Monthly Archives: October 2013

The five greatest Broncos ever*

*according to a thoroughly unscientific survey of listeners to the Broncos’ flagship radio station for four hours on a chilly, wet autumn afternoon in Denver.

It started with a Twitter post — a “tweet” — by Roy S. Johnson, one of the better sportswriters of our time. Acknowledging Allen Iverson’s formal retirement the previous evening, Johnson offered his list of the “five greatest 76ers ever.”

His list: Dr. J, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain.

We substituted “Broncos” for “76ers” and took calls, emails, tweets, whatever, for parts of four hours on 850 KOA.

A margin of error should certainly be built into the results. It’s a small sample size, its demographics unknown, etc. Still . . . here are the five greatest Broncos ever, according to this admittedly approximate methodology:

John Elway

Terrell Davis

Floyd Little

Randy Gradishar

Shannon Sharpe

The results (votes in parentheses):

  • John Elway (47)
  • Terrell Davis (31)
  • Floyd Little (24)
  • Randy Gradishar (20)
  • Shannon Sharpe (18)
  • Steve Atwater (14)
  • Tom Jackson (12)
  • Ed McCaffrey (11)
  • Rod Smith (10)
  • Jason Elam (8)
  • Karl Mecklenburg (7)
  • Louis Wright (7)
  • Steve Watson (6)
  • Otis Armstrong (4)
  • Rich Jackson (4)
  • Dennis Smith (4)
  • Lyle Alzado (3)
  • Haven Moses (3)
  • Lionel Taylor (3)
  • Billy Thompson (3)
  • Al Wilson (3)
  • Gary Zimmerman (3)
  • Champ Bailey (2)
  • Keith Bishop (2)
  • Pat Bowlen (2)
  • Rubin Carter (2)
  • Simon Fletcher (2)
  • Rulon Jones (2)
  • Rich Karlis (2)
  • Gary Kubiak (2)
  • John Lynch (2)
  • Peyton Manning (2)
  • Craig Morton (2)
  • Tom Nalen (2)
  • Matt Prater (2)
  • Tim Tebow (2)
  • Billy Van Heusen (2)
  • Steve Antonopulos (1)
  • Marlin Briscoe (1)
  • Tyrone Braxton (1)
  • Willie Brown (1)
  • Barney Chavous (1)
  • Dave Costa (1)
  • Ken Criter (1)
  • Bucky Dilts (1)
  • Steve Foley (1)
  • Alex Gibbs (1)
  • Tom Graham (1)
  • Bobby Humphrey (1)
  • Mark Jackson (1)
  • Charley Johnson (1)
  • Vance Johnson (1)
  • Dave Logan (1)
  • Tim McKernan (Barrel Man) (1)
  • Red Miller (1)
  • Riley Odoms (1)
  • Trevor Pryce (1)
  • John Ralston (1)
  • Steve Ramsey (1)
  • Bill Romanowski (1)
  • Bob Scarpitto (1)
  • Neil Smith (1)
  • Jim Turner (1)
  • Rick Upchurch (1)
  • Norris Weese (1)
  • Sammy Winder (1)
  • Honorable mention: Darrent Williams

Mike Shanahan’s lead lasted about as long as his tribute video

It’s beginning to look like these tributes to homecoming out-of-towners are a scam, like the email congratulating you for winning the Etruscan lottery. In Indianapolis, they honored Peyton Manning, then beat him. In Denver, they honored Mike Shanahan, then slapped him around for 38 consecutive points, like a barber’s razor on a strop.

I guarantee that somewhere, someone will write this proves Thomas Wolfe right; you can’t go home again. What this will actually prove is that almost no one alive has read this longwinded novel.

In truth, the Broncos did something to Shanahan and his current team from Washington that about half of them have been waiting to do for a long time. Last year’s top-five defense suddenly emerged from behind the curtain and replaced the impostors who ranked 32nd out of 32 teams against the pass coming in. In the process, they gave the Broncos more hope for a happy ending this season than all of Manning’s heroics combined.

“I know they haven’t done some of the things that they would like to do defensively, but I think we all know they were one of the top defenses in the league last year,” Shanahan said afterward. “And this is not the end of the season. This is not even the mid-way point. So you can judge Denver’s defense at the end of the season.”

Actually, it is the mid-way point for the Broncos, who are 7-1 and now get a week off before slogging through their remaining eight games. Shanahan’s team had its week off already, so it is one game shy of the halfway point. But his point is well taken. He used to say you wanted to be in the top five on both sides of the ball to be a true championship contender. There are always exceptions, of course, but it’s as good a way as any to deploy the ruler.

Shanahan’s return made me a little nostalgic, so I retrieved my yellowed Rocky Mountain News clips from 1984, when I was covering the Broncos as a beat writer and head coach Dan Reeves hired Shanahan, then a college assistant, to be his wide receivers coach. Attached to one of my training camp reports from Greeley that summer is a photo by my former colleague George Kochaniec Jr. of Shanahan and the quarterback trio of the day — John Elway, Scott Brunner and Gary Kubiak. They’re all very young and wearing athletic shorts they would find embarrassing today.

Youthful and cool and ready to gamble on Elway in a way Reeves never would, Shanahan is talking about offensive concepts. The three quarterbacks are listening, all eyes on him. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Shanahan and Elway formed an alliance that ultimately cost Reeves his job and set the stage for the Super Bowl championships of the late 1990s.

After Elway’s playing career ended, the relationship frayed. Elway was interested in a meaningful role of some kind with the Broncos. Shanahan had them all and wasn’t surrendering any of them. Elway did not get his current job as executive vice president, running the football operation, until after Shanahan was dismissed. So while everyone said all the right things about the pre-game Shanahan tribute, it was, in fact, about as perfunctory as it could have been. The tribute video lasted 20 seconds. The Manning tribute video in Indy ran 90.

In the 29 years since that first summer in Greeley, Shanahan has lost his reputation for being on the cutting edge. Since Elway retired, following the 1998 season, Shanahan is 114-101 in the regular season and 1-5 in the playoffs.

In Washington, he’s 23-36 over three seasons and seven-sixteenths of a fourth, but the venerable franchise in the nation’s capital has been such a freak show under owner Daniel Snyder that anybody who even vaguely knows what he’s doing gets a long leash. Still, a record of 2-5 in his fourth season, with Robert Griffin III widely considered a franchise quarterback, isn’t a great sign. At 61, Shanahan applies a sharp football mind and deep competitive desire to concepts others are advancing. He’s trying to adapt, but it’s not like the old days, when he knew he knew stuff most other coaches didn’t know.

One minute, the Broncos were behind by two touchdowns and seats on the bandwagon were being auctioned off for beer. The next, they’d rolled up 38 consecutive points without a peep from Shanahan’s team and won going away, 45-21. The bandwagon was full again and it was Washington fans wondering why he didn’t use that famous zone running scheme to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall put Washington up 21-7 when he intercepted a Manning pass intended for Demaryius Thomas, who fell down, and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Manning responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with rookie running back Montee Ball’s first pro touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14. Shanahan’s offense never actually took the field trying to protect a 14-point lead.

To get that responding touchdown, Broncos coach John Fox had to authorize going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Washington 20-yard line rather than kicking a gimme field goal. Knowshon Moreno gained five yards on the fourth-down play and three plays later, Ball was in the end zone.

“Certainly as an offense we like it,” Manning said of Fox’s gamble. “But we feel determined to make him pleased with his call. He’s kind of — he’s giving you that go-ahead because he expects you to do it. So I think there is some real motivation to please him and make it successful so you can do it again.”

Shanahan’s offense got the ball back with a seven-point lead. Of the five plays it ran before punting, three were runs by Alfred Morris, who gained 93 yards on the day, 66 of them in the first half. On those three running plays when Washington was trying to control the ball and protect a lead, Morris gained three, one and two yards, respectively. Washington punted and the Broncos drove for the tying touchdown. They went for it on fourth down again, this time at the 1-yard line. Manning converted it again, this time on a pass to tight end Joel Dreessen.

Now Shanahan didn’t have a lead anymore. Falling further and further behind, his team ran the ball only twice in the fourth quarter. Which should have worked out well, considering the Broncos entered the game ranked last in the league against the pass. But it didn’t. Griffin held the ball too long, missed open receivers and saw the ball dropped when he hit them.

