Monthly Archives: September 2013

Broncos on historic roll

Chip Kelly wanted to revolutionize the National Football League by picking up the pace, wearing opponents down and blowing them out, the way he did in the Pac-12. In his fourth game as an NFL head coach, he got to see a team do it.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t his team.

Somebody told Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning that 52 points was a franchise record and Manning expressed concern for the team’s Arabian gelding mascot.

“I did not know that,” he said. “May have to give ol’ Thunder an IV after this one.”

George Will once complained that football combined America’s worst characteristics: violence and committee meetings. The Broncos and Eagles mostly eliminated the committee meetings Sunday at Mile High, leaving defenders on both sides gasping for thin air.

“I’ll tell you, I don’t know if I’ve ever been that tired, as I was in the first and second quarter,” Broncos defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said.

The Broncos don’t huddle up much either, but they take their time snapping the ball as Manning surveys the defense and checks off to another play, or pretends to check off to another play, or pretends to pretend to check off to another play. The result is almost always the right call to counter the defense presented and a frighteningly high level of execution. Manning completed more than 80 percent of his passes Sunday. This has a longer-term effect, which Kelly’s team displayed in the second half, when it became Manning’s chew toy.

“He’s just another offensive coordinator on the field,” Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox said. “If he doesn’t like it, he just checks to what he wants.”

Through the first quarter of the NFL season, the Broncos’ offense has operated like a sports car. It’s a little temperamental, occasionally sputtering or stalling, but when it starts to roar, it blows everybody away.

On the other hand, it’s early, the weather’s been great and they haven’t played a top-10 defense yet, at least by the rankings going into Week 4.

After a competitive first half, the Broncos led the Eagles — one of the worst defenses in the league so far — by a 21-13 score. Both offenses looked potent, but the Eagles made a lot of mistakes — penalties and dropped passes, what Kelly calls SIWs (self-inflicted wounds) — and the Broncos didn’t.

When Manning & Co. came out of the locker room after intermission, they drove 80, 80 and 65 yards for touchdowns, never requiring so much as a third-down snap. By the time the period was over, the score was 42-13 and the Broncos had their fourth blowout in four games. Manning put up another double-take stat line — 28 of 34 (82 percent) for 327 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 146.0.

“We felt really motivated to score points against these guys,” he explained. “You saw their offense. They are capable of scoring points. Our defense did a heck of a job answering their challenge. We were motivated to be on top of our game offensively, to score points — touchdowns, not field goals.”

Records tremble and fall:

— Manning broke the NFL mark for most touchdown passes in a season’s first four games with his third TD pass of the day — his second to Demaryius Thomas — and extended the fresh record to 16 with his fourth, the second of the day to Wes Welker.

— Manning’s streak of touchdown passes without an interception to open a season reached 16, a feat last accomplished by Milt Plum in 1960. The difference is it took Plum 10 games. I asked Manning if the name rang a bell. He acknowledged a quick briefing from Patrick Smyth, the Broncos’ media relations director.

“Patrick gave me a little bio,” Manning said. “I did know he played for the Browns. He gave me his college — Penn State. I’m throwing 16 out as a number — is that right?”

It is.

“OK,” Manning said. “My brother Cooper and I used to play a lot of trivia when we used to take road trips with my dad, so Cooper would be proud that I knew Milt Plum.”

— The Broncos won their 15th straight regular-season game, breaking the franchise record of 14, established in the championship seasons of 1997 and ’98.

— Their 52 points was a franchise best, eclipsing the 50 they piled on the Chargers 50 years ago.

— Their 179 points through four games is second only to the 1966 Dallas Cowboys, who scored 183. Watch out: Those Cowboys scored only 10 in Week 5.

— Welker became the only receiver in the league with at least one touchdown catch in each of his first four games. Tight end Jimmy Graham of New Orleans has a chance to join him Monday night. Welker now has six touchdown catches, the same number he had all last season with the Patriots.

People are running out of superlatives. This is the best stretch of offensive football — the most explosive, the most methodical, the least error-prone — many of us have ever seen.

“You get worn down a little bit,” Kelly admitted, experiencing the feeling he gave other teams so often while he was at the University of Oregon.

Somebody asked him if his defense playing pancake to the Broncos’ steamroller was disconcerting.

“I think it is disconcerting, but you’re also playing against an offense that four teams have tried to stop them and they haven’t yet,” he said. “I don’t have an answer. Is it disconcerting? Yeah, it is disconcerting to not be able to get teams to third down.”

Somebody else asked if he noticed how good Manning was.

