ATLANTA — The Denver Broncos have come up with all sorts of ways to deal with their injuries, from starting a player on both sides of the line to relying on a guy with plenty of baggage.
It's working out just fine.
Jay Cutler threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Graham with 51/2 minutes remaining, the Denver defense held off Matt Ryan's last-gasp drive and the gritty Broncos rallied for a 24-20 victory Sunday, handing the Falcons their first loss of the season at home.
"We made some big strides," said coach Mike Shanahan, whose team won its second straight, both on the road. "Normally, you go the other direction when you have your starters out."
The first-place Broncos (6-4) played without star cornerback Champ Bailey and all three of their projected starters at linebacker. Spencer Larsen started at both middle linebacker and fullback, the first player in team history to pull off that double.
On offense, Denver has lost five tailbacks, four of them for the season. Shanahan divvied up the carries among three players including Tatum Bell, signed a few days earlier after an ugly departure from Detroit when he was accused of stealing luggage from a teammate.
"It feels pretty good to have guys step up that have really not played in the National Football League," Shanahan said.
The Falcons (6-4) were feeling pretty good about themselves. They had won four of their last five and were 4-0 at the Georgia Dome, emerging as one of the league's biggest surprises in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
Things looked good for the home team when Michael Turner scored on a 28-yard run to put Atlanta ahead 20-17 with just under 11 minutes left.
But the Broncos came storming back. Cutler accounted for more than half the distance on the 10-play, 83-yard drive when he hooked up with Brandon Marshall for a 47-yard pass after the big receiver broke away from Chris Houston.
"It wasn't the first read. It wasn't the second read," Cutler said. "He got behind everyone, and I just threw it up and he made the catch."
On third-and-goal at the Atlanta 9, Cutler scrambled to his right and spotted Graham for the winning score.
"It was a busted play," the quarterback said. "I got a little pressure and had to roll out. Daniel did a great job of finding a hole."
Coming off a 447-yard effort against Cleveland, Cutler completed 19 of 27 passes for 216 yards. Peyton Hillis, P.J. Pope and Bell combined for 113 yards rushing on 21 carries.
"We thought it was going to be more of a passing game," Falcons defensive end Jamaal Anderson said. "They came in and wanted to establish their running game."
The Denver defense loaded up on the line and held Turner to 81 yards on 25 carries. Ryan finally showed his age at bit, throwing his first interception at home, and his final bid at rallying the Falcons slipped through the hands of top receiver Roddy White in the right corner of the end zone.
Ryan completed 20 of 33 for 250 yards, and White had five catches for 102 yards — his fifth 100-yard game of the season. But he couldn't pull in the one that really mattered.
"I have to go out there and make those plays," White said. "I feel responsible for the loss today."
Ryan wasn't thrilled with his effort, either. On the final drive, he threw a pass that should've been picked off by Jamie Winborn and returned for a touchdown, but the linebacker couldn't hang on.
"I wish I could've had a couple throws back," Ryan said. "There were some good plays, just not enough to get the win."
Turner had a pair of touchdowns, also scoring from the 9 to give Atlanta a 13-7 lead at halftime. Jason Elam, kicking against the team that he played for the last 15 seasons, booted field goals of 46 and 36 yards for the Falcons.
But the Broncos jumped on Atlanta after halftime. Denver took the kickoff and went 77 yards in 11 plays. Cutler completed four passes for 42 yards, Hillis ripped off a 12-yard run and Pope burst up the middle for a 15-yard gain. Finally, Hillis took it in from the 2 to put the Broncos ahead.
After Ryan was picked off by Dre Bly, Denver ripped off another big drive. Atlanta's defense finally held at the goal line, forcing Denver to settle for Matt Prater's 20-yard field goal that pushed the lead to 17-13.
Notes: Prater, who started the 2007 season as Atlanta's kicker but was cut after only two games, missed a 49-yard attempt in the second quarter. He's made all five of his tries from at least 50 yards, but dropped to 12-of-16 on the closer ones. ... At halftime, the Falcons honored their 1998 Super Bowl team, including Jamal Anderson, who trotted on the field doing the "Dirty Bird" dance that became the team's trademark.
More to come