The second pick of the 2012 draft, right behind Andrew Luck, RG III completed 15 of 30 pass attempts for a meager 132 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 45.4. He was no factor as a runner, rushing five times for seven yards. Jack Del Rio’s defense took away the read option without compromising the pass defense. Shanahan’s offense looked nowhere near as accomplished as it did a week ago, when it put up 45 points on Chicago.

The Broncos sacked Griffin three times — one each by Derek Wolfe, Terrance Knighton and Von Miller (a sack fumble recovered by Wolfe) — and harassed him countless other times. The sack by Knighton, listed at 335 pounds, frightened Griffin right out of the game, although he said afterward he was fine.

“I’m not sure which D-tackle it was, I think it was Knighton, came in and landed all 300-plus pounds of hisself on my leg, and I think it really just scared me,” Griffin said. “After I got up and the docs checked me, I was fine, ready to go back in the game. Talked with Mike and just the way the game had gone and Kirk (Cousins) was already out there, it was just smart to keep me off the field and be ready to go next week.”

I asked Griffin about his difficulties in the passing game against an apparently vulnerable pass defense.

“We knew that they were going to rely on their back four, the two safeties and the corners, to take away the passing game and really dedicate the rest of the guys to the run,” he said.

“We just had times when we had guys open and we couldn’t make plays. And then there were times when you had to have those tough catches, those tough throws, and we didn’t make those, either . . . . Regardless of what the Denver secondary is ranked in the pass or their defense is ranked in the pass, they have good players back there. That’s what guys have to realize. Every week you step on the field there’s good players on every team. And you have to be better than them.”

Manning had his worst game of the season, committing all four of the Broncos’ turnovers with three interceptions and a sack-fumble, but he still threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating was more than twice Griffin’s (94.3) and he deftly conducted one of the most oxygen-sucking comebacks in NFL history. When I asked Shanahan whether his defense was gassed in the fourth quarter during the 38-point onslaught, which seemed obvious just watching his players gasping and taking turns delaying the game with alleged injuries, he blamed his anemic offense.

“I think what hurt our defense was keeping them on the field as long as we did,” he said. “Offensively, we didn’t get much going, so we gave them a lot of opportunities. You don’t give Peyton that many opportunities because he’s going to take advantage of it. Normally he’s going to figure out what you’re doing and come up with some big plays. That’s what they were able to do today.”

Griffin kept giving the ball back to Manning because of Del Rio’s defense, of course. It may be coming around right on time.

“I think without a doubt that was our best defensive outing,” Fox said.

So the homecoming tour is over for a while. Well, three weeks. The Broncos get a week off, then play division rivals San Diego and Kansas City. It resumes Nov. 24, when they visit New England. That will be Wes Welker’s homecoming. Think Bill Belichick will authorize a tribute video?

Mike MacIntyre avoids a meltdown as CU loses again

BOULDER — Until Saturday night, we’d never seen Mike MacIntyre like this.

He hasn’t been here that long, so we were bound to see the less sociable side at some point, but when he rushed into the CU defensive meeting room for his post-game session with the inquiring minds Saturday night, he started out as if determined to insert himself into the ESPN coaching meltdown highlight reel.

You know the one. It includes Mike Gundy (“Come after me! I’m a man! I’m 40!”), Steve Spurrier on multiple occasions, even former CU coach Dan Hawkins (“It’s Division I football! It’s the Big 12! It ain’t intramurals!”).

Here’s how MacIntyre began his post-game presser after Arizona beat Colorado 44-20 Saturday night at Folsom Field, effectively ending CU’s chance to become bowl eligible in MacIntyre’s first season, barring some truly incomprehensible outcomes the rest of the way.

MacIntyre, sitting down as reporters approach to deposit their recorders on the table: “All right, ready? Start shooting away, let’s go. I’ll take three questions, I’m outta here.”

Q: You were down 14 points . . . 

A: Yeah . . . 

Q: . . . with 18 minutes to go . . . 

A: Take a chance. See us try to play defense? Next question. Let’s go.

Q: Uh, problem stopping Denker . . .

A: Yeah, we had a problem stopping him. Next one?

Q: You gave up 670 in total offense.

A: Yeah, we did. Exactly. Next one?

You get the idea. Perhaps sensing he was about to create a video clip that could haunt him for years, he calmed down a bit and answered well more than three questions. The entire transcript is below.

MacIntyre had targeted Arizona as a Pac-12 opponent his Colorado team could beat. He said it publicly and he presented it to his team as a challenge. Beat the Wildcats, he said, and the Buffaloes could play meaningful games in November, meaning bowl eligibility would be at stake. With three non-conference wins and a Cal team winless in the Pac-12 coming to Boulder in November, a win over Arizona would leave CU needing just one upset to get to six.

Perhaps MacIntyre put too much stock in his own challenge. When push came to shove, it was the first-year coach, hungry for success his team is not yet ready to deliver, who salted the game away for the visitors from Tucson.

Even without MacIntyre’s premature desperation, CU almost certainly would have lost, and for the same reasons that drove MacIntyre’s desperation: The Buffs couldn’t stop the Wildcats, who put up 670 yards of offense — second-most under coach Rich Rodriguez and third most in school history — 405 of them on the ground.

But that didn’t make MacIntyre’s tactical decisions helpful. The Buffs trailed 24-13 at halftime. Not great, but not nearly as bad as two weeks ago in Tempe, when Arizona State led 47-6 at intermission. The Wildcats came out in the third quarter and drove 66 yards, but the Buffs held them to a field goal. CU responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 27-20. Arizona roared back with a 70-yard drive to extend the lead to 34-20.

CU drove 47 yards to a first-and-goal at the Arizona 7-yard line. After two rushes for three yards and an incomplete pass, the Buffs faced fourth-and-goal at the 4. MacIntyre eschewed the field goal and went for it. Freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau rolled right and threw incomplete into the end zone.

The Buffs stopped the Cats, then found themselves deep in their own territory as the third quarter expired.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, down 14 points with 15 minutes to play, the Buffs ran a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from their own 17. Punter Darragh O’Neill tried to run for the first down. He gained one yard.

Arizona took over on the CU 18. Two plays later, the Buffs’ deficit was 21. And that was that.

“If you see us playing defense, we couldn’t stop ’em,” MacIntyre explained. “Thought it was a good place to try it. He was supposed to read it. We’ve had five on this year and he’s punted all five. We thought we had a chance and he thought he had a chance and didn’t get it.”

The Buffs’ defensive game plan was so focused on Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey that their defenders repeatedly allowed quarterback B.J. Denker to run free. Denker finished with 192 rushing yards, 73 more than Carey.

“We couldn’t tackle the quarterback,” MacIntyre said. “We must have missed him seven times. Probably 200 yards of offense off of missed tackles on the quarterback. We gotta work on tackling better.”

Like a lot of folks in Boulder, MacIntyre wants the Buffs to improve more quickly than they are. It’s understandable. It’s hard not to feel for his players as they try to answer questions, honestly mystified as to their helplessness against Pac-12 opponents. It’s just a play here or there, they keep saying. Even MacIntyre fell back on this canard.

It’s not just a play here or there. MacIntyre is at the start of a major rebuilding project. He took over one of the worst teams in Division I history. It plays in a conference with some of the best offenses in the nation.

A fake punt on your own 17 does not help. Down 14 with a full quarter to play, it sends a signal of desperation to your players. When I asked MacIntyre if he regretted that decision in hindsight, his answer was firm and immediate: “No. Do not.”

The mirage of bowl eligibility should now fade and the Buffs will go back to focusing on the details, trying to get better each week. To achieve competitiveness in the Pac-12 is going to take a while. That’s not the fault of anybody now involved with the program. But trying to rush the process by getting desperate will not help.

Here’s a full transcript of MacIntyre’s post-game presser:

MacIntyre: All right, ready? Start shooting away, let’s go. I’ll take three questions, I’m outta here.

Q: You were down 14 points . . . 

A: Yeah . . . 

Q: . . . with 18 minutes to go . . . 

A: Take a chance. See us try to play defense? Next question. Let’s go.

Q: Uh, problem stopping Denker . . .

A: Yeah, we had a problem stopping him. Next one?

Q: You gave up 670 in total offense.

A: Yeah, we did. Exactly. Next one?

Q: Why are you in such a hurry?

A: Because I’m ready to get out of here. We played our hearts out. We gotta play better.

Q: How do you feel Sefo played?

A: I thought he did good. Missed a couple guys he coulda hit. And we had a couple out there he could have made, but I thought he did some good things. He’ll keep improving.