“I think you have an appreciation, but I wasn’t sitting there saying, ‘Hey, that was a really cool play by Peyton.’ He frustrates you. Maybe at the end of the season we’ll go back and break down the Broncos tape and kind of look at what he does. But when you talk about the great quarterbacks in the history of the game — there’s been a lot of them — but I think he’s right up there with the best that have ever played, and he’s proving that right now. I know he’s setting records for the start of a season. He’s a great football player.”

Sunday’s steamroller was especially impressive because Manning & Co. barely saw the ball in the early going. They drove to a touchdown the first time they had it, then sat and watched for the rest of the first quarter. That wasn’t all bad. After the Eagles countered that first touchdown with a field goal, Trindon Holliday took the ensuing kickoff 105 yards, tying a franchise record he set last year, for another Broncos special teams touchdown.

The Eagles responded with another long drive, again settling for a field goal. By the time the Broncos offense snapped the ball again, it was the second quarter. It went three-and-out in what Manning called their worst series.

“Holliday’s return was great, but it does keep us off the field, and for whatever reason, we weren’t as sharp on that series after that lull, when we needed to be,” he said.

So, on their next possession, following an Eagles touchdown that closed the gap to 14-13, Manning drove the Broncos 80 yards in 11 plays, foreshadowing the third quarter by never requiring a third down. The variety of the offense was on display. Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman ran the ball. Manning completed passes to Hillman, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Virgil Green. Moreno scored the touchdown on the ground.

Up 21-13 with a little more than 2 minutes remaining in the first half, Manning found himself in a second-and-12 on his own 8-yard line. After multiple neck surgeries, at age 37, he isn’t given much credit for throwing the deep ball anymore. So he launched a 52-yard strike over the top to Decker.

“The one at the end of the first half, luckily it didn’t come back to hurt us, but we’re in a three-deep coverage,” Kelly said. “You hope you don’t get a post route thrown on you in three-deep coverage.”

Manning placed the ball perfectly after overthrowing Decker on another deep route earlier by maybe six inches (Manning estimated the overthrow at “an inch long”).

For one of the few times all day, the Eagles prevented the Broncos from scoring on that final drive of the first half. But that just made Manning more determined, setting the stage for a Vulcan-like third quarter in which he deconstructed the Eagles defense like a pathologist.

Somebody asked Kelly if teams can lose their spirit at the NFL level.

“I think it can happen at any level,” he said.

That’s what the Broncos are doing so far — not just beating opponents but demoralizing them. Special teams specialist Steven Johnson’s blocked punt and return was the Broncos’ third special teams touchdown of the season, and that’s not counting David Bruton’s blocked punt against the Ravens to set up another.

“They were well-prepared, they were well-coached, they went out and executed and made more plays than we were able to make, and that’s the bottom line,” said Eagles defensive back Cary Williams.

Williams, who played for the Ravens when they upset the Broncos in the playoffs last year, was asked how best to thwart Manning.

“You have to have great communication in the secondary and you need to be able to make plays,” he said. “We just didn’t make plays today.”

Manning played down the growing chorus of hosannahs and stuck to his one-game-at-a-time mantra. While it’s a joy to watch and celebrate his early-season virtuosity, it is worth remembering that the first quarter of the season provides the most pristine environmental conditions and is therefore most accommodating to a precision passing game.

As the weather changes, assuming it does, the offense is likely to get less pretty. Still, one wonders how the oddsmakers will come up with a line for the Jaguars-Broncos game here in two weeks. The Jags are not only 0-4, they’ve been outscored 129-31. The NFL might need a mercy rule.

But first, the Broncos have a trip to Dallas. Manning was already worrying about what Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator, might have in store. By the time the snow flies, the Broncos will have plenty of time to demonstrate whether they have an offense for the ages, or just for the late summer.

The 4-0 start is auspicious for more than its gaudy offensive numbers. The franchise has won the first four games in five previous seasons and went to the Super Bowl after four of them. The only time they didn’t was when they started 6-0 under Josh McDaniels four years ago and finished 8-8, missing the playoffs.

For now, it’s quite a show, this NFL offense with a multitude of talented weapons and a quarterback who always knows the right thing to do and almost always does it. Nobody’s perfect, of course. But tell you what. So far, he’s close.


At 3-0, Peyton Manning rewards himself with 20 minutes in the cold tub

Starting with the important stuff: The Broncos did not determine who would score their final touchdown Monday night against the Raiders by playing rock-paper-scissors.

The three running backs — Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball — did play the children’s game near the sideline at Mile High when Peyton Manning called timeout with the ball on the Oakland 1-yard line and 11:31 left in the game. When Hillman, who carried for 32  yards on the two previous plays, went back in for the goal line play, it looked like he’d won.

