Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’
Spoiler alert: ‘Twas not a visitor. ‘Twas the Raven. And this is what the Broncos said Sunday about the Ravens’ previous dominance in the city of Edgar Allan Poe:
No single Sunday has delivered results so promising for Denver’s football squad since the Sunday in March when Peyton Manning elected to join it.
It was not merely that the Broncos expunged an ignominious losing streak in Baltimore, nor that they won their ninth consecutive game, a streak now tied for third-longest in franchise history.
It was mainly that they leapfrogged the defrocked New England Patriots in the conference standings, with a little help from the San Francisco 49ers, who blitzed the Pats on Sunday Night Football, then hung on by their fingernails in the second half.
If the Broncos win out at home against the hapless Cleveland Browns (5-9) and Kansas City Chiefs (2-12), they will finish the season as at least the AFC’s No. 2 seed. (If the Houston Texans were to lose both of their remaining games, against Minnesota and Indianapolis, the Broncos could ascend to No. 1.)
Earning one of the top two seeds not only gets them a first-round bye, meaning they would need two playoff victories to reach the Super Bowl rather than three. It also exempts them from another postseason trip to Foxboro, Mass., and you may remember how the last one of those turned out.
This was widely assumed to be the Broncos’ doomsday scenario. No matter how well they played in the regular season, if they finished with a playoff seed inferior to that of the Patriots, the season likely would end again in disappointment far from home. After all, last year’s dream ended with a 45-10 spanking at Gillette Stadium. Even with Manning on board the Broncos’ bus, the Patriots beat them at Gillette again, 31-21, earlier this season.
The combination of the Broncos’ win at Baltimore and the Patriots’ 41-34 loss to the Niners means that if the Broncos win out, any postseason meeting with Tom Brady & Co. will be in Denver, not New England.
And so, as surely as winter follows fall, here comes the Super Bowl talk. Whether you get your sports conversation from the radio, TV or social media, you will be treated to a barrage of excited Super Bowl talk for at least the next three weeks. The Broncos will do their best to ignore it.
“We’re not measuring ourselves now,” coach John Fox said after his team improved to 11-3 on the season. “We need to measure ourselves at the end to be the best. Right now, our guys have responded very well to just improving every week, and we’ve kept it as simple as that. The big challenge this week was to win the turnover battle and we were able to do that. I thought that was the biggest difference in the game. This (Ravens) team is a very good football team and we may run into them again.”
To appreciate how hard it is to do what the Broncos did — playing every phase of the game expertly with two rushing touchdowns, a passing touchdown, an interception for a touchdown, a stifling defense, two takeaways, no giveaways and a dominant time of possession — you have only to observe the frustration along the other sideline.
“The thing about football is the offense can be playing really well and then the defense is not playing really well; it’s lopsided,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was held to 38 rushing yards. “Today the defense was playing really well, and we didn’t. Last week, it was the flip side. We have to find a way to come together and play as one unit. ”
For all the Broncos’ ultimate dominance, the key play in this one came at the end of the first half, with the Ravens on the verge of a touchdown that would have cut the Broncos’ lead to 10-7. The home team, which had only four first downs and 119 yards before intermission, finally got its offense moving in the last two minutes, connecting on a 43-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones to begin the drive and arriving at the Broncos’ 4-yard line with a first-and-goal and barely 30 seconds showing.
Head coach John Harbaugh, new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and Flacco, the quarterback, had two choices. They could call timeout — they had all three remaining — and set up a play, or they could run to the line of scrimmage and run a play out of the no-huddle offense in an effort to catch the Broncos off guard. They chose the latter. The Broncos were not caught off guard.
“There were 34 seconds when the ball was snapped,” Harbaugh said. “With three timeouts left that’s going to give us time to run three plays. That’s plenty of time. Throughout the course of the drive, we wanted to score, but we didn’t want to leave a lot of time on the clock. That’s a strategic call. We have a number of plays we run with no-huddle that are not kill-the-clock plays, but they are run-route plays, and that was the play we had. And we thought that gave us a great chance to score, and that’s what we ran.”
The Ravens chose a pass play with one receiver running a fade to Flacco’s left and another, Anquan Boldin, running a flat route beneath the fade. Flacco is supposed to check the fade first, then the flat. If neither is open, he’s supposed to throw it away, stop the clock, try again.
“That’s one of our plays that you kind of get a flat and a fade, and it’s kind of like going up and clocking the ball,” Flacco said. “It’s kind of like calling a timeout in that situation because it’s one of those things that you catch it and get out of bounds, you catch it in the end zone, or you throw it away, and you live for the next down. I just made a mistake, there’s no other way to put that. I made a mistake. I wanted to have the fade, and I came down to the flat, and the guy undercut it, picked it and went the whole way. It’s just a mistake on my part.”
The guy was Chris Harris, the former undrafted free agent who took over for Tracy Porter opposite Champ Bailey earlier in the season and has not permitted Porter to get back on the field. He cut in front of Boldin, caught Flacco’s pass at the 2-yard line and sprinted up the Broncos’ sideline 98 yards for a touchdown, the longest regular-season interception return for a score in franchise history. The previous record — a 93-yard return at Cleveland 32 years ago — was authored by linebacker Randy Gradishar.
