Learning from the past

It may not be obvious whether Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is the best quarterback of their generation, although we’re sure to hear plenty of bloviating on the subject over the next seven days as they get ready to compete for a berth in the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, there’s not much doubt about the superior Saturday Night Live host.

Following the Broncos’ 24-17 playoff victory over San Diego on Sunday, a reporter wanted to pursue an ESPN “exclusive” that Manning’s future in football will be decided by a neck exam in March. Never mind that this was also true last year and the year before that. An exclusive is an exclusive, after all.

So the reporter asked him, immediately following his first playoff victory as a Bronco, if this is weighing on his mind.

“What’s weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth,” Manning said. “That’s priority number one.”

Somebody at the ad agency representing Budweiser just went to work.

For two weeks, Manning and the Broncos heard about nothing but history. A digital loop replayed the nightmare from last year’s playoff loss, Rahim Moore amazingly still misjudging the ball after all this time. They were reminded that this nightmare was possible only because Manning’s offense played it conservatively at the end of regulation, trying to eat clock rather than get first downs. As a result, it gave the ball back to the Ravens with just enough time for the infamous pratfall.

They also heard about more recent history, this season’s games against the Chargers, their playoff opponent. San Diego dominated the time of possession in both games by running the ball and stopping the run.

Once this train of reminding got going, nobody could find the brake. The web site Pro Football Talk tweeted more grim numbers just before kickoff Sunday:

“Philip Rivers is 6-2 all-time in Denver. Peyton Manning was 1-5 with the Colts in his last six games against Chargers.”

The fact that Manning went into the game 3-1 against the Chargers as the Broncos’ quarterback, which would seem more recent and more relevant, considering it was the Broncos and not the Colts playing in this game, did not merit mention.

What the Broncos did with all this history was basically what the computer does in WarGames. They learned.

This time, when they got the ball with a chance to run out the clock at the end of regulation, they played more aggressively, passing on third down to maintain possession rather than running to keep the clock ticking.

They also designed an offensive game plan that allowed them to run the ball better, often running out of passing formations that spread the defense. They designed a defensive plan that allowed them to stop the run better, playing more linebackers and fewer defensive backs on more snaps. Between the two, they reversed the Chargers’ time of possession advantage in the first two games.

After rushing for a pathetic 18 net yards in their loss to the Chargers in December, the Broncos racked up 133 this time — 82 from Knowshon Moreno and 52 from rookie Montee Ball. After giving up 177 rushing yards in that loss, they surrendered only 65 this time. It didn’t hurt that the Chargers’ best running back, Ryan Mathews, was hobbled by an ankle sprain. After rushing for 127 yards in the Chargers victory, he managed only five carries for 26 yards in this one.

All of this added up to domination of the game for the first three quarters. Clad in orange on a crisp, windy day, Mile High rumbled with enthusiasm when the Chargers had the ball and turned into a library when Manning was engineering the no-huddle. The Broncos didn’t score as much as they usually do, in part because of their long, patient drives and in part because one of them ended when Manning threw a pass off Eric Decker’s chest that turned into an interception in the end zone.

Still, they led 17-0 after three quarters and their defense looked dominant.

Then cornerback Chris Harris went out of the game and, just like that, the defensive dominance disappeared. We’ll come back to that in a minute. But that’s why, just like last year, the Broncos found themselves protecting a seven-point lead in the waning minutes.

Last year, up 35-28 on the Ravens with two minutes to play, the Broncos faced a third-and-7. Rather than attempt to throw for the first down to maintain possession, they called a running play to burn precious seconds off the clock. They were forced to punt and everybody knows what happened after that.

This year, leading the Chargers 24-17 with three minutes to play, they faced a third-and-17 from their own 20-yard line. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase ordered what Manning would call “a wheel-type route” for tight end Julius Thomas. With the pocket collapsing around him, Manning waited patiently for the route to develop down the field. Then he hit a wide-open Thomas down the right sideline for 21 yards and a first down.

“Third-and-17, you know you’re going to have to hold the ball a little bit longer just to give guys a chance to get down the field,” Manning said. “It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage, which you may get one or two of those a game. It certainly came at a good time. Adam dialed it up. It was something we worked on, and it was nice we were able to execute.”

Moments later, the Broncos were presented with a virtual replay of last year’s call. With 2:12 showing, they faced a third-and-6 from their 45. Again, Gase called for a pass. Again, Manning found his big tight end, this time for nine yards and another first down.

It seemed vaguely Shakespearean that Mike McCoy, the offensive coordinator who ordered the running plays that led to defeat a year ago, was on the opposite sideline Sunday, coaching the Chargers and watching his successor correct his mistake.

“Certainly two huge third-down conversions, which were the difference in the ball game,” Manning said.

The successive first downs exhausted the Chargers’ timeouts. From there, the Broncos were able to run out the clock. The Chargers never got the ball back and never had an opportunity to pull off the miracle finish the Ravens managed a year ago.

“I think there’s been a lot of changes since last year,” Manning said. “We are much more experienced. We’ve been through a lot and have been in different situations. Those were two huge plays. I really loved Adam’s aggressive calls. Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes — after practice, in practice. To me, that is one of the most rewarding parts of football. When you put that work in off to the side or after practice and it pays off in a game, it really makes it feel like it was worth it. Those two plays specifically were certainly worth the hard work.”

