Tag Archives: Champ Bailey

Broncos on a mission

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NEW YORK — Jennifer Garner joined us on Radio Row today. This was the highlight of my Super Bowl week. She’ll be at the game Sunday, rooting for the Broncos. She’s been a Peyton Manning fan since his days as a Tennessee Volunteer.

That’s the extent of her connection to this post. I just wanted her photo on the blog.

Now then. Remember the dastardly way last season ended? Sure you do. For about six months afterward, the Broncos pretended they didn’t. They dared not speak of the fall-from-ahead loss to Baltimore in their first playoff game after a 13-3 regular season.

They’d put it behind them. They were focused on the future. There was, as always, no use crying over spilt milk.

A funny thing happened on the way to this season’s Super Bowl. Last year’s ending became an inspiration. Now they talk about it all the time. It is a source of motivation, even inspiration. According to Jack Del Rio, the team’s defensive coordinator and interim head coach when John Fox was hospitalized, it fuels their current quest.

“We’ve really been on a mission since we got that stinging loss at home last year in the playoff game,” Del Rio said this week. “We’ve been on a mission. Very resolute, our guys. There have been a lot of well-documented things that have occurred in the last 12 months and we’ve just kind of kept grinding. Never stopped believing that we have the ability to be here if we worked hard, worked together and committed. That’s what these guys have done.”

Amid the millions of words written and spoken this week, here’s an aspect to this tale you might not have heard: Of the Broncos’ 11 starters on defense in Sunday’s Super Bowl, only two — cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Mike Adams — started that playoff game against Baltimore a year ago.

“We’re a different group of guys collectively,” Bailey said. “But I think when you go through something like that, it kind of wakes you up, and now you’re more focused. You definitely don’t want things like that to happen again, especially in big games like that, but we’re a different team. We’re refocused. A lot of guys that were on that team, we don’t talk about it much. We just keep looking forward and try to get better every week.”

Linebacker Wesley Woodyard was a starter in the loss to Baltimore a year ago. He’s a reserve this year.

“It was something that built us up to get to this point,” he said. “That loss last year helped us get through training camp. Once we got through training camp, it was to get to Baltimore (in the Sept. 5 season opener). Once we got past Baltimore, it was, ‘Let’s get to the playoffs and win the No. 1 seed.’ Now we’re at the Super Bowl, so it kind of gave us a little extra motivation to keep continuing to get better and better.”

According to Fox, it’s not just the motivation, it’s also the experience losing in last year’s frigid conditions. With all the talk about the weather forecast for Sunday’s first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern climate, the Broncos’ coach said his team is now all but weatherproof.

“We lost a game a year ago in the playoffs in the single digits,” he said. “We hadn’t had much practice in that. Our weather had been actually pretty darn good in Denver. I think it’s actually a pretty well-kept secret, Denver’s weather. But this year we’ve gotten a little more calloused. We have had wind. We’ve played in single digits. We’ve practiced in single digits. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get. I think we’ve been exposed to it, so it won’t be foreign.”

A week ago, the long-term forecast called for cold, wind and a good chance of some combination of rain, sleet and snow. Now, just two days out, here’s the National Weather Service forecast for East Rutherford on Sunday:

“A chance of rain, mainly before 1 p.m. Cloudy, with a high near 48. Southwest wind 5 to 9 mph becoming west in the afternoon. Chance of precipitation is 30%.”

Since kickoff isn’t until 6:30 p.m. eastern, any precipitation seems likely to be long gone. Temperature and wind should be relatively mild. Not a bad forecast for the most prolific passing attack in NFL history.


For Champ Bailey, it’s about time

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Until the Super Bowl’s official Crazy as a Loon Day — that’s Tuesday, otherwise known as Media Day — the most interesting angle not named Peyton Manning or Richard Sherman is almost certainly Champ Bailey’s first trip to the NFL’s showcase after 15 seasons of excellence.

He will no doubt be overshadowed Tuesday, when an international television station will deploy the latest comely provocation — or perhaps just bring back Ines Sainz or Marisol Gonzalez — to propose to or merely hypnotize players desperately trying to follow their coaches’ instructions and stick to the subject, which is still football, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

As most football fans know, Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks in league history, having earned 12 Pro Bowl invitations in 15 seasons. And yet, when we took a thoroughly unscientific poll on KOA earlier this season asking for the five greatest Broncos of all time, Bailey finished tied for 23rd with two votes.

His is the curse of the thoroughly accomplished cornerback who isn’t constantly flapping his gums. In another era, the Broncos’ Louis Wright faced a similar fate. By definition, a great cornerback is virtually invisible. He’s so good that opposing quarterbacks throw at receivers being covered by other people. The great cover corner not only takes his opponent’s best receiver out of the game, he takes himself out, too.

It doesn’t help that Bailey has toiled for Denver during a relative drought. Since he arrived in a rare NFL blockbuster trade, exchanged by Washington for running back Clinton Portis in 2004, the Broncos have made the postseason just four times in 10 seasons. They never made the Super Bowl during his tenure before this year, and they advanced to the AFC Championship Game only once.