“Actually, I lost,” he said afterward. “We was just messing around.”

Still, it’s a sign of how much fun the Broncos are having these days. They are undefeated, having won all three of their games by double digits. They are averaging slightly more than 42 points a game. Manning now owns the NFL record for most touchdown passes in the first three games of a season (12), breaking a mark set by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady two years ago.

“They’re a devastating team, and that’s obvious from tonight,” said Raiders rookie tight end Nick Kasa, who was playing for the University of Colorado this time last year.

“It’s really about being able to match, and even exceed, the efficiency that they are operating at,” said Raiders middle linebacker Nick Roach. “When you aren’t able to do that, it kind of snowballs like it did tonight. You have to give them credit for that, though.”

“I still think there is plenty we can improve on, I really do,” Manning said.

He was shivering when he came out to meet the inquiring minds. He’d just spent 20 minutes in a cold tub, trying to jump-start his recovery looking ahead to a short week of preparation for the Eagles.

“It’s nice of the NFL to give Philly 12 days and give us six,” he said, breaking briefly into his Saturday Night Live deadpan. It’s actually 10 for the Eagles after their Thursday night game last week, but what this tells you is Manning is already on to the next one, even as we tally up the records from this one:

  • The Broncos won their 14th regular-season game in a row — the last 11 of 2012 and the first three this year — tying the franchise record. It’s a particularly auspicious record because it was set in the championship years of 1997 (the last regular-season game) and 1998 (the first 13). It is the longest active streak in the NFL.
  • The Broncos’ 127 points through three games tied for second all time with the 1966 Cowboys of Don Meredith, Don Perkins, Dan Reeves and Bob Hayes. Also, in a supporting role, Pete Gent, who went on to write North Dallas Forty. The only team to score more was roughly the same Cowboys team two years later, which put up 132.
  • Manning’s 12 touchdown passes are the most by any quarterback in the first three games of a season. His 12 touchdowns without an interception has been accomplished by one other quarterback — Brady — over any three-game stretch.

When I asked Manning about the record for early-season touchdown passes, he broke it down characteristically:

“We’ve worked hard on the passing game, starting with the offseason and training camp. We knew it was going to play a pivotal role for us this year. But I still think you strive for balance. I think we averaged four yards per carry in the run game, 4.5 yards or so (actually 4.7), and when you can do that, that can certainly help your passing game and help put their defense in a little bit of a bind.

“You know: ‘Do we drop back and play zone?’ That’s opening up running lanes. ‘Do we crowd the box?’ Now you’ve got one-on-one. If you put the defense in that position, that’s a good thing.”

No doubt, but many people are familiar with this line of reasoning. Just one, in the history of the NFL, has started a season with 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his first three games.

“We think it’s silly also,” said tight end Julius Thomas, one of only three players in the league to have caught a touchdown pass in every game so far (teammate Wes Welker and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham are the others).

“To think about what he’s been able to do, week-in and week-out, we just shake our heads. He’s playing at such a high level right now. He just continues to get better and make everybody around him better. We’re definitely happy we have 18 running things for us.”

Manning’s explanation for the absence of interceptions, like his explanation for the bounty of touchdowns, was grounded in the prosaic weeds of executing plays correctly.

“Just good play-calling,” he said. “Trying to make good, smart, sound decisions. I think guys are doing a good job getting open on time. I think guys have a good clock in their head about when to come out of the break versus different coverages. Protection has been good, so it gives you a chance to see the field and try to throw accurate footballs.”

The pattern changed a little this week. Instead of sparring early and then dominating the second half, the Broncos came out with a rush, took a 27-7 lead into the locker room at halftime, then played a little sloppily in the second half and settled for a 37-21 final.

Manning’s greatest fear seems to be the Broncos peaking too early. So just as he criticized the first halves of the first two games, he criticized the second of this one.

“I still think we can correct some things,” he said. “Our defense did a good job holding their offense. When we have those chances down in the red zone, third-and-1, to get stopped and have to settle for a field goal on that one drive. Had the sack-fumble. You’re not looking to play the perfect game. You’re looking to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

“I thought we left a couple of touchdowns out there tonight. Those are things we can fix, which you’re going to need those in a game at certain points of a season. But just got to keep emphasizing protecting the ball and eliminate some penalties, I thought, early in the game. I think we do a good job overcoming those penalties from time to time, but I still think there is plenty we can improve on, I really do.”