So if the Broncos continue to be such good students of the past, perhaps they can come up with a way to beat Brady and the Patriots next week and advance to the Super Bowl in New Jersey. But first, they’ll have to look carefully at what happened in the fourth quarter Sunday.

“We got it going pretty good, and they knew it,” said Rivers, the Chargers’ quarterback. “If we got it one more time, I believe deep down that we would’ve tied that thing up. But we didn’t. Those are all a bunch of what-ifs.”

Through three quarters, the Chargers had five first downs and 25 net passing yards. In the fourth, they had eight and 169.

Did the Broncos lay back in a somewhat softer defense with a three-score lead to start the quarter? Sure, there were a couple of zones in there. But the most obvious difference in their defense was the substitution of veteran Quentin Jammer for Harris late in the third quarter, when Harris went out with what the club reported as a knee or ankle issue. Coach John Fox said he had no update afterward, making Harris’ health the biggest question of the coming week.

For three quarters, the Broncos’ defensive success was based on their ability to leave their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage on San Diego’s wide receivers while everybody else played the run first. With Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside and Champ Bailey playing nickel back covering the slot, it worked well. Once Harris went out, it didn’t.

Suddenly, the Chargers were reeling off big plays in the passing game. Jammer, the longtime Charger, always seemed to be at the scene of the crime. On San Diego’s first scoring drive, he lined up opposite former Bronco Eddie Royal, who ran a crossing route. Somewhere about the middle of the field, Jammer suddenly turned and looked back to the side he had vacated, as if unsure of the scheme. Royal ran away from him to the other side of the field. Rivers hit him and Royal turned upfield, gaining 30 yards. Moments later, Rivers went after Jammer again, throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass over him to Keenan Allen.

Manning responded by marching the Broncos down the field for another touchdown to make it 24-7 with 8:12 left. Again, a three-score lead looked comfortable. In fact, when Rivers made the mistake of going after Rodgers-Cromartie twice in a row on San Diego’s next possession, the Chargers faced a fourth-and-5 at their own 25-yard line. If the Broncos had stopped them there, they might have coasted home.

Instead, Rivers, who had ignored the Allen-Jammer matchup on third down, went deep for Allen on fourth. Jammer stumbled turning to follow Allen’s out move and the Chargers’ rookie star was wide open when Rivers hit him for a 49-yard gain. A minute later, it was 24-14, and two minutes after that, following a successful onside kick, 24-17.

This is what set up the Broncos’ final possession and the aggressive play-calling and execution that allowed them to protect a one-touchdown lead and close out the win.

Perhaps blaming this sudden change in the dynamic on Jammer is too simplistic. No doubt there were others who made mistakes as well. But if Harris is not ready to resume his role for next week’s AFC championship game at Mile High, the Broncos will have a decision to make.

Sunday, they had basically three options. They could have subbed in rookie Kayvon Webster, but it was Webster that Rivers victimized in the Chargers’ December victory. Just as Manning targeted Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper a few weeks before, Rivers pretty much threw at whoever Webster was covering until Webster was removed from the game.

They could have moved Champ Bailey to the outside. Bailey missed much of the season with a foot injury. Broncos coaches have been easing him back in as a nickel back, limiting his snaps. Still, I was a little surprised they didn’t move him outside for the final 15 minutes of Sunday’s game when Harris went down. After all, he’s been to 12 Pro Bowls, most recently last year.

Jammer was the third option, and the one they chose, perhaps because he played for the Chargers all those years and perhaps because he’s the guy who replaced Webster after Rivers toasted the rookie in December.

A fourth option would be Tony Carter, but he was inactive for Sunday’s game. That will probably change next week if Harris is unavailable.

Against the Patriots next week, the Broncos will need a game plan similar to the one they executed Sunday. The Patriots rushed for 234 yards Saturday in beating the Colts, 43-22. They scored all six of their touchdowns on the ground. But if the Broncos are going to leave their corners on islands against Brady, those corners will have to play as well as Rodgers-Cromartie and Harris did Sunday.

The Broncos will also have to learn what they can from their loss at New England just before Thanksgiving. In a game shaped by cold, windy conditions, the Patriots fumbled six times, losing three, before intermission. Von Miller returned one of them 60 yards for a touchdown and the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime.

The second half was pretty much a mirror image. It was the Broncos who turned it over three times and the Patriots who came back to take a 31-24 lead. The Broncos regrouped, driving for a tying touchdown near the end of the fourth quarter, but a freak play in overtime — a punt bouncing off Carter, who was on the coverage unit — handed New England a three-point win.

Offensively, the Broncos should be at full strength against the Patriots. Wes Welker, the former Patriot, returned to action following a concussion wearing a helmet nearly as big as he is.

“I’ve been practicing with it the last few weeks, so I got used to it, but it is kind of looking like The Jetsons out there,” Welker said.

“It was the first time since November that we’ve had Decker and (Demaryius) Thomas and Julius and Welker on the field together,” Manning said. “We’ve battled through some injuries.”

This was Manning’s theme going into the game. He told his teammates to be proud of what many outsiders seemed to take for granted.

“I talked to the team last night,” he reported. “I said, ‘You need to be commended for getting back to this point.’ We’ve been through more this year — it’s hard to explain all the stuff we’ve been through, offseason and in-season. To get to this point was really hard work, and to win this game was really hard work. We are proud and happy to be at this point, and we certainly want to keep it going.”

The Broncos exorcised one demon Sunday. Another awaits. In between, at least one of them had a Bud Light.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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