Q: Why’d you fake the punt?

A: Because if you see us playing defense, we couldn’t stop ’em. Thought it was a good place to try it. He was supposed to read it. We’ve had five on this year and he’s punted all five. We thought we had a chance and he thought he had a chance and didn’t get it.

Q: How concerned are you about your defense?

A: Very concerned. Playing as hard as they can play.

Q: Jered (Bell, the junior free safety) said they have the talent, they’re just not executing. Do you feel that’s true?

A: There’s part of that, yes. We gotta do a better job of coaching ’em and just keep fighting. There’s great offenses in this league.

Q: Does this one hurt you a little bit more than some of the others?

A: Oh, definitely. 100 percent.

Q: Seemed like there was a lot of pressure on Sefo tonight . . . 

A: Yeah, there’s been pressure on him every time he’s stepped back there.

Q: Why does it hurt more than the others?

A: Cause we can beat that team.

Q: Why do you feel like you didn’t?

A: We didn’t tackle ’em. We couldn’t tackle the quarterback. We must have missed him seven times. Probably 200 yards of offense off of missed tackles on the quarterback. We gotta work on tackling better.

Q: Obviously it hurts to lose, but this game was a step in the right direction in conference play. Do you feel that way?

A: No. We shoulda won the game.

Q: Did you do anything special to stop Carey and that made it harder to stop Denker?

A: Yeah, we stopped Carey pretty good. We had one he bounced outside and we didn’t play our . . . we shoulda stayed outside, he wouldn’t have gained that yard, and then he ran over us a few times, and he’s going to do that. He does that against everybody. Just very disappointed we didn’t do a better job against Denker. He did a good job, B.J., he threw the ball better than I’ve ever seen him throw in every game I’ve ever watched him play. So he came through, he really did. He did a great job. Their quarterback did a great job.

Q: You said they played as hard as they can play, yet you seem disappointed in the effort or outcome or . . .

A: Yeah, I’m very disappointed in the outcome.

Q: When the offense got in Arizona territory, why were there so many struggles of getting seven as opposed to just three?

A: We just couldn’t get it in. I’ll have to go back and look at it. We left a few out there we had chances at.

Q: How happy have you been with the tackling so far this year?

A: I mean, I think we’ve improved from the film I watched last year and from spring practice and early in fall. We just didn’t . . . he made us miss tonight and I’ve seen him make people miss before, it was just very frustrating for our kids.

Q: In hindsight, do you regret not kicking the field goal . . . 

A: No. The guy was open. We had a chance. We just couldn’t get it to him.

Q: In hindsight, do you regret the fake punt?

A: No. Do not.

Q: Did you see the same thing you saw against Oregon from the defense when you ran that trick play to (junior receiver Paul) Richardson?

A: Yeah, but we did it different than that one. It was a different formation. And they lined up differently than they had been, too. That kind of threw us off. But PRich did a good job. We had worked on if that happened, throw it out of bounds.

Q: How is he?

A: I think he’s fine. He said he was fine. Hopefully it doesn’t swell up or something tonight.

Q: How disconcerting is it, just the lack of success against . . . 

A: Very disconcerting. Very disconcerting. We keep improving, we’ve just got to do it. Very disconcerting. We’ve just got to keep fighting and keep moving forward. It’s just disheartening for the kids, you know? We’re battling right there and just . . . a few plays here or there.

Q: Is that similar to your first year at San Jose State?

A: I don’t know. So long ago.

Q: You sparked the offense with some personnel changes. How do you spark the defense?

A: We just keep working at it. We’ve made personnel changes there too. Just got to keep working, keep fighting and keep pushing. Find ways to keep trying to help ’em. I thought we did a few things tonight to help ’em and they just made some more plays than we did.

Back to the drawing board

The Broncos’ franchise-record winning streak ended Sunday night at 17 in particularly violent fashion, with their star quarterback feted before the game and treated like a wedding crasher the rest of the night.

The patina of perfection fell away early. For all their Star Wars numbers on offense, to borrow a Jim Irsay phrase, the Broncos’ championship aspirations are as tenuous as anybody’s, especially if they keep letting pass rushers blast Peyton Manning from his blind side.

Before their 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, they had gone the equivalent of a full season plus a game since losing in the regular season, although even the streak felt less than perfect given the rather important playoff loss that came between the 11 wins that closed last season and the six that began this one.

For much of the streak, especially recently, the Broncos were so dominant that big themes seem necessary to explain the fact that they finally lost. The talk will be all about the soap opera, Manning’s return to Indianapolis and how he wasn’t quite himself while Andrew Luck, his successor, was.

Maybe it was the oddity of a 90-second tribute video to the opposing quarterback just before kickoff, which Manning felt obliged to acknowledge with emotional, heartfelt gestures.

Maybe it was the Colts’ decision — presumably owner Jim Irsay’s — to open the roof and the windows at one end, creating a chillier, windier environment than Lucas Oil Stadium normally provides for a visiting quarterback generally thought to be at his best when conditions are pristine.

Maybe it was the sack-fumble-safety when Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, a former teammate, crushed Manning from behind in the second quarter after leaving Broncos backup left tackle Chris Clark grasping at air.

“It was a good hit,” Manning said. “A healthy one, as I would call it.”

When a post-game questioner suggested his passes wobbled more after that, Manning grinned wryly.

“I throw a lot of wobbly passes,” he said. “Throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns, too.”

For all the echoes of ancient myths in the prodigal son’s return to the place his pro career started and the temptation to manufacture a moral from the outcome, the prosaic truth is the Broncos played well enough to win if it weren’t for a couple of critical mistakes.

Missing both of their starting offensive tackles, they struggled to protect Manning from the Colts’ pass rush. Manning was sacked four times, twice by Mathis. Two of Denver’s four turnovers — one fumble and one interception — came when edge rushers got to Manning before he could get rid of the ball.

Even so, they still had every opportunity to win if Ronnie Hillman hadn’t fumbled the ball at the Colts’ 2-yard line with three minutes to play and the Broncos down nine.

“I’d like to have seen it go to a two-point game down there toward the end and seen what would have happened,” Manning said. “It never quite got to that point, but you can go back to different parts of the game, and we got behind, and (made) mistakes there, but we still had a chance there at the end. So we did fight and hung in there. I think we can learn from it. We certainly have to improve from this game because we weren’t as sharp execution-wise as we’d like to be.”

On this point — the requirement to score twice there at the end — I’d like to highlight a fact likely to be overlooked. Call it a pet peeve if you like, but the arithmetic is indisputable:

If the Broncos don’t try a two-point conversion when they could have had a one-point conversion for free with a little more than 12 minutes left in the game, the difference later is eight points, not nine, and only one possession is required to tie, not two.

Teams are constantly making comebacks more difficult by going for two way too early. The index card that tells coaches when to go for two should be incinerated in a public ceremony and replaced with a much simpler one bearing these words: If there’s any question at all, take the free point.

The score was 36-23 at the time, following Manning’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas. The tortured logic of the two-point try is this: Two points cut the deficit to 11, meaning a touchdown, another two-point conversion and a field goal would be enough to tie. Take the one, you trail by 12 and need two touchdowns.

In the meritocracy of NFL play-calling, this line of reasoning is inane. With that much time left, you never know what’s going to happen. For example, Colts running back Trent Richardson might fumble deep in his own territory less than a minute later. The Broncos might recover and score another touchdown with nearly nine minutes still to play.

This, of course, is what happened. When the Broncos took the standard one-point conversion on the second score, they trailed 36-30. Had they taken the standard one-point conversion on the previous score as well, it would have been 36-31.

So the Colts’ field goal with six minutes left would have put them up eight, not nine. So, at the very end, the Broncos would have needed just one score and a two-point conversion, not two scores, as they did.

In short, going for two too early had exactly the opposite effect of what was intended, which is often the case.

Of course, even needing two scores, they had a chance, and a pretty good one, if Hillman hadn’t fumbled on a head-scratching running play at the Colts’ 2-yard line with three minutes left. Manning drove the Broncos offense 90 yards in six plays after being sacked to start the series, half of them sensational catches by Wes Welker. Needing two scores, there was no time to waste with a running play, and Hillman is not their best between-the-tackles option anyway.

In any case, if the Broncos score there, they’re within two, and Matt Prater’s field goal in the final minute wins it.

The Colts’ strategy in between probably changes, so who knows, but the bottom line is this defeat was largely self-inflicted. So much will be made of the soap opera that it will seem unsatisfying to suggest the outcome was mainly about three fumbles and one interception, but the outcome was mainly about three fumbles and one interception. Also a bad index card.