In that last answer, you could see him reliving Monday’s opening drive, remembering the frustration of right tackle Orlando Franklin’s holding penalty on the first play from scrimmage and Moreno’s dropped pass on the second. But Manning overcame the second-and-20 with consecutive completions to Eric Decker, who finished with eight for 133 yards and the touchdown that culminated that possession.

A solid outing by left tackle Chris Clark, replacing the injured Ryan Clady, was marred by the sack-fumble, when Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston beat him to the outside and hit Manning from behind. Rookie running back Montee Ball, who fumbled into the end zone to wipe out a touchdown drive last week, fumbled again as the Broncos tried to run out the clock on what would have been a 37-14 verdict.

The Raiders entered the game ranked second in the league in rushing. The Broncos were first in rushing defense. If this was supposed to be the unstoppable force vs. the immoveable object, the unstoppable force proved eminently stoppable. Darren McFadden’s nine yards on 12 carries works out to 0.8 yards per attempt.

“I thought they won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” said Raiders coach and former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. “I think generally when you look at your inability to run the ball or your inability to stop the run, I think you have to start up front.”

“For the first time in my career, guys are getting together after practice and watching film as a collective group,” Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson explained. “When that happens, you get carryover.”

The Manning work ethic seems to be contagious. On both sides of the ball, the Broncos have sometimes looked like they’re toying with their opponents. The question remains: Who’s going to stop them?


Rockies review, Part 1: Should they trade one (or more) of the big three?

So I went down to Coors Field for the Rockies’ last Saturday night game of the season because it’s usually a good time, a little wistful, a little nostalgic, mostly for summer, but sometimes for the boys who played through it, depending on how they did and what they showed you.

Of course, those aren’t the guys the Rockies are trotting out there. The sentiment and nostalgia around Todd Helton’s final homestand is covering for the absence of all the Rocks’ current stars. Saturday night, there was no Troy Tulowitzki, no Carlos Gonzalez, no Michael Cuddyer and no Dexter Fowler except for a sad pinch-hitting appearance in which he looked like a player twice his age. They’re all injured or sore or tired, to one extent or another.

Before the game, nobody even bothered to ask manager Walt Weiss why Tulowitzki wasn’t in the lineup. He hit his first home run in a month on Thursday, then another, No. 24, on Friday. He’s finally getting hot. Maybe he could help the Rocks get out of last place. It’s a modest goal, but it’s what’s left.

After Saturday night’s lay-down, in which the Rocks fielded a minor-league team playing behind a pitcher with an earned-run average of 8.59, the club has six games remaining, with two days off among them. Yet Tulo apparently needed a day off.

CarGo has not homered since July 20. He has not batted since Aug. 4. He has a finger problem.

Dex had 10 home runs on June 2. Today he has 12.

If you’ve followed this team, you are already painfully aware of all this. With the exception of Cuddyer, the Rockies’ big stars were all big starters and small finishers this season. Every one of them got hurt again. This is really the worst kind of team to be — a tease that looks good early, when everybody is strong and fresh, and then surrenders to the grind faster than anybody.

In the first half of the season, Fowler hit 10 home runs and batted .284, with an on-base percentage of .381. He stole 13 bases and was thrown out stealing three times.

In the second half, Fowler hit two home runs and batted .223, with an on-base percentage of .349. He stole six bases and was thrown out six times.

CarGo hit 25 home runs and drove in 64 runs before the All-Star break, leading the National League in the former category and putting up an OPS of .980. He stole 16 bases and was caught stealing one time.

In the second half, he hit one home run and drove in six runs. His OPS dropped to .747. He stole five bases and was caught twice.

Tulo hit 16 homers and drove in 52 runs before the All-Star break. He’s hit eight and driven in 28 since.

Tulo’s splits are actually the most remarkable because Fowler’s and CarGo’s are explained mostly by the vast difference in games played. Fowler played in 74 games before the break, 44 after. For CarGo, those numbers are 91 and 19. For Tulo, the games played are closer because his absence due to a broken rib came in the middle of the season. He played 64 before the break and 56 after, yet his power numbers have been cut in half.

So I got to thinking about a simple stat: How many games is a gamer likely to play these days? Who’s the leader in games played for each team in the Rockies’ division this season, and how many did he play? Keep in mind the season isn’t over (except, of course, for the Rockies), so these numbers are still changing daily. As of this moment (9:53 p.m. mountain on Saturday), here are the answers, according to ESPN:

  1. 155 (Hunter Pence, Giants)
  2. 152 (Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks)
  3. 150 (Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers)
  4. 145 (Will Venable, Padres)
  5. 127 (Nolan Arenado, Rockies)

If you are tempted to blame the elevation, consider this: Arenado wasn’t even on the big league roster when the Rockies came north back in April. He was called up in time to play in their 25th game. So Arenado has appeared in 127 of a possible 132 games. If he’d been with the Rocks all year, his total would likely be up there with the leaders of the other NL West teams.

