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?