For all their mistakes, the Broncos had more first downs than the Colts (23-19) and more total offense (429 yards to 334). They gave up a likely touchdown on Hillman’s fumble, provided the Colts with a safety and set up an ensuing touchdown on the Mathis sack-fumble, set up another Colts touchdown when kick returner Trindon Holliday fumbled on his own 11, and set up a Colts field goal when outside linebacker Erik Walden hit Manning’s arm in the fourth quarter, producing an interception by inside linebacker Pat Angerer.

That’s 19 points for the Colts and minus seven for the Broncos as a result of their four turnovers. Without them, the Broncos win going away.

On the other hand, they weren’t just bad luck. Both Holliday and Hillman have had issues holding on to the ball before. I don’t know when Hillman next gets the call near the goal line, but I’m guessing it might be a while.

The other two are more problematic. On the sack-fumble-safety, Mathis beat Clark, who replaced the injured Ryan Clady, who is out for the year. Against capable pass rushers such as Mathis, the Broncos may have little choice but to routinely reinforce Manning’s blind side protection with a blocking tight end. That may limit some offensive options.

On the interception, Walden bull-rushed right through tight end Julius Thomas. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth acknowledged Thomas’s ability as a receiver, but gave him low marks as a blocker.

Think of it as a cold shower for a team that’s heard hardly a discouraging word for the first six weeks of the season. The defense needs to get stouter and the ball security needs to get better. Mostly, the pass protection needs to improve if they want to keep Manning upright for the holidays.

CU hands its offense over to 18-year-olds

BOULDER — It’s not something you see every day, a major college football program starting true freshmen at quarterback and tailback. In fact, at the University of Colorado, the number of times it happened before today was zero.

You might say CU does not have a major college football program, especially if you’re on Twitter, but coach Mike MacIntyre’s resort to quarterback Sefo Liufau, who turns 19 in ten days, and tailback Michael Adkins II, who won’t turn 19 until next spring, at least gave the oft-trampled Buffaloes a sense of direction.

Against a school called Charleston Southern University, shoehorned into the schedule to replace the Fresno State game canceled in September because of flooding in Boulder, Liufau and Adkins got to gather confidence during a 43-10 victory against a slightly lower level of competition (what used to be called Division I-AA and is now identified by the acronym for a euphemism).

Gather they did. Liufau didn’t blow the doors off — 14 completions in 20 pass attempts for 198 yards and a touchdown — but he showed beguiling maturity and flashes of intriguing talent. Adkins blew the doors off — 13 carries for 137 yards and four touchdowns.

“I think he’s a very good player,” MacIntyre said of the tailback from San Diego. “He has power, he has speed, he has vision, and he’s very bright. That one run he made today over on the sidelines when it looked like it was all clogged up and he just crept in there, broke two tackles and then outran everybody to me was a really impressive run and I was excited to see that.”

Liufau’s play was less dominant, but almost as promising. Once, in the second quarter, a Buccaneers pass rusher was approximately 2.1 milliseconds from sending Liufau into another dimension when he dumped the ball just over the line of scrimmage to junior receiver Paul Richardson, the Buffs’ best player. He took care of the remaining real estate on what went down as a 60-yard touchdown pass.

“They try to keep everything pretty simple for him to build his confidence, and then we threw some things in there to challenge his IQ and he responded well,” Richardson said of the freshman quarterback.

Another time, in the fourth, the pass rush was coming straight up the gut and Liufau was back-pedaling in retreat. Somehow, with all his momentum going the wrong way, he managed to get enough on a long out to Nelson Spruce to gain 10 yards and a first down.

“He’s able to move in the pocket and still be accurate,” MacIntyre said. “He did a good job of throwing the ball away a few times today, and didn’t really force the ball. He did some good things; he just needs to keep improving with the rest of the guys.”

The reality remains that the Buffs have yet to be competitive in a Pac-12 Conference game, having lost the three they’ve played by a combined score of 155-46. And now that the interlude of the makeup game is over, it’s back to the conference schedule. With three non-conference victories, they have to win three of their six remaining Pac-12 games to become eligible for a postseason bowl game.

MacIntyre referred to a more modest goal, pointing out that if CU manages to beat Arizona in Boulder next week,  it would play meaningful games in November, suggesting that even having a shot at bowl eligibility would be better than playing out the string again. This is true, of course, but an indication of how far the program has fallen.

Playing a succession of upper-classmen transfers at quarterback over the past couple of seasons has given the program a directionless feel and made you wonder why CU couldn’t recruit a quarterback of its own. Watching Marcus Mariota lead the No. 2-ranked Oregon Ducks into Boulder a couple of weeks ago made you appreciate what it’s like to have a talented underclassman at quarterback.

The Buffs have plenty of other issues, including keeping Pac-12 opponents below their current average of 51.7 points a game against them. Beating Charleston Southern doesn’t mean much more for a Pac-12 team than beating Central Arkansas, or Colorado State, for that matter. Those are the Buffs’ three victories. For the record, MacIntyre said Charleston Southern was better than Central Arkansas.

Adkins won’t take over all the rushing duties, mainly because they’d wear him out. Christian Powell, last year’s freshman tailback, offers a bigger, less elusive but more powerful change up, and junior Tony Jones, demoted behind successive freshmen, made the most of his four carries late in today’s game, turning them into 37 yards.

But MacIntyre, in his first season at CU, is making it clear that Adkins and Liufau, along with freshman linebacker Addison Gillam, are the beginnings of a new core going forward. They have talent and higher ceilings than their predecessors. In other words, they offer hope that better times are coming.

Of Jim Irsay, Peyton Manning and playoff football

Kevin Vaughan is an investigative reporter for Fox Sports and a former colleague at the Rocky Mountain News. He’s also a lifelong Broncos fan who has done some number-crunching on the subject of Peyton Manning and the playoffs. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, though, let’s stop and gawk at the roadside wreck that resulted when Colts owner Jim Irsay tried to pat himself on the back while pointing to his Super Bowl ring while giving an interview to USA Today while driving his team toward Sunday night’s game against Manning and the Broncos.

The son of one of the most reviled owners in the history of American sport, Irsay is perhaps best known for tweeting random song lyrics and his endearing, adolescent way of substituting numerals for like-sounding words.

Last night he tweeted this indignant response to those who thought the effort to pat himself on the back for newfound wisdom in that USA Today interview had the effect of throwing other, more accomplished people under the bus:

Those expressing negatIvity about the concept of building well rounded teams around great QBs 2 achieve Championships have negative agendas

Those expressing negativity would include John Fox, coach of the Broncos, who responded to Irsay’s comments yesterday. Fox is not normally thought of as a nabob of negativity. To see him and other critics of Irsay’s remarks that way, you must put yourself in Jim Irsay’s world, where Jim Irsay is the North Star.

This is the guy who mused during the NFL lockout that his old pal Gene Upshaw wouldn’t have approved of NFL Players Association president DeMaurice Smith’s handling of the dispute. Upshaw was Smith’s predecessor at the NFLPA. He was also dead. So that was classy.

Here’s a passage from the USA Today interview:

“We’ve changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one of these,” Irsay says, flicking up his right hand to show his Super Bowl XLI championship ring.

“(Tom) Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three of these,” Irsay adds. “Pittsburgh had two, the Giants had two, Baltimore had two and we had one. That leaves you frustrated.

“You make the playoffs 11 times, and you’re out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne). Mostly, you love this.”

Then Irsay flicks up his right hand again.

Here’s how Fox responded on SiriusXM NFL radio:

“I saw the comments. And to be honest with you, I thought it was a bit of a cheap shot. To me, in my opinion, they were disappointing and inappropriate. Peyton would never say anything. He’s too classy to do that. They sounded a little ungrateful and unappreciative to me. For a guy who has set a standard, won a Super Bowl, won four MVP awards … be thankful of that one Super Bowl ring, because a lot of people don’t have one.”

Irsay’s apologists in the Indianapolis media insist he was actually throwing former general manager Bill Polian under the bus. Everybody seems to agree he left tire tracks on somebody.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy, formerly considered a paragon of positivity,  apparently has a negative agenda, too, because he not only thinks Irsay’s remarks were directed at Manning, he thinks they were part of an effort to make him angry and distract him from the task at hand.