So here’s the question, and I don’t know a delicate way to phrase it: Are the Rockies’ stars wimpier than their rivals’ stars?

Tulo hasn’t played in 150 games since 2009, the last time the Rocks made the playoffs. He’s played as many as 140 once in the four intervening seasons. And he’s in his prime, weeks from his 29th birthday. One would have to assume he gets more fragile, not less, from here.

CarGo has never played 150 games in a season. He played 145 once and 135 once in a six-year career. In five big-league seasons, Fowler’s high is 143.

You evaluate this team on paper as if it had all these guys on the field and it looks good. Then you join 36,005 other hopeful souls on the final Saturday night of the season at the ballpark and the outfield is Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson and Charlie Culberson. The infield is D.J. LeMahieu, Jonathan Herrera, Josh Rutledge and Helton. The catcher is Jordan Pacheco.

I know, I know. It doesn’t matter anymore. They’re playing out the string. But you know what? They’re still charging for tickets and beer and parking as if they were fielding a major league product.

Can the Rockies build a contender around Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Fowler? Or do they need one of them to be more like Hunter Pence — someone who crashes into walls, shakes it off and stays in the game . . . and plays the next day . . . and the next . . . and the next. Are the last few years too small a sample size upon which to judge the Rockies’ core, or do they have too many high-strung thoroughbreds and not enough plow horses?

The starting position players around the big three have improved and solidified this year. Wilin Rosario is the best offensive catcher the Rocks have ever had. Arenado looks like the third baseman for the next decade or more. LeMahieu has earned the first shot at the second-base job next year. Add them to Cuddyer and a healthy big three and you have a heck of an offensive team. But only for half a season, which is a really soul-sucking way to do it.

Pitching is another subject, which we’ll get to, but there’s no disputing that the rotation took a step forward this year, from zero effective starters last year to two, and sometimes three. Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa were two of the best starters in the league. Combined with the promise of the lineup, this team should not be in last place again.

Much as I like the big three as players when they’re healthy, I’m coming around to the idea that the Rocks need to get tougher, and that one of the big three may have to go to make it happen.


Todd Helton and the hidden ball trick


Tony Dungy: Peyton Manning only getting better from here

The Broncos are 2-0. Peyton Manning has nine touchdown passes and no interceptions. His former coach, Tony Dungy, was watching his latest performance in an NBC studio, preparing for Sunday Night Football.

“You said, ‘Uh-oh, Peyton’s only going to get better,'” NBC’s Dan Patrick recounted. “The difference between last year’s Peyton and the start of this year?”

“Last year, I talked to him before the season started and he thought he was going to be fine,” Dungy said. “He thought he was going to be able to throw, he thought his neck would hold up. But he really didn’t know.

“He’s been through a year, he knew he could take a hit, more comfortable with the receivers being there a year, and he got the best slot receiver in football (Wes Welker) that he’s still only getting used to. Look out in another month. These guys are really going to be good on offense.”

It’s not clear what 90 points against the two most recent Super Bowl champions counts for on Dungy’s scale, but this gaudy number was achieved in spite of uninspired first halves in both games. The Broncos were outscored by the Ravens and Giants 26-24 before intermission. They blew them away after halftime by a collective score of 66-24.

“I thought we made good second-half adjustments,” Manning said of Sunday’s 41-23 victory at the Meadowlands. “Two weeks in a row, we’ve come out in the second half and really sort of changed the tempo of the game and came out of the locker room and put up consecutive touchdown drives. Just like to find a way to fix it in the first half a little bit.

“Of course, the first drive was really good, just didn’t finish the way we needed to. And then we had some more self-inflicted errors in that first half, things that we were doing that were kind of stopping ourselves. Those are things we have to correct. Fortunately, our defense kind of kept us in it, but we need to do a better job in the first half and not wait till the second half two weeks in a row.”

In the NFL opener, the Ravens led 17-14 at halftime. The Broncos regrouped and scored three consecutive touchdowns in the third quarter while stuffing the Ravens offense on the alternating possessions, then cruised to a 49-27 triumph.

This week, the pattern changed only a little. The Broncos led 10-9 at halftime, thanks to a defense that held the Giants to field goals on three scoring drives and then intercepted Manning’s younger brother, Eli, on New York’s final possession before intermission.

“The red zone, the scoring zone, whatever you want to call it, is a huge area because it’s a four-point swing,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “If you let a team go down there three times, it can be 21 or it can be nine.

