Imagine you’re the defensive coordinator for a team that has to play the Denver Broncos. In fact, you’re the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, the team that has to play the Broncos first. Just so you know, your name is Dean Pees.
Your opponent has three 1,000-yard wide receivers, which is a problem. Nobody has three 1,000-yard receivers. You can’t double-team Demaryius Thomas (1,434 receiving yards last season), Wes Welker (1,354 for New England) and Eric Decker (1,064). You’ll have to mix and match, disguise, throw in some zone looks and hope you can limit the damage.
Now imagine somebody tells you that two minutes and 30 seconds into the second half, Peyton Manning will have three touchdown passes against your defense and none of them will be to any of those guys.
More frightening even than Manning’s NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes in Thursday’s season opener was the fact that the first three went to Julius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Andre Caldwell.
Thomas, a 6-foot-5-inch former basketball player, had never caught a touchdown pass in the NFL. Caldwell had six career touchdowns, but none for the Broncos as he entered his second season with the club.
In Julius Thomas’ coming-out party after two years stunted by injury, the big, athletic tight end caught five passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns, adding yet another difficult matchup to what was already an impressive array of weaponry. Meanwhile, the veteran Caldwell, the fourth of four wide receivers, was the picture of efficiency, getting one pass all night and catching it for a touchdown.
So now imagine you’re Perry Fewell, defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, who play host to the Broncos in Week 2. Do you have to take Julius Thomas, the tight end, as seriously as you take the Broncos’ big three?
About a half hour after Manning put up the shiniest stat line in a career full of shiny stat lines — 27 of 42 for 462 yards, seven touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 141.1 — I asked him if the emergence of the second Thomas in his arsenal will make defensive coordinators rethink how they game plan the Broncos.
“It would be an interesting question,” he said. “I’m not sure how they will answer it, or if they will, but it will be interesting to see how teams play Julius all season. He is a big guy, he definitely will make teams have a conversation, and that’s what you want. You want guys that make teams have a discussion — ‘how are we going to handle this guy?’ — and he’s a big guy.
“First play of the game, he ran a seam route. He didn’t do exactly how he was coached to do it, but that guy (Ravens safety James Ihedigbo) put a pretty good hit on him and he got right back up and hung in there, did not have to come out, and made a couple big plays.”
It didn’t seem like a good sign at the time. For an instant, it looked like a substantial completion on the first play, before Ihedigbo separated Thomas from the ball.
“That ‘out’ route on the left side where he made the guy miss, that was a huge play because they had some momentum and I think we just had the penalty and we were up on our heels a little bit,” Manning said. “But we did a great job answering the score there. A lot of credit goes to Julius Thomas there.”
The Broncos trailed 14-7 at the time. After a scoreless, forgettable first quarter, cornerback Chris Harris gave them a shot of adrenaline with a diving interception in front of Brandon Stokley early in the second. Manning hit Julius Thomas up the seam for 24 yards and a touchdown on the next play to make it 7-7. Manning complimented the aggressive call and made a point of crediting first-year offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
Then Welker muffed a punt near the goal line and gave the turnover score right back. So the Broncos were again down a touchdown when they were hit by the penalty Manning referenced — an offensive pass interference call on Decker — putting them in a first-and-20 hole at their own 33-yard line. Manning hit Julius Thomas with a short out, Thomas juked with an agility that belied his size and rambled 44 yards up the sideline to the Ravens’ 23. Manning went back to him for the touchdown, and the game was tied again.
“It went like we all thought it was going to go,” Julius Thomas said afterward. “The whole offseason we’ve been talking about how many different weapons we have, and I think we were able to display that today. We had a lot of guys make plays — all of our backs, receivers, tight ends. So that’s just what we look to do. We just want to find the right matchups and try to go after those.”
If Julius Thomas can become a consistent weapon alongside all those thousand-yard guys, the Broncos offense could be pretty close to unsolvable. Which is what happened in the third quarter, as if Manning and the orchestra had been merely tuning their instruments since a 33-minute lightning delay to start the game.