“Jim is making this personal,” Dungy said in a text message to ESPN. “I’m surprised . . . Without Peyton, there would be no Lucas Oil Stadium. This team would be playing in L.A. right now. I don’t understand Jim saying this.”

Dungy’s attempt to cast Irsay as Machiavelli relies on a rather higher opinion of Irsay’s intellect than is commonly held, but it seems to be the only one he can think of.

“I think that’s what he’s trying to do,” Dungy said. “Have him make it such a big game he doesn’t perform well. I can’t figure any other reason to go this way.”

I am inclined to believe that Irsay was so busy extolling his current, sublime level of football understanding that he was oblivious to other implications. In any case, by this morning, he was in full Twitter back-pedal:

My comments meant if we gave Peyton better SP Teams n Def,we would have won more than 1 Sup/Bowl,instead of asking Peyton 2do too much

Give him this: There is no 54-year-old on Earth who tweets more like a teenager.

So the Colts winning one Super Bowl during Manning’s 14 seasons and 11 playoff appearances was somebody’s fault, he’s not saying whose, but Irsay and his new pals, GM Ryan Grigson and quarterback Andrew Luck, won’t make the same mistake. So good for them, Godspeed, whatever.

As I mentioned, Vaughan did some research on Manning’s postseason numbers, how they came about, and what they could still be by the time he’s finished:

A few random thoughts that I thought you might find interesting.

First, John Elway’s playoff record was 14-7. I’m guessing most people would say that a quarterback who wins twice as many as he loses in the playoffs is pretty special. And yet . . . how many people remember that following the Jacksonville loss at the end of the ’96 season that record was 7-7? It took those two playoff runs to put it where it ended up.

Manning is 9-11 right now, I believe. Let’s say he puts together two Super Bowl wins the next couple years (not a given, certainly, but not out of the realm of possibility, either). That would give him at least 6 postseason wins and as many as 8. So let’s say it’s 7 (he said dreamily), and he retires with a playoff record of 16-11; I’m guessing that, like Elway, no one really remembers the early struggles.

In ’99 (a year in which Manning took the Colts to 13-3 following two seasons of 3-13 and two playoff wins in the previous 28 years), the Colts got beat by the Titans, who, if memory serves, came within a yard of tying the Super Bowl and sending it into overtime.

In ’03, ’04 and ’05, the Colts got beat by the eventual Super Bowl champs (New England, New England, Pittsburgh).

In 2009, he lost in the Super Bowl.

In 2012, the Broncos got beat by the eventual Super Bowl champs (Baltimore).

That means 6 of his 11 playoff losses were to the team that eventually represented his conference in the Super Bowl or won the Super Bowl. Maybe the truth is that in those six years he lost to better teams.

While it is critical to have a very good or great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, it’s equally true that you need a lot more than that. How did John Elway do in the playoffs before Terrell Davis arrived? (Answer: .500.)

So, some “ifs” that could have changed everything for Manning.

What if Mike Vanderjagt doesn’t miss a 46-yard field goal by about 30 yards that would have tied the game at the end against the Steelers in 2005?

What if the Broncos defense doesn’t give up a conversion to Baltimore last year on a third-and-13 from its own 3-yard line in overtime?

What if the Colts had been a more balanced team all those years (rushing yardage in Manning’s 11 losses — 78, 99, 52, 98, 46, 58, 44, 64, 99, 93, 152; rushing yardage in Manning’s 9 wins — 85, 142, 76, 188, 100, 125, 191, 101, 42)?

What if Tony Dungy’s son hadn’t taken his own life near the end of the 2005 season? I can’t imagine how that affected Dungy, and how that, in turn, affected the team.

What if the Colts’ special teams aren’t asleep when the Saints open the second half of the Super Bowl with an onside kick — and recover, and go on to score a touchdown (swinging the momentum, in my humble opinion)?

And, finally, I looked at some stats from those 11 losses. Did Manning have some bad games? Yes — three stinkers where his completion percentage was in the mid- and high-40s. But also eight games in which the lowest completion percentage was 53 percent — and the others were 69, 69, 60, 69, 58, 64 and 65. I’d take those numbers all day long.

Overall in the playoffs, in games he lost — 257 of 436 (59 percent) for 2,833 yards, 12 TDs and 12 interceptions. If there’s a knock there, I’d say it’s the TD-to-INT ratio, though 10 of his 12 interceptions came in four of the games.

Total playoff numbers: 481 of 761 (63 percent) for 5,679 yards, 32 touchdowns, 21 picks.

John Elway’s total playoff numbers (22 games, including mop-up in Seattle in 1983): 355 of 651 (55 percent) for 4,964 yards, 27 touchdowns, 21 picks.

OK, that’s lots of stats, and, in the end, there’s only one stat that matters — the numbers up on the scoreboard. The current debate seems to me lacking in nuance and understanding of the fact that the quarterback is just one player and little things that have nothing to do with him change games.

Even without Vaughan’s research, Broncos fans old enough to use words rather than numbers to express words remember the long-time indictment of Elway: Can’t win the big one. Years later, Elway would grin and reflect on the fact that after the back-to-back championships to close his career, memories were seemingly wiped clean of the earlier stuff, as if zapped by Will Smith’s Neuralizer.

Manning has the same opportunity. In the end, it will depend upon the Broncos’ ability to do a better job than the Colts did building a team around him. But give Irsay credit: He may have given Manning more motivation as a Bronco than he ever did as a Colt.

Four goalies share credit for Avs’ fast start

It’s hard to know which goalie deserves the most credit for the Avalanche’s surprising 5-0 start.

There’s starter Semyon Varlamov, of course, who is 4-0 with a 1.0 goals-against average. In his case, it’s not just an average. He’s given up one goal in each of his starts, including a win at Washington against his former team.

There’s J.S. Giguere, the veteran backup, who pitched a brilliant shutout in Boston against the Bruins in his only start so far. He and Varlamov were named the second star of the week jointly by the NHL after leading the Avs to a 3-0 road trip.

There’s Francois Allaire, the goaltending coach brought in by head coach Patrick Roy after mentoring Roy and Giguere earlier in their careers.

“Francois Allaire help us a lot,” Varlamov said this morning after the Avs worked out at Family Sports Center. “He give us confidence. We work about two hours on the ice when Francois is here. We work with him always about 45 minutes extra. That’s why we stay a little longer. I think the last time I worked like that was five years ago when I had a Finnish goalie coach working with my coach back in Russia.”

And then, of course, there’s Roy himself, the legendary former goaltender and new head coach.

“I think Patrick has been a huge part of it,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog. “Just communicating with us players and talking with us, how we feel and if we need a day off. He’s open for discussion.”

Roy also gets credit from his players for bringing a system that allows for creativity and improvisation on the offensive end alongside accountability on the defensive end. No longer is it only the center expected to get back in transition.

Between the speed of the forwards and the renewed emphasis on pursuit and back-checking, opposing forwards don’t have the time to set up Colorado’s defensemen that they enjoyed too often last year.

“It’s good to be back home with three wins, that’s for sure,” Roy said this morning. “It was a fun trip for our team. Toronto, Boston and Washington, not easy buildings to win hockey games in. I thought we did really well.”

I asked him what he thought the keys to the undefeated road swing were.

“Well, first of all, the goaltending was key. When you’re on the road, you need your goaltenders to be your best player and I thought that was the case in those three road games.

“Toronto, we had more shots on net, I thought we had better chances than they had, especially the start of the game. We missed a few good chances. It could have been a 2-0 game for us right away. And I thought we respond well the rest of the game, we played really well defensively.

“The tracking, in my opinion, has been really solid throughout all those games. Only the second period in Boston, I’d say, and Washington, where we’ve been dominated by the other team. Boston had a strong second period, but we have to expect that. They’re at home, we had a great start, we took a 1-0 lead after one, (more) shots on goal, and then they had to come back. We expect that and that’s what they did.

“Washington was the opposite. I mean, they were 1-3 before the game. I expected them to play a strong game, especially at home. They’re in a five-game home stand. We had a great start. We took a 2-0 lead. And then the second is probably the period we’ve been most dominated — 19 shots and there were a lot of good chances and Varly was extremely good in that.

“Obviously, in that game we were sharp offensively. We scored power play goals and we capitalized on our chances.”

Through the 5-0 start, the Avs’ leading scorer is 18-year Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in this year’s draft. MacKinnon has shown great speed and puck handling along with remarkable maturity in putting up one goal and five assists. His first NHL goal also represented veteran Paul Stastny’s 400th career point, creating a bit of a dilemma as to who should get the puck.

