Five weeks ago, the Broncos were 2-3 and ranked 19th in the NFL in points allowed. Peyton Manning and the offense were coming together, week by week, but the Broncos had all kinds of questions on the other side of the ball. Having surrendered 62 points to Houston and New England over the previous three weeks, their defense scared no one.
Sunday, the Broncos won their fourth consecutive game since then. For the first time, Manning was not the main reason. The Denver defense, which had improved to 13th in points allowed in the interim, dominated Carolina, forcing Cam Newton to run for his life most of the day.
Two stats best reflected this defensive dominance:
— Seven quarterback sacks by six different Broncos defenders, the first time they’ve had that many in a game in nine years.
— The Panthers’ astonishing 0-for-12 success rate on third down, the first time the Broncos have shut out an opponent on third down in 12 years.
Jack Del Rio’s unit had improved from 29th to 20th in third-down defense over the past three weeks, and that ranking will rise again when all of this weekend’s action is over.
Combine a stifling defense that held Carolina to 250 yards of offense (the Broncos had 360) with another kick return for a touchdown by Trindon Holliday — a kickoff last week in Cincinnati, a punt this week in Carolina — and the Broncos resembled, for the first time, a complete team that could be a legitimate championship contender.
“It was a heck of an effort by the defense today,” Manning told KOA afterward. “They really put a lot of pressure on Carolina’s offense. And, boy, that’s two straight weeks with a (special teams) return for a touchdown. Just can’t tell you what that does for a team. Just a huge swing. Holliday and the entire return team has done a heck of a job. So, good overall team win. Offensively, obviously, some things we need to do better, but it sure was a good win.”
This is the key intangible the Broncos have going for them — veterans on both sides of the ball who are dissatisfied after a convincing 36-14 road win.
Asked by Channel 4’s Gary Miller if the defense was coming along faster than he expected, cornerback Champ Bailey did not hesitate.
“No,” he said. “I think we’re going too slow. We need to pick it up a little bit.”
It sounded like a joke, but if you know Bailey, who held the great Panthers receiver Steve Smith to one catch on seven targets for 19 yards, you know it wasn’t. At 34, Bailey’s sense of urgency to get to his first Super Bowl is palpable.
Similarly, Manning returns to Denver determined to work on flaws in the offense.
“I thought we were close on offense all day and really had some chances to put some more points and maybe have a little more separation,” he said. “We still had a few self-inflicted wounds. I’ve learned never to take winning for granted in the NFL, but certainly some things we can improve on and hopefully correct on offense.”
Even on a relatively modest day for Manning — he completed 27 of 38 passes for 301 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 103.1 — the Broncos’ quarterback continued his assault on the record book. The touchdown tied Dan Marino for second on the career list at 420. Only Brett Favre, with 508, had more. The win tied him with Marino for third on that list with 147, behind only John Elway (148) and Favre (186).
Now in charge of the Broncos’ front office, Elway gets appropriate credit for courting and signing Manning, giving the franchise instant credibility on offense. The front office he leads has continued to add veteran pieces that have played major roles, among them linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and safety Jim Leonhard.
But no pickup on the fly has had a bigger impact than Holliday, just the third player in Broncos history to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same season, joining Al Frazier in 1961 and Eddie Royal in 2009. The Broncos claimed him off waivers from Houston last month.
“We look at the wire every single day to see who’s on that wire and if there’s a possibility that we can improve our football team,” Elway said on the Dave Logan Show last week.
“When we had a chance to get Trindon Holliday and claimed him a couple weeks ago, it was key for us because we needed a returner and he’d had so much success in preseason and even earlier this season . . . It was kind of an area of need and we saw what he could do last week. He’s really upgraded our return game.”
Holliday’s 76-yard punt return on the first play of the second quarter broke a 7-7 tie. Returners with the ability to break one at any time are a rare breed and provide a dimension that few teams have. To add that, in midseason, to improving units on offense and defense, makes the Broncos a threat to score in all three phases of the game, as they did Sunday.
“Especially a guy with that kind of speed,” Elway said. “If we can get people on people and get him some space, then he’s going to be very dangerous and it puts that much pressure on the other team. We really can look at it as another offensive weapon that when we do get in the return game, we have the ability to make some big plays.”
Indeed, the 5-foot-5-inch, 170-pound Holliday has been so impressive the Broncos are working him into the passing game. In Carolina, he had his first two NFL catches.
On the other hand, replays appeared to show Holliday flipping the ball away before crossing the goal line on the punt return. Neither the officials nor the Panthers noticed. Broncos coach John Fox told him to bring him the ball next time.
Meanwhile, Von Miller continued his ascent into one of the dominant defensive players in the league. Although he got credit for just one of the Broncos’ sacks after registering three the week before, he seemed to be in the Carolina backfield all day. He denied any special motivation going after the one player picked ahead of him in the 2011 NFL draft, but his teammates knew better.
“It was important not only for our head coach coming back here, but the first time Von has gone up against Cam,” said fellow linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “So it was exciting for him.”
Fox, of course, coached the Panthers for nine seasons and was less than thrilled when he was set up to fail with a stripped-down roster in his final season. But Fox, like Miller, declined to talk about his motivation publicly.
Broncos defenders credited with quarterback sacks in addition to Miller were defensive linemen Kevin Vickerson (two), Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil; and defensive backs Mike Adams and Chris Harris.
About the only negative for the Broncos was the running game, which put up only 65 yards, averaging three yards per rush. The starter, Willis McGahee, fumbled twice. Luckily, one rolled back to him. The other became his third lost fumble of the season.
Still, their turnover ratio continued to improve from a horrible start with interceptions by cornerback Tony Carter — a third-quarter pick six that extended the lead to 24-7 — and safety Rahim Moore. They improved to minus three on the season.
Combined with the Chargers’ loss to Tampa Bay, the Broncos’ fourth straight victory gave them a two-game lead in the AFC West with a chance to make it effectively four by beating San Diego next week and sweeping the head-to-head matchups, the first tie-breaker.
“It’s certainly a big game, and we all know how the game went last time,” Manning said, referring to the turning point of the Broncos’ season so far. It came at halftime of the game in San Diego on Oct. 15. The Chargers led 24-0 and the Broncos were 30 minutes from falling to 2-4. Instead, they came back with 35 second-half points and haven’t lost since.
“Everybody talks about the comeback, but we were down 24-0 for a reason, because they are a good team and they forced us into some mistakes,” Manning said. “So we’re going to have to play a whole lot better than we did last time . . . We need a good week of practice.”
Now 6-3 on the season, the Broncos’ record is beginning to reflect the quality of their game. One memorable stat that made the rounds last spring, just after Manning signed, seems increasingly relevant these days. Throughout his career, Manning’s teams have averaged 26 points a game. Throughout his career, Fox’s defensively-oriented teams have won more than 90 percent of the time when they score at least 26 points.
It’s working so far. When the Broncos have scored 26 points or more this season, they are 6-0. If the defense continues to improve at its recent rate, they could be as scary as any team when the playoffs get underway.