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.