“I don’t make excuses, but I do think that the lightning delay did slow us down,” Manning said. “I was telling somebody earlier, you guys have seen teams break it down — you come out of the team prayer and put your hands in and everyone says ‘Broncos’ or ‘Win’ on three, then you go out onto the field.
“We did it three times tonight. We went back and sat down for another 10 minutes and came back and, ‘Now we’re really going,’ and then it was all for naught, go sit down for another 10 minutes. So it took us a little while to get started, but they had to deal with it also.”
If you’re still imagining you’re a defensive coordinator in the league, the third quarter was the equivalent of a horror movie. The Broncos received the second-half kickoff and took just six plays and 2:30 to traverse 80 yards. Manning finished the drive with his only throw of the night to Caldwell. It was the home team’s first lead.
The Ravens went three-and-out and then Broncos special teams ace David Bruton blocked their punt, giving Manning the ball at the Baltimore 10-yard line. He threw two five-yard passes to Welker and it was 28-17.
The Ravens went three-and-out again, got their punt away this time, and set up a nine-play, 63-yard Broncos drive that symbolized the night. Manning tried to throw his fifth touchdown pass on a fade to the left, but Decker, who had an off night, let it slip through his fingers. So Manning turned and threw the next one to Welker on the other side.
In eight minutes, 28 seconds, the Ravens’ 17-14 halftime lead had turned into a 35-17 deficit. Baltimore’s defense looked spent. The Broncos were operating out of the no-huddle at a mile above sea level, they were eating up big chunks of yardage, and as the quarter went on, the Ravens looked more intent on breathing than reading keys.
“We wanted to play an uptempo game,” Manning said. “It helps when you can get into a rhythm when you are having positive plays on those first and second downs. Early in the game, it was first down, second down, third down, every single time. Once we got into a rhythm, we weren’t even getting into third downs. It was first down, second down, first down. That is tough on a defense when you can keep moving into a good clip. It still comes down to the execution. I don’t necessarily think tempo is the reason for it, but the execution got better later in the game.”
When Demaryius Thomas is the cherry on top, you’re got a pretty good sundae. Both of DT’s scores came in the fourth quarter as the Broncos kept their foot on the gas, perhaps in response to all the complaints about how conservative they were the last time the nation watched them play.
If linebacker Danny Trevathan hadn’t hot-dogged an interception return, bringing back memories of Leon Lett as he dropped the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line, turning a touchdown into a touchback, the score would have been even more lopsided than it was.
At 49-27, it was plenty lopsided anyway. Manning became the sixth player in NFL history to throw seven touchdown passes in a single game, and the first to do it in 44 years. The others were Sid Luckman of the Bears in 1943, Adrian Burk of the Eagles in 1954, George Blanda of the Oilers in 1961, Y.A. Tittle of the Giants in 1962 and Joe Kapp of the Vikings in 1969.
The second-most recent name on the list rang a bell for the most recent.
“Yeah, Joe Kapp — great Canadian quarterback out of Cal,” Manning said. “Kicked the crap out of a guy on YouTube a couple of years ago, too.”
Of the six, only Manning and Tittle threw seven touchdowns without an interception. That’s sort of a football equivalent to baseball’s concept of a perfect game, only more so. There have been far more perfect games in baseball than seven-touchdown-no-interception games in the NFL.
“A couple guys were joking, we were saying it’s like Madden — the only time you get to throw seven touchdowns,” Julius Thomas said.
I asked if he had a nickname that would distinguish him on second reference from the other Thomas, and he said he didn’t. Someone suggested “Orange Julius” and he said that would be OK with him. I’m not sure it solves the second reference problem.
In any case, his reference to Madden seemed apt. There were times Thursday night when it looked a little like a video game from the press box, especially the first three possessions of the third quarter.
This was not just a win, one game out of 16, although that’s certainly what the Broncos will say over the next 10 days as they prepare for a trip to New York and a Manning vs. Manning storyline. It’s a long season.
But this was a historic performance that will be cited 50 years from now, just as performances by legendary names like Luckman and Tittle are cited here. This was the very definition of an auspicious beginning.