon recovered for Atlanta. The Falcons ran 10 plays before Bryant kicked a 42-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead.
Then, it was Ryan finding Gonzalez all alone in the back of the end zone. The tight end who has caught the second-most passes in NFL history was freed up by his quarterback’s nifty play fake that made it 20-0, punctuated by Gonzalez’s dunk over the goal posts.
The Broncos finally got on the board with 6 seconds left in the half, though it took the replacement officials a second look to get it right. They initially ruled Thomas had been pushed out of bounds without getting both feet down. The replay clearly showed otherwise. Broncos coach John Fox challenged the call and it was reversed.
Another time, the replacements had to huddle just to make sure they knew where to place the ball after a defensive holding penalty on Denver’s Champ Bailey, drawing boos from the crowd as the game dragged on for nearly 3½ hours.
The Falcons snapped a six-game losing streak on Mondays, including 0-3 under coach Mike Smith. Their last Monday win came over New Orleans on Dec. 12, 2005.
“It was a big game,” White said. “We wanted to come out here and win one of these games and prove to everybody that we’re a good football team.”
NOTES: Manning’s career record in Monday night games dropped to 11-4. … Atlanta had another tough game running the ball. Turner totaled only 42 yards on 17 carries — and 15 of those came on his final run. … Samuel was able to get back on the field, but CB Chris Owens went out with a head injury and didn’t return. That further depleted the depth in the secondary, which lost Brent Grimes to a season-ending injury in Week 1. … Thomas, who played at nearby Georgia Tech, finished with eight catches for 78 yards.