“I tweeted that question myself,” Landeskog said. “That was my first question when I came on the bench. I don’t know. Paulie, I’m sure he’ll get to 500, so I’m sure he’ll get that one. Maybe we’ll give this one to Nate, just to be nice.”

The young Swedish captain also offered a word of warning, however:

“I think we’ve just come together as a group and we’ve realized it’s go time and we need to send a message and we need to start off on the right foot. But saying that, 5-0 is nothing. That can change quickly. I remember my first year, we were 5-1 after six games. Knowing that, we’ve got to stay humble and get ready for the next game.”

That’s been Roy’s message as well.

“Why not, eh?” the first-year coach said. “That’s what we’ve been saying: Why not?

“Let’s play hard. Every day I see our guys come in and practice hard. It makes me think that we’re still in the right direction. There’s nothing else you can ask as a coach. If the guys are focused and doing what you’re asking in practice and then they’re doing the exact same thing (in the games). . . I honestly think tomorrow’s a good test. It’s a four-point game with Dallas. It’s an opportunity for us to win another game.”

Varlamov is scheduled to start the home games Tuesday against Dallas and Thursday against Detroit, the Red Wings’ only visit of the season to the Pepsi Center now that they are in the Eastern Conference. Giguere will start Saturday night at Buffalo.

For the Broncos, an underwhelming 16-point victory

Peyton Manning’s testiest exchange after Sunday’s victory was with me, so let’s start with that.

Somebody asked if he was concerned about his exchanges with center Manny Ramirez after two of them led to fumbles, both of which the Broncos lost. On the first, Manning was under center. On the second, he was in the shotgun. Manning blamed himself for the first, saying he pulled out early. “Manny had a low one on the shotgun play,” he said of the second.

The Broncos turned the ball over three times Sunday — the third was a Manning interception for which he took full responsibility — which helped the 0-6 Jacksonville Jaguars keep the game close for a while.

Now about two years removed from multiple neck surgeries, Manning did not dive after either loose ball, as quarterbacks customarily do, which prompted my question, which prompted this exchange:

Me: Do you not go after those balls because of a fear of injury?

Manning: Um, not necessarily, no. So . . . 

Me: I’m sorry, you don’t know?

Manning: What was the question?

Me: Is there a reason you don’t go after those balls on botched snaps?

Manning: I didn’t know that I . . . I can’t say that’s a  . . . I mean, you’re basing it off, what, two?

Me: Those two plays.

Manning: Yeah, I mean, I can’t say that I don’t go after ’em. I mean, maybe I didn’t think I could get ’em, I guess. Be careful generalizing how I approach fumbled snaps off two plays.

Me: OK, let me ask why you didn’t go after those two.

Manning: I didn’t think I could get ’em.

Earlier, coach John Fox was asked whether Manning not diving after the loose balls was a result of coaching or his own decision.

“I think at the end of the day he’s a pretty valuable member for our football team,” Fox said. “We don’t necessarily want him making tackles on interceptions and diving on fumbles. He’s been coached that.”

I was in the locker room at the time and didn’t hear Fox’s answer until later, which is why I asked the question of Manning. (Manning and Fox hold their interview sessions in an interview room some distance from the locker room.)

Fox’s answer makes perfect sense and made me wonder why Manning didn’t answer the same way, something like: “I’ve been coached not to do that. It’s hard, because your instinct is to go after the loose ball, but the coaches are trying to keep me healthy and I respect that.”

Maybe it was because I phrased my initial question poorly, suggesting he was afraid of getting hurt, and he bristled. That’s entirely possible. When Manning doesn’t like a question, he often makes it clear in not only the content but also the demeanor of his answer. In this case, he did both.

Manning’s testiness was also evident when a couple of people tried to get him to discuss his return to Indianapolis next week, which will be a big national story all week.

“I’ll probably cover that on Wednesday,” he said. “Do I have to talk Wednesday still? OK, I’ll do all that Wednesday.”

This, too, is his prerogative, but it demonstrated he was not in a mood to do the inquiring minds any favors.

None of it matters much, unless it comes up on a fumbled snap in a much tighter and more important game later on, but I think it reflected a couple of other things. Manning and the Broncos generally might have been annoyed with the media for building up the Broncos and tearing down the Jaguars leading up to the game to the point that a 35-19 victory seemed underwhelming.

Actually, that was more the Vegas oddsmakers’ doing. They established the Broncos as a 28-point favorite, equaling the largest point spread anybody could remember for an NFL game. In the absence of other compelling story lines for a game between a 5-0 team and an 0-5 team, the parlor game was whether the Broncos would cover this enormous spread, which, of course, they did not.

More to the point, the Broncos didn’t look that sharp against the Jaguars, who are generally acknowledged to be the worst team in the league, a point Manning acknowledged.

“You know there is resistance out there — it’s called the other team,” a slightly peeved Fox said. “At the end of the day, we’re very, very pleased with the victory.”

In the only statistic that matters, the Broncos are 6-0, which is as good as it gets through six games. But if you’re not trying out for cheerleader — and I no longer have much of a leg kick — the main issue through six games has nothing to do with Manning or the offense, which remain atop the league in many categories, including points, touchdowns, touchdown passes and so on.

The main issue for the Broncos is a defense that has not yet played anywhere near its level of a year ago, when it finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed, giving up 18.1 a game, and second in total defense, giving up 290.8 yards per game. It went into Sunday’s game ranked 25th (27.8) and 29th (416.6) in those categories, respectively. The Jacksonville numbers should improve those rankings a little, but coming against the worst offense in the league (10.2 points a game coming in), that won’t be much comfort.

“That’s where we want to pick it up,” defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. “We got the capability to be top-five in a lot of statistics in this league. But right now we’ve got some stuff, some injuries, some people missing, but at the same time it comes to guys doing their job at the end of the day. Just getting the job done.

“We’ve got some stuff to clean up in the run game and our passing defense should definitely be good. I think that’s the weakness that we’re showing, so teams could try to exploit it. If that gets tightened up, man, I don’t think nobody gonna see us. Nobody. Just being real.”

Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey’s return from a foot injury is good news, although it’s likely to take him a little while to get back into the flow. The Jaguars’ No. 1 receiver, Justin Blackmon, caught 14 passes for 190 yards against a variety of Broncos defensive backs.

“We know we gotta play better,” Bailey said. “We’ve got a good offense and they’ve been doing a lot for us, but as a defense there are going to be some games where we’ve got to step up, and this was one of them. We stepped up when we had to and got turnovers in the fourth quarter, but as far as going forward, we’ve got to play better throughout the first three quarters.”

Most fans and observers seem content to blame injuries and other absences (principally Von Miller’s six-game suspension, which ended Sunday) for the defense’s performance to date. Miller and Bailey were the two main absentees, although linebacker Wesley Woodyard and defensive end Robert Ayers suffered injuries during the Dallas game last week and sat out Sunday.

Contemplating Miller’s return, Vickerson flashed a big smile.

“We’re fitting to unleash the beast, man,” he said. “He’s probably about 20 pounds heavier, more muscle, more solid, more ready to go. So hey . . . ”

It is not surprising that these absences, along with the loss of pass rusher Elvis Dumervil in the famous free agent fax fiasco, would make some difference. But you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to cause the Jack Del Rio-coached defense to drop from the top five to the bottom five in total defense and top five to bottom 10 in scoring defense.

“Well, we had guys step up so I’m not going to blame anything on that,” Bailey said. “This is how this league works. Guys go down, guys step up. And if you don’t, then you’re going to get a loss somewhere along the way. But people stepped up today and I’m real proud of them.”

At the end of the day, as Fox is so fond of saying, the Broncos have beaten every opponent on their schedule, which is all they can do. Next week, in Manning’s return to Indianapolis, they should face their toughest test yet against a strong Colts team.

For now, they’re undefeated and feeling a little ornery, which is not a bad thing at all. If you feel like giving me a little of the blame for the latter, feel free. As you know, I’m here to help.

History loves the Broncos

Two melodramas played out in the aftermath of one of the great shootouts in NFL history Sunday. They were pretty different.

The Broncos, on the road, stomped in muddy boots across the open record book again, setting or tying or threatening a slew of franchise and league records as they rolled to 51 points, which would have been the highest score in their history if they hadn’t scored 52 last week.

