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.”