“So it’s a huge deal to get better. We were not very good in that area defensively a year ago. It’s something we worked very hard on this off-season, in OTAs and training camp. I think our guys are figuring that out a little bit better. So far in a short season, we’re two games into it, we’ve responded a little better in those situations.”

Coming out for the second half, the Broncos stuffed the Giants offense with a three-and-out, then drove 53 yards in nine plays, capped by Welker’s third touchdown catch of the season, stretching the lead to 17-9.

Unlike the Ravens the week before, the Giants responded. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that referee Gene Steratore’s crew responded. Of the 81 yards on New York’s ensuing touchdown drive, 36 were awarded on penalties, and that allows only one yard for consecutive flags at the goal line that all but announced the Giants were getting in, one way or another.

All told, Steratore’s crew threw four flags on the Broncos defense during the drive, including a doubtful pass interference call on cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on New York’s failed third-and-goal play and an even more dubious taunting call on defensive tackle Terrance Knighton on the subsequent first-and-goal.

In any case, the Broncos replied with another touchdown drive that put them back up by eight. They got the ball back almost immediately on one of their four interceptions — this one by cornerback Chris Harris, his second in as many games — and drove for yet another score. When Trindon Holliday returned the Giants’ next punt 81 yards for a touchdown, the score was 38-16 and another close game had been blown open in the second half.

“We make adjustments,” Fox said. “Sometimes this early in the season there’s unscouted looks, there’s a couple things that maybe cause some confusion. You settle guys down, put it on the board, show them what to do, how to react next time. That’s what football is. I mean, it’s adjusting. So our guys respond to it well and our coaches do a good job of getting it across.”

Dungy had another theory for Manning’s relatively slow starts so far.

“He wants to be so perfect, and sometimes he’s out-thinking himself — ‘They may do this, so we better change this.’ And then they get back to running the things that they’ve run, and just in-sync, and the second halves the last two weeks have been beautiful,” he said.

This is the most intriguing aspect of the Broncos’ first two victories: Manning has managed to look out of sorts about half the time while putting up enormous numbers, both on the stat sheet and the scoreboard.

“It’s funny because you look at Peyton and it seems like he’s struggling and before you know it, it’s 21, 28 points, and you’re like, ‘Where the heck did all this come from?'” former All-Pro defensive back Rodney Harrison said on NBC. “That’s the power of Peyton Manning.”

Throughout the week leading up to the “Manning Bowl,” the third meeting between Peyton and Eli, Peyton made it clear he didn’t relish the fraternal matchup. When it was over, his feelings hadn’t changed.

“It’s a strange feeling,” he said. “It’s not like beating another team. It’s not probably quite as enjoyable as it would be if you were beating somebody else.”

Indeed, Eli, who has now lost all three matchups with his older brother, seemed to be pressing to keep up, throwing four interceptions. With the Broncos not scheduled to play the Giants in the regular season again until 2017, 37-year-old Peyton predicted happily that he would not be around for the next one, barring a Broncos-Giants Super Bowl in the meantime.

Manning’s glossy numbers are far from the Broncos’ only good news through two weeks. Without sack specialist Von Miller, suspended for the first six weeks, the defense has been opportunistic and sometimes sensational. Without 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, sidelined by a foot injury, the defensive backfield has six interceptions. The special teams have a blocked punt and a punt return for a touchdown.

Running back Knowshon Moreno had touchdown runs of 20 and 25 yards against the Giants and 93 yards on only 13 carries overall. Compared to rookie Montee Ball’s 16 yards on 12 carries, along with a fumble that wasted the Broncos’ first drive, Moreno looks like the featured back for now.

If there is any cause for concern, it would be that the Broncos are struggling to run the ball out of the three wide-receiver set that allows them to put their main receiving weapons — Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas — on the field at the same time.

“We went a little more two tight ends in the second half,” Manning said. “We were mostly one tight end, three wides in the first half. I thought the two tight ends was a good change for us and we ran the ball better out of that personnel grouping. For whatever reason, that helped our running game. And then we were able to get a couple of big plays in the passing game, a couple of crossing routes to Demaryius and to Decker. That was a good change by the coaches.”

Although heavier personnel are traditionally used for running plays, Manning said he’s not sure the single substitution between the two groups explains the change in the running dynamic.

“It’s not a major, drastic change,” he said. “It’s just one guy for one guy. It’s kind of Virgil Green for Wes Welker. But for whatever reason, our execution got better. We’ll see the film as to what was the real reason for it, but it did give us a little more rhythm, and then when you can go to three wides after that — Wes’s touchdown was in three wides — it can maybe keep them a little bit more off-balance.”