“Chris did a good job kind of hanging back there, and stepped in front, right in front of our bench,” Fox said with a smile. “He had a lot of direction from the sideline on that (return).”
“A 14-point swing,” Manning said. “Baltimore has some momentum there on the drive and looks like they’re probably going to get the touchdown. Plus they get the ball the first series of the second half. So just a huge play by Chris, undercutting it. The turnover is good; the fact that he took it all the way to the house for a touchdown is even bigger. Big swing in the game, in the momentum, and I thought it kind of jump-started everything in the second half for us.”
“I didn’t really expect him to throw that out-route, but he threw it to me, and I just wanted to make sure I scored,” Harris said. “That was a long run, but once I got to the 40, I was like, ‘I just have to stride it on in.’ ”
Flacco tried to run him down, but managed only to dive at his feet as he flew into the end zone.
Asked to explain what happened on the play, Boldin, the intended receiver, replied: “I’d rather not.”
Someone asked Flacco if he changed his mind at the last moment about where to go with the ball.
“No, I was just reading it out,” he said. “The fade was just taking a little bit longer than I wanted. I was probably a little bit late on it because the sideline was squeezing with (Boldin) and all that. In hindsight, I should have just taken the ball and thrown it over Anquan’s head and lived for the next play.”
The Ravens did manage a scoring drive to start the second half, but they got only a field goal out of it. When the Broncos responded with consecutive touchdowns, it was 31-3 and all over but the excuses. The first of Denver’s two third-quarter touchdowns came on a 51-yard bomb from Manning to Eric Decker, who finished with eight catches for 133 yards in an oftense that seems to reward a different receiver each week.
“(We) were hitting some outs and some intermediate routes and we thought it was time to maybe send something down the field,” Manning said. “They had good cover guys outside, so anytime you’re playing against good cover guys you’ve got to give them the mix, you’ve got to give them the short, the intermediate and the deep stuff.
“It was a double-move by Eric, a good route, good protection. I really thought it was set up by the run game. We were running the ball well. It was off a run play we’d been running. Had a good fake. I don’t know that it necessarily froze the safety or anybody, but it just gives you that good mix of run and the play-action when you’re running the ball well.”
Ravens safety Ed Reed undercut the route, leaving Decker with single coverage, perhaps because Decker had been running comeback routes for much of the day.
The Broncos ran the ball 45 times and threw it just 28. Even subtracting the final series — two kneel-downs by backup quarterback Brock Osweiler and a no-gain run by rookie running back Ronnie Hillman — this is a heavier dose of running plays than one normally associates with Manning, who set or extended two more NFL records Sunday (most 11-win seasons, 9; most 4,000-yard passing seasons, 12).
Manning said one series where he threw it on all three downs — and went three-and-out, getting knocked down by the pass rush twice — represented probably the worst play-calling of the day. Heavy reliance on the running game was not a plan solely for the Ravens. The Broncos are coming to understand it will be a good strategy in the playoffs against higher-scoring offenses as well. If the re-emergence of Knowshon Moreno is paired with veteran Willis McGahee, who could be ready to return from injury for the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos’ ground game could be nearly as formidable as their aerial attack.
“It’s something we’re going to have to be able to do,” Manning told KOA. “Especially against teams that have these explosive offenses, you don’t want to give them the ball back.”
So let the fans and media types talk about the Super Bowl. Manning will make use of every moment of practice and game action between now and then to get in closer touch with his new teammates. They may not seem new to you anymore, but they do to him.
“You try to learn something every day,” he said. “You get a little more comfortable with something every day, but it’s still very new, there’s no question about it.
“I think the goal is to get on the same page. Obviously, the more that the receivers and I are on the same page, the better for our offense, the better for our team. I do think the more games you play, the better you’re going to be; the more practice reps you get, going against our secondary in one-on-one drills in practice.
“What are we, in Week 15 here, that’s all the time we’ve had to improve our timing. It’s not what it’s going to be if you play with guys six, seven, eight years. So it feels like a scramble and you’re trying to use every piece of practice that you have — walkthroughs, meetings, special teams periods where you might get them off to the side. We try to use all those things to talk football.
“There’s some things we’ve made strides on; there’s some things that I think you just have to have more time in order to get more on the same page. But I appreciate the work ethic. I know Decker had a good day today. DT probably didn’t have the numbers that he’s been having, but his presence, I can assure you, is a huge part of what’s going on out there. It’s a huge part of why the run game is good.
“For the most part, those runs, Baltimore had their safeties and corners apart, or removed from the line of scrimmage. That’s because the respect they have for a guy like Demaryius Thomas and Decker. So if you can run it versus those looks; when they come up, if you can throw it, that means you’re playing good offensive football.”
Winners of nine in a row, now in position to earn a first-round bye and second-round home game in the playoffs, the Broncos, according to their quarterback, remain a work in progress.
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered – not a feather then he fluttered –
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before –
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.’