The Cowboys, at home, saw the quarterback they want to believe in deliver the best performance of his career, keeping them in the game the whole way — and then give it away with a characteristic mistake at the end. Linebacker Danny Trevathan’s interception deep in Dallas territory with the score tied at 48 and two minutes remaining turned a dramatic tossup into a filibuster by the best offense in football.

Despite throwing for 506 yards and five touchdowns, Tony Romo carried the hangdog look that has become his post-game trademark when he met the inquiring minds afterward. He explained that the Cowboys had looked at tape of the Broncos in the two-minute drill and decided they were prone to leave the seams open. He had completed a similar seam route earlier.

“They did a good job,” he said. “The kid made a good play. I didn’t get as much on it, just with the people around me, as I wanted to. I wanted to put it another foot or two out in front and the ball, I didn’t put it exactly where I needed to to complete the pass. It’s frustrating and disappointing.”

Replays showed his front foot landed on another shoe in the pass protection traffic around him as he stepped into the throw.

This is Romo’s rep, of course — the best quarterback around until it’s time to win.

“When I was in New England or even in San Diego, the scouting report was the same — that he was a talented guy, he made a lot of plays and he had what we call a ‘wow’ factor,” former safety Rodney Harrison said on Sunday Night Football. “When you watch him on film, he makes some incredible plays.

“But we also knew in the fourth quarter that he was going to make one or two mistakes in those critical moments. He was going to either turn the ball over, fumble, interception, he was going to make that key mistake.”

It’s all very Shakespearean, this fatally flawed hero.

The Broncos got wheels up out of Dallas and left the Cowboys’ drama behind. They have a happier one of their own. They are challenging offensive records by the boatload, entertaining a growing slice of America in the process. They may have to hire someone just to rewrite their record book.

History loves them. They continue to make people look up things that happened 40 or 50 years ago. Various quarterbacks of the past get unexpected moments in the sun as Peyton Manning challenges or surpasses some long-ago achievement.

On the other hand, the Broncos surrendered 48 points to the Cowboys, their worst defensive performance since Jack Del Rio took over the defense before last season. They lost starting linebacker Wesley Woodyard (neck) and starting cornerback Chris Harris (concussion) during the course of the game. Combined with linebacker Von Miller (suspended) and cornerback Champ Bailey (out with a foot injury since the beginning of the season), that’s four of 11 starters on defense who were not on the field for much of Romo’s assault.

Nevertheless, the Broncos were a top-five defense last season and they’re nowhere near that this year. They have surrendered 139 points in five games, an average of nearly 28 per, or about 10 more than the 18.1 they gave up last season, when they ranked fourth in scoring defense.

Of course, they’ve scored 230 of their own, an NFL record through five games, so the defense is still doing enough to win, although just barely this week.

“Was it perfect?” Broncos coach John Fox asked. “No. Are any of them perfect? No. But, we made some adjustments there at the end. We weren’t matching up very well. We (gave up) some explosive plays at some inopportune times. At the end, we were able to hang on.”

The pattern of the game doesn’t seem to matter. In this one, the Broncos fell behind 14-0 early thanks to an Eric Decker fumble and Romo’s fast start. They roared back with 21 second-quarter points to take a 28-20 lead into the locker room at halftime. Manning was 11 of 14 for 163 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 154.8 at that point.

“He’s fantastic,” said Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee. “There is no doubt. He’s playing unbelievable. He’s playing like a Hall of Famer and one of the best players of all time. I give him all the credit in the world.”

Among the records trembling or falling:

— The 99 total points in Dallas tied for the fourth-most in NFL history and second-most since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.

— The Broncos’ 51 points was second-highest in franchise history.

— The Broncos broke the record for most points in the first five games of a season, surpassing the 2000 St. Louis Rams, who scored 217.

— Manning set a league record for touchdown passes in the first five games (20), breaking Daunte Culpepper’s mark of 18 in 2004.

— Manning set a league record for touchdown passes without an interception to start a season (20), breaking Milt Plum’s mark of 16 in 1960.

— Manning moved into second place on the career passing yardage list (61,371), passing Dan Marino (61, 361). The leader is Brett Favre (71,838).

— The Broncos extended their franchise record for consecutive regular-season wins to 16, breaking the mark of 15 they set last week. They extended their franchise record road winning streak to eight.

— Wes Welker became the first player in 31 years to have at least one touchdown catch in each of his first five games with a team.

And so on. The Broncos offense continues to wow the world, now averaging 46 points a game.

“He’s a brilliant, brilliant football player,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Manning. “He has been for a long, long time, and I think much of his brilliance comes from his ability to find the weakness of the defense. Any defense you play, since the beginning of time, has a weakness to it. He’s unbelievable before the snap and after the snap finding what that weakness is and getting to it. He did it consistently throughout the ballgame.”

At a time in NFL history when young, athletic quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are making plays with their legs as well as their arms, the 37-year-old Manning picked Sunday’s game to show off his own wheels, scoring his first rushing touchdown since 2008 on a naked bootleg at the goal line.

“I’ve run it actually a couple of times, believe it or not, but the key is you want to do it about every five years or so,” Manning said. “Naked bootlegs only work – the ones that I’ve done – when you don’t tell anybody. You call the run play and it’s a run play and you just kind of make a decision there as you get to the line of scrimmage based on the right look. You think they’re going to maybe slant one way.  As soon as we brought Julius (Thomas) in motion, the guy covered him, went with him. I kind of said, well, that’s a good look for it.  I’ll be retired by the time I’m able to do it again.”

Counting Todd Helton’s play against the St. Louis Cardinals in the Rockies’ final homestand of the baseball season, it was the second hidden ball trick by a former Tennessee quarterback playing for a Denver pro team in less than a month.

Manning finally threw his first interception of the season, but for most of the day, he did what he’s done throughout the early going — diagnose the defensive weakness at each snap and take advantage of it. Against man-to-man defenses, he found favorable matchups with linebackers or safeties trying to cover Julius Thomas, the tight end, who led the Broncos with nine catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns. When the Cowboys tried to play zone, Manning found his big three wide receivers — Demaryius Thomas, Decker and Welker.

After all the offensive fireworks, Trevathan’s interception in Dallas territory with two minutes remaining changed everything. The Broncos found themselves in the uncharacteristic position of trying to milk the clock rather than score.

“I’ve never been in a situation quite like that at the end, where we needed to get the first down but we didn’t need to score, and that difference was about half a yard,” Manning said. “Knowshon (Moreno) and I were arguing at the end.  He basically was asking, ‘How am I supposed to do that?  How can I get half a yard but not get a yard and a half?’ And I just said, ‘You can’t score.  You can’t do it. We’ve got to get the first down and kick a field goal and get out of this place.'”

“I was confused on how to do it,” said Moreno, who carried 19 times for 93 yards and a touchdown. “Peyton said ‘Just do it.’ Whatever he says, do . . . You always talk about a ‘first down, fall down’ mentality. I’ve never been a part of that before.”

With the Broncos facing a third-and-one on the Dallas 2-yard line and 1:40 showing, Garrett had to decide whether to try for the goal line stand or let the Broncos score in order to get the ball back.

“The consideration there is on the third-and-short,” Garrett said. “You’re balancing the idea of getting a stop there. If you get a stop there, they kick the field goal and you give yourself a much better chance to tie the football game coming back. If you give them the opportunity to go score a touchdown right there, and kind of give up, you do give yourself a chance to go back and score a touchdown. But you have no timeouts and all that, so you weigh those out. We decided to try to make the stop on third down and they made it by about an inch.”

So the Broncos gave up 48 points and still won. Three teams remain unbeaten after five games and the Broncos are one of them. The other two — the Saints and Chiefs — have been less prolific on offense and stingier on defense. The Broncos continue to combine intelligence, discipline and playmaking in a way few offenses ever have. The early line on next week’s game against Jacksonville, which is 0-5, is the biggest in league history at about 28 points.

Two of the Broncos’ first five games were instant classics — Manning’s record-tying seven touchdown passes in the opener and Sunday’s shootout, which saw more than 1,000 yards of offense.

They’re the best show in the NFL, and that’s saying something.

Tangled up in Ducks

BOULDER — When Mark Helfrich left Dan Hawkins’ football staff at the University of Colorado following the 2008 season to join Chip Kelly’s staff at the University of Oregon, there was speculation he was frustrated by a bad offense he was powerless to change.

Nobody said anything on the record, of course, because this dance is well-rehearsed by now and it’s all agreed: Every former employer was awesome and every future employer is providing a cherished opportunity.