All things considered, it’s a pretty minor issue for a team averaging 45 points a game. But it’s something to work on, as is starting faster. After all, as Manning said, you don’t want to peak too early.

“He’s still learning these guys,” Dungy said, “but another month and they get Von Miller and Champ Bailey back, this is going to be an outstanding team.”


A memorable college football play, according to Twitter

I’m not exactly in Twitter’s target demographic, but I’m on there just the same. Call it an occupational hazard. By following a bunch of athletes and sports media types — plus William Shatner, of course — it becomes something of an instantaneous news feed for someone in my line of work.

But instantaneous is the right word. If you don’t have some device buzzing against your leg every time anybody says anything — and I don’t — it’s only good for the period you’re reading it.

So anyway. There was a play in the second quarter of the Alabama-Texas A&M game today that had the makings of an instant classic.

A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the only freshman in history to win the Heisman Trophy a year ago, took a snap on third-and-eight from the Alabama 34-yard line. He retreated to pass, then retreated some more from the five-man Alabama pass rush. Crimson Tide defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan broke free and came after him. Manziel retreated some more.

Pagan carried a fistful of Manziel’s jersey from about the A&M 45 to the 42, creating the possibility a referee would judge Manziel “in the grasp” and blow the play dead.

But no referee did, so Manziel did what he does, which is escape. He spun away from Pagan, then darted right, where the rest of the Crimson Tide pass rush was still coming. Retreating just behind his own 40-yard line, 26 yards behind the line of scrimmage, Manziel heaved the ball down the middle of the field. An instant later he was knocked to the ground by Alabama linebacker C. J. Mosley.

Meanwhile, back in Alabama territory, where the play began, a small convention of white and maroon jerseys gathered for the arrival of the ball, more of them white (Alabama defensive backs) than maroon (Manziel’s receivers). But Edward Pope, a 6-foot-4-inch freshman clad in maroon, elevated above the crowd and snatched the ball, falling on his back at the Alabama 22.

To summarize: A harrowing retreat and escape by Johnny Football (becoming known in the Twitterverse as JFF, much as Peyton Manning is known as PFM, the socially acceptable alternative for the middle initial being “freaking”) followed by a 38-yard pass fired as he ran for his life laterally, still retreating vertically, which turned into a 12-yard gain and one of the more amazing third-down conversions I’ve seen.

It was not significant in terms of the outcome. Manziel ended the drive by throwing an interception in the end zone. But the play will no doubt live on forever on YouTube and elsewhere as a tribute to Manziel, college football’s biggest star, and an echo of the famous Eli Manning escape and desperation heave in Super Bowl 42 that ended with David Tyree’s “helmet catch.”

The reaction on Twitter, of course, was instantaneous. My feed is presented here without comment and in chronological order from moments after the play. This portion came within about two minutes. There was awe, humor and, of course, the scolds:

Pat Forde (Yahoo Sports): Oh my Lord, JFF.

Jason McIntyre (The Big Lead): OH MY GOSH MANZIEL

Tavarres King (Broncos practice squad): Lucky lil duck

Dan Wolken (USA Today): WHAT THE

Mike Freeman (CBS Sports): OhmyGod. #OhMyGod #Twitterexplodes

Greg Bedard (Sports Illustrated): Holy Manning to Tyree flashbacks

Bonnie Bernstein (Campus Insiders): ARE YOU KIDDING ME with that scramble? #Manzielmagic

Rick Reilly (ESPN): That’s a signature play for Johnny Manziel.

Michael Smith (ESPN): Johnny Manziel > Eli Manning LOL

David Dahl (Rockies 2012 No. 1 draft pick): Two words: Johnny Football

Erin Andrews (Fox Sports): STOP IT #thirddown

Chris Harris (Broncos cornerback): WTH lol Johnny football lucky

Kevin Corke (CBS Sports): UNBELIEVABLE!!!!! #JohnnyFootball

Josina Anderson (ESPN): You can’t tell Manziel anything now.

Jordan Hamilton (Nuggets swingman): That boy Manziel unreal!

Doug Gottlieb (CBS Sports): Incredible play, horrible decision in reality . . . no?

Bomani Jones (ESPN): bet that was frustrating.

Chuck Culpepper (Sports on Earth): That play will run on all our various screens in perpetuity.

Frank Schwab (Yahoo Sports): Fun play, but what a horrible pass. Worked out. You’ll see that highlight a million times.

