If you’ve listened to various Broncos coaches perform the required post-mortems after being sliced and diced by Peyton Manning over the years, the words coming from Raiders coach Dennis Allen on Sunday should sound familiar.
“They out-coached us, they outplayed us, they beat us in every phase of the game,” he said after the Broncos routed the Raiders 37-6.
“The time of possession is killing us. We’ve got to be able to get off the field on third down defensively so we don’t play so many plays.”
The Broncos had the ball for 37 minutes, 25 seconds of the available 60, the Raiders for the other 22:35. You may recall the Broncos winning the coin toss in Indianapolis under former coach Josh McDaniels and deferring, giving the ball to Manning to open the game. Allen did the same thing Sunday, with the same result. Manning took the ball on the opening possession and marched it down the field to give the Broncos a lead they would never relinquish.
One of the unwritten rules in the NFL is you’re not allowed to make excuses, so one very relevant fact got almost no attention after Manning’s best game yet as a Bronco — the Raiders’ secondary was in tatters. Oakland was without both of its starting cornerbacks and Manning exploited this weakness at will.
When I mentioned to Allen that it’s hard to play Manning without either of your starting corners, the former Broncos defensive coordinator said what he was required to say.
“Well, it’s hard to play against Peyton Manning no matter what. He’s a good quarterback. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback and there’s a reason why he’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. But we’ve got the guys that we have and that’s who we’ve got to go out and play with. And we’ve got to play at an NFL level. So we’re not going to use injuries as a crutch. That’s all of us.”
The Raiders signed a pair of 30-year-old free agent cornerbacks during the offseason. Ron Bartell lasted one game, breaking his left shoulder blade in the Raiders’ opener against the Chargers. Shawntae Spencer lasted twice as long, sustaining a foot injury in Week 2.
So the Raiders rolled into Denver with backup Pat Lee at one corner and safety Michael Huff at the other. Manning feasted, completing 30 of 38 passes to eight different receivers for 338 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.
“They’re still professionals out there and they’re still NFL players,” said veteran Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley. “You have to go in with the same mindset every game. I think we did that this week. We knew if we went out there and executed, there’d be some plays to be made. And that’s what we were able to do.”
Behind Manning, the Broncos converted 10 of 16 third downs, a remarkable 63 percent. Behind Carson Palmer, the Raiders converted one of 12, or 8 percent.
For a while, it looked as if the Broncos wouldn’t take full advantage. Demaryius Thomas was on his way to the end zone early in the second quarter when he fumbled the ball trying to shift it from his right hand to his left.
On their next possession, the Broncos had a fourth-and-one at the Oakland 36-yard line. Head coach John Fox had at least three choices: Let Manning go for the first down, as he had, successfully, on a fourth-and-one in the first quarter; let kicker Matt Prater try a 53-yard field goal, well within his range, especially at altitude; or fake the field goal and let Prater try to get the first down.
Inexplicably, Fox chose the latter, which produced a bizarre spectacle of the place-kicker rolling to his left and lofting a pass apparently intended for offensive guard Zane Beadles.
“I’m not sure it will go down with Montana-Rice or any of those great passing combinations,” Fox said. “We probably won’t see that one again for a while.”
Following the coach to the podium, Manning deadpanned: “Well, Fox took my line . . . I just kind of told them to maybe give Manning-to-Stokley a chance, maybe before Prater-to-Beadles. It’s one of the all-time great combinations, right? Kelly-Reed, Montana-Rice, Prater-Beadles, you know.”
It was easy to laugh because the Broncos erased any regrets in a fabulous third quarter. For the first time this season, offense, defense and special teams all reached the top of their game at the same time.
Having deferred to the second half, the Raiders got the ball to open the third quarter. The Denver defense forced a three-and-out, the big play a tackle by nickel back Chris Harris of Raiders receiver Denarius Moore one yard short of the first down. Manning and the offense responded with a nine-play, 79-yard touchdown drive capped by Manning’s 17-yard scoring strike to Eric Decker.
The Broncos kicked off and the defense forced another three-and-out. Champ Bailey put Oakland in a hole right away by tackling fullback Marcel Reece four yards behind the line of scrimmage on first down.
When Shane Lechler tried to punt the ball back to the Broncos, special teams ace David Bruton got his hand on it. Because the ball traveled two yards beyond the line of scrimmage, it didn’t count as a block, but no matter — the Broncos got the ball at the Oakland 18 and four plays later had another touchdown.
“They know what I did,” Bruton said. “They know what it is. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
In fact, Bruton wasn’t going for the block until the Raiders invited him in.
“I wasn’t even supposed to rush on that punt,” he said. “I was supposed to just pin the wing inside. He gave me a soft shoulder and I just ended up reaching over his shoulder and got my hand on the ball.”
I asked Bruton to describe the feeling when he felt his hand meet the ball. “Can’t nobody block me, that’s the feeling,” he said with a broad smile.
“And they can’t!” said safety Rahim Moore, eavesdropping from the next locker.
A third consecutive three-and-out for Oakland followed. This time linebackers Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard did the honors, stuffing Raiders running back Darren McFadden two yards behind the line of scrimmage on a third-and-two.
As night follows day, it produced yet another Broncos touchdown, this one taking only five plays to cover 63 yards. That made it 31-6.
In less than 12 minutes of game action, the Broncos had turned a nail-biter into a blowout. That’s why coaches talk so much about the three phases of the game working together. When they do, your players start to feel like a bunch of supermen.
But just as some fans overreacted negatively to the Broncos losing back-to-back games to Atlanta and Houston (which are now a combined 8-0), some are liable to overreact positively to the rout of the Raiders. Next up, the Broncos travel to New England to take on the Patriots, who put 52 points on Buffalo this week. The last time the Broncos played in New England . . . well . . . you probably remember.
“I think the key that I’ve said all along is just trying to keep making progress somehow,” Manning said. “That doesn’t always show on the scoreboard. You’d like to win every game as you’re feeling your way and learning about your team and learning about yourself a little bit. So there’s still a lot of that going on, for me out there as the quarterback and for our team, sort of figuring things out. But I think today we learned some things. We still have some things to improve on, but anytime you can be working on things and get a win at the same time, that sure is nice.”
“He’s getting more comfortable,” Fox said of Manning. “Let’s not forget he didn’t play all last season. This is a new team, a new coaching staff, a new city, a new field, a new everything for him. The type of guy he is, he’s just going to get better and better. He’s a championship guy and he’s going to get used to his teammates, our players. He just was better at it today than earlier.”
As Manning adjusts to Denver, Denver adjusts to Manning. Running the offense almost exclusively out of the no-huddle Sunday, several times Manning had to shush the excitable Orange Sunday crowd so his teammates could hear him calling signals at the line of scrimmage. This produced a novel instruction from the video screens, which often exhort crowds to make noise. “Quiet,” the boards instructed.
There will be more ups and downs, of course. It’s the NFL. But this was more than the Broncos’ most lopsided win over the Raiders in 50 years, more than putting a stop to four years of struggling at home against their longtime rivals from Oakland, more than a good start to the competition within the AFC West.
This was a template for how good this Broncos team can be. Everything came together, including a little bit of luck in the form of the Raiders’ banged up secondary. The question now is how often they can live up to it.