Like many of the issues surrounding the CU program at the time, this one had to do with Hawkins and his desire to have his son, Cody, play quarterback. Helfrich knew where major college football offenses were going, and Cody Hawkins, a wonderful kid and mediocre football player, was not it.

Three years earlier, Hawkins made Helfrich the youngest offensive coordinator in Division I football. (I don’t use the initials that replaced the divisions because I don’t know what they mean and you don’t either.) Helfrich was 32 when Hawkins persuaded him to leave Arizona State, where he was quarterbacks coach, to become CU’s offensive coordinator.

Helfrich was a protege of Dirk Koetter, who had been offensive coordinator at Oregon when Helfrich was a graduate assistant. When Koetter got the head job at Boise State, he brought Helfrich with him to coach quarterbacks. When Koetter moved on to Arizona State, again Helfrich moved with him. But the opportunity to be a coordinator in a major conference at 32 was quite rare, and Hawkins had followed Koetter at Boise State, so it was all in the family.

Unfortunately, it was a little too all in the family during the Hawkins era at CU. It was probably true that the younger Hawkins was the best quarterback on the roster, but that was a sad rationale. A coach looking for a bigger, stronger, faster or more athletic quarterback would have been more aggressive than the elder Hawkins in recruiting competition.

Helfrich had already worked with some pretty good quarterbacks — Bart Hendricks at Boise State and Andrew Walter at Arizona State — and it is not hard to believe that he could see, like most people, how limited the upside was on Cody Hawkins and any offense built around him.

In fact, it’s possible Helfrich saw something of himself in the younger Hawkins, and that this insight helped him see Cody was in over his head. An Oregon native, Helfrich was a small but accomplished high school quarterback who chose Southern Oregon and a prodigious NAIA career over an offer to walk on at Oregon, where he knew he probably would have spent his career on the bench.

So Helfrich’s choice in 2009 was to continue coordinating a bad Colorado offense that was hard to improve given the limitations at the most important position, or move back to Oregon and work under Kelly, an offensive coordinator of such repute that Oregon reportedly kicked head coach Mike Bellotti upstairs to create the head coaching vacancy Kelly craved.

As a newly-minted head coach, Kelly wanted Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. And he wanted to do lots of interesting, innovative things. For Helfrich, it probably wasn’t that tough a call. He thanked Hawkins, packed his bags and went home.

Kelly moved on to the NFL this season. He’s the new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, who were just pulverized by the Broncos to drop to 1-3, but that’s another story. Kelly reportedly lobbied for Helfrich to succeed him. He may not have needed to. The OC moving up is an Oregon tradition, dating back to Bellotti under Rich Brooks.

So, in the year he turns 40 (later this month), Helfrich ascended to one of the best jobs in college football — head coach at Oregon. He is in charge of a program that will have no financial restraints so long as Phil Knight is alive. He is part of a tradition of innovative offensive football. Each of the Ducks’ last three coaches — Bellotti, Kelly and Helfrich — was the offensive coordinator under his predecessor.

A year ago, Helfrich was in his fourth and final season as Kelly’s coordinator when the Ducks beat CU 70-14 in Eugene, a game not as close as the score might indicate. It was 56-0 at halftime.

Saturday, the Ducks came to Boulder and beat the Buffs 57-16. From a purely arithmetic point of view, that’s about 15 points of progress for the Buffs. They even led for a minute. Actually, a minute and 49 seconds on the game clock the first time, a minute and 34 seconds the second and final time. Oregon does everything fast.

The Ducks demonstrated yet again how important the whole quarterback thing is. Helfrich called his guy, sophomore Marcus Mariota, “a stud,” which is exactly right. If you were going to build an elite college quarterback from scratch, you would build a 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound athlete with a rocket arm, runner’s legs and a brain that figures out really fast when it’s time for which. Oh, and you might give him some Samoan blood, given the disproportionate number of great football players that tiny island and its descendants have produced.

“He’s such a great person, first and foremost, and then he’s, oh, by the way, an incredible football player,” Helfrich said. “The stuff he does in practice, we look at each other and kind of shake our head. And that shows up in games. That’s the neat part about him, about (running back) De’Anthony (Thomas), about some of our best defensive players, is they’re great practice players. Not good practice players, but great practice players. And that’s infectious.

“Physically, he’s very gifted. Obviously, his size, his speed, his release, his timing, his knowledge, he’s a smart guy, he’s a tough guy. Is that enough? He’s a superlative machine.”

The Buffs, on the other hand, are trying to preserve yet another redshirt year. Last year, you might remember, it was not worth burning Shane Dillon’s redshirt year on a lost season. Dillon is no longer with the program. In fact, his experience at CU so turned him off to football he now wants to play basketball. In retrospect, it might have been worth burning his redshirt year to see if he could improve on the most dreadful season CU football has seen.

This year, it is not worth burning Sefo Liufau’s redshirt year. Liufau is the prized first-year recruit of CU coach Mike MacIntyre, a 6-4, 215-pound high school star of, yes, Samoan descent.

For a minute there, before CU began its conference schedule, it looked as if junior Connor Wood, a transfer from Texas during the short-lived Jon Embree era, could bridge the gap adequately.

But Wood was not good Saturday, and he suffered in comparison to Mariota, who was sensational. The respective stat lines are a close enough approximation. Mariota completed 16 of 27 passes for 355 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also carried seven times for 49 yards and two touchdowns. His afternoon was finished before the fourth quarter began. Wood completed 11 of 33 for 205 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His net rushing yardage was minus 8.

Granted, there are talent gaps between these rosters at many positions, but in Paul Richardson the Buffs have one of the most talented receivers in the country, so it’s not as if Wood has no weapons. At some point, the excuses have to stop.

The performance at quarterback was the key difference in the game, and allowed Oregon to turn it into a blowout as quickly as it did. The Buffs’ defense gave them a chance even after MacIntyre elected to begin the game with an onside kick. Granted, you need some wrinkles if you’re going to beat the Ducks, but giving Mariota the ball at midfield to start the game might be out-thinking yourself.

Nevertheless, CU forced a three-and-out and Wood drove the offense into field goal range — the big play a 55-yard pass to Richardson — and a short-lived 3-0 lead. One minute, 49 seconds later by the game clock, Mariota scored the first of his seven touchdowns — two rushing, five passing. The Buffs responded with a beautifully conceived option pass off a reverse, in which Richardson, split wide left, came in motion to the right, took a pitch from running back Michael Adkins and lofted a pass to a wide-open D.D. Goodson in the right flat, who rambled 75 yards to give CU a 10-8 lead.

This was the first time this season an opponent led Oregon twice. So that’s something. But not much. By the end of the first quarter, the Ducks led 29-10. At halftime, it was 43-16. In the Oregon locker room, they were not happy.

“We kind of challenged them at halftime,” Helfrich said. “Other than the scoreboard, we didn’t play our way in the first half, and who knows (why) that is. I don’t know if it’s altitude or thinking about something else or whatever it may have been, we responded well, and that’s encouraging.”

Oregon shut down the CU offense in the second half, and for the first time this season, MacIntyre’s team looked nearly as helpless as Embree’s team of a year ago. MacIntyre said he saw improvement in Wood from the week before at Oregon State and you can only hope he said that because he has to. If Wood doesn’t improve a lot more, and soon, CU will have to decide whether it is willing to be the Pac-12’s punch line for yet another season in the interest of some prospective four-year career that may or may not work out as planned.

Meanwhile, Oregon is rolling, averaging almost 60 points a game, giving up fewer than 12. I asked Helfrich if his team is where he wants it to be.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re 5-0, and that’s our best statistic. We haven’t played remotely to what we can in any phase in any game. So that’s encouraging. The guys that we have on this team know that. They’re excited to get better and excited to come to work and get ready on Monday.”

If anybody in the CU administration really wants to know what has happened to the program since Hawkins was hired in 2006, he or she should place a call to Helfrich and find out how the program lost one of the most impressive young coaches in the game today.

Maybe he would have gone home anyway. That would certainly be the movie-of-the-week narrative. But Helfrich had already demonstrated a coach’s nomadic instinct for the best way forward, moving from Eugene to Boise to Tempe to Boulder. Maybe Hawkins’ nepotism is part of the answer. Maybe there were other factors.

Helfrich’s decision to go back to Oregon and Saturday’s game have one thing in common: The Ducks had a much better quarterback than the Buffs both times. So long as CU is willing to live with this, its football program will not appear on any map.