Pete Prisco (CBS Sports): That was a horrible throw Manziel got away with. Don’t praise that

Gregg Doyel (CBS Sports): Manziel is way too good to be lucky too! Great escape. Lucky pass. Fun.

Dave Hyde (South Florida Sun-Sentinel): Will that Manziel pass be replayed more than Clowney’s hit last year?

Within a minute or two, Twitter moved on. The game turned into a memorable 49-42 shootout. A&M lost, but Manziel & Co. put up more points on the Crimson Tide than it’s seen from an opponent under coach Nick Saban. If you missed the play, don’t worry. It will be playing on SportsCenter indefinitely.


Meet the No. 1 receiver in the country

BOULDER — Midway through the fourth quarter Saturday night at Folsom Field, in a tie game, University of Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson caught the football across the middle and waited for the hit.

There was no Central Arkansas defender within 10 yards of him. From upstairs, it was a bizarre scene, reminiscent of last week, when Colorado State elected not to cover Colorado’s most dangerous offensive weapon on the second play from scrimmage.

Again Saturday night, not only was there no one on Richardson, there was no one between him and a wide swath of goal line. This produced his fourth touchdown in two games and contributed to his 417 receiving yards, which lead the country by more than 100 yards.

“I was definitely surprised at how wide open I was,” he said afterward with a laugh. “I was waiting to get hit, I was looking back, I think I stopped a little bit. But you know, I closed my eyes and I ran across the line.”

“They played cover zero there, so they’re bringing pressure, and no guys were in the middle, no defenders,” CU quarterback Connor Wood explained. “He ran, like, a stutter-through, and the floodgates opened. So just give the ball to him.”

Well, yeah. In the first two games of the Mike MacIntyre regime, Wood has connected with Richardson 21 times.

“Connor’s doing a good job of finding him, and he’s kind of slippery,” MacIntyre said. “He kind of gets through there and makes plays and is making catches. When we see certain matchups, we’re going to go attack it. And he’ll go get it.”

About the only question Richardson hasn’t answered yet during his CU career is whether he can stay healthy. Two years ago, he started almost as fast, catching 11 passes for 284 yards against Cal in the second game of the season. He looked poised for a monster year.

But later opponents scouted and contained him, and he missed several games with a knee injury, finishing his sophomore season with a relatively modest 39 catches for 555 yards and five touchdowns.

Last year, of course, he missed the entire season after blowing out an ACL.

He entered his junior season ranked 21st in career receiving yards at CU. It has taken him two weeks to climb to ninth.

He showed off his remarkable speed, acceleration, burst, on the first of his two touchdowns Saturday night against Central Arkansas, closing the gap on what appeared to be an overthrown ball and in the process leaving a defender in his dust, road runner-like.

It was good for 55 yards, Richardson’s eighth career touchdown of more than 50. The average gain on his 15 career touchdown catches for CU is 40.8 yards.

“I was holding my helmet,” said Wood. “I was like, ‘I overthrew him,’ and then he just, shooo, got it.

“I’ve seen it a few times, so I wasn’t nervous,” Wood said with a grin.

Richardson tied the school single-game record with 11 receptions in Saturday’s 38-24 victory. He had 10 the week before, in the opener against Colorado State. His back-to-back 200-yard receiving games are just the fourth and fifth in school history. Counting that Cal game a couple of years ago, he now has three of them.

Richardson’s second touchdown, the one where he found himself wide open, was the play that put CU ahead to stay Saturday, breaking a 24-24 deadlock with a little more than nine minutes remaining.

Buffs defensive back Chidobe Awuzie changed the game by ripping the ball from the arms of Central Arkansas wideout Jatavious Wilson. The Buffs tried a running play, to no effect, and then Wood hit Richardson over the middle with a 30-yard touchdown pass to give Colorado a 31-24 lead.

There are story lines aplenty in CU’s 2-0 start. For one thing, it’s already twice as many wins as the Buffs had all last season. For another, players led by Richardson are being quite explicit complimenting the “constructive” criticism they get from MacIntyre and his staff, which seems an obvious if unspoken contrast with the previous staff, fired after a 1-11 campaign last year.

But the schedule gets tougher from here, so we’ll soon see just how much progress they’ve made.

The same is true of Richardson. Two years ago, after his sizzling start, defenses adjusted and then he got hurt. He has yet to sustain the sensational play that has given him such glittering single-game numbers.

But he’s two years older now, two years wiser, a team captain and leader, and part of what appears to be a more sophisticated offensive design. For now, he leads the nation in receiving yardage, is tied for first in receiving touchdowns and ranks second in receptions.

If he can just stay healthy, he could put up numbers CU has never seen by the time the season is over.