“It’s been a long road, but I’m just taking it in stride,” Bailey said Sunday evening, shortly after the Broncos arrived in New Jersey to begin preparations for Super Bowl 48. “I’m not trying to hype it up more than it should be. It’s still football. You’ve got to go out there and perform, and you’ve got to prepare just like we always do. Just trying to let everything stay its course and not trying to get over-hyped about it.”

Now 35, Bailey willingly admitted he has never before attended a Super Bowl, even as a fan.

“I didn’t see any reason to go,” he said. “I’m not going to cheer for anybody, and if I have no special interests in the game, other than being a fan watching it at home, why go? That’s the way I’ve always been.”

Bailey missed most of his 15th season with a foot injury, but returned near the end to play in the nickel defense. When cornerback Chris Harris went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the divisional round of the playoffs, Bailey was drafted to return to his traditional left corner spot for the AFC Championship Game. Because of his effectiveness in the slot as a nickel back, he continued to move inside when the Broncos went to five defensive backs, with reserve Tony Carter coming in to take his place on the outside.

Bailey is likely to play the same role in the Super Bowl. While the Seattle secondary gets much more attention, the combination of Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie gives Denver an accomplished pair of cover corners. And Bailey thinks the Broncos defense is playing better lately than its mediocre season-long rankings.

“It is what it is,” he said. “They (the Seahawks) played great all year, so they’re number one in the league. Our offense did the same. I think the last few weeks we’ve become a better defense. That’s all we can focus on — what we have to do — not statistics or you going to the playoffs. We’ve just got to go forward and try to get better than what we were last week.”

Several reporters made attempts to get Bailey to comment on his more talkative counterpart — Sherman, the Seahawks cornerback who made a game-saving play at the end of the NFC Championship Game and then boasted about it, denigrating San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree in the process. Bailey smiled but declined the bait.

“He’s a great corner, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I think most of you guys notice that now because you hear about how much he talks. That’s the way he is. I enjoy guys with some personality. That’s him. I have no bad words to say about him. He’s a good player.”

Does Sherman’s penchant for bravado make it more noticeable when a receiver beats him on a route?

“I guarantee you he’ll say he’ll never get beat again, but we all are going to get beat at some point, as long as we strap them up,” Bailey said. “I think the nature of the position exposes you anyway, so it doesn’t matter if you’re talking or not.”

For whatever it’s worth, the respect is mutual.

“I think Champ Bailey is a fantastic person and player, and I think he’s going to be a Hall of Famer once his career’s done,” Sherman said Sunday. “He’s kind of laid out the base work to be a lock-down corner in this league. He did it for a long time and he’s still doing it. For him to get to a Super Bowl is a great accomplishment for him, especially at 15 years in the game. That’s not easy to do. I think you’ve got to tip your hat to him.”

Calm, pleasant logic has been Bailey’s hallmark ever since he came into the league as the seventh pick of the 1999 draft. He is honest, though seldom inflammatory or provocative. If he never had to do another interview, you get the feeling that would be fine by him.

“This is probably the worst part — sitting here answering these questions I’m going to have to answer all week,” he said. “But I’m going to enjoy it as much as possible and just get ready to play this big game.”

As cool as he is, Bailey’s teammates seem more concerned about winning him a championship ring than he is.

“We’ve been thinking about that the whole season,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “It’s kind of like, this is one guy that everybody wants to win for. You know Champ, he’s a great person and a great teammate to be around and we definitely want to get this victory for him. This is a great moment for him.”


A Super story

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Sportswriting so often succumbs to the mawkish that it can be hard to recognize a truly extraordinary story when it comes along. But seriously, these Broncos qualify. If Kevin Costner wrote this script — for himself, naturally — you’d roll your eyes.

Two and a half years ago, Peyton Manning didn’t know if he would play again. Two and a half months ago, John Fox didn’t know if he would coach — or do anything else — again.

In between Manning’s cervical fusion surgery and Fox’s open heart surgery, the Broncos lost a host of front-line players — cornerback Champ Bailey, left tackle Ryan Clady, pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The Dumervil episode — which turned on a fax machine and communication snafu worthy of the Marx Bros. — gives the tale its comic relief.

But the Manning story trumps them all. He was understandably reticent to talk about his physical difficulties when he first arrived in Colorado. He had lived for 14 years in a professional world in which you divulged nothing about your physical vulnerabilities lest the information be used against you in your next game.

Over time, details have emerged. The first throw after multiple neck surgeries, to old pal Todd Helton in the Rockies’ indoor batting cage, was so feeble Helton thought it was a joke. Early on, he was unable to lean on his right arm or feel his right hand. They told him the nerve regeneration would take time.

“Unbelievable” is the most overused word in sports, but the fact that Manning is going to the Super Bowl for the third time at age 37 is still hard to believe, even after one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen. The fact that the Colts cut him after 14 seasons, 13 of them fabulous, was hard to believe. The fact that he found a new home in Denver, where he immediately produced consecutive 13-3 seasons, is hard to believe. Even, maybe, to him. Somebody asked if he expected this.

“I can’t say that for sure,” he said after Sunday’s 26-16 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Mile High. “I was truly taking things slowly, kind of phase by phase. Nobody could give me a real timetable or prediction as far as physical recovery.

“I had never switched teams before. I had no idea how long it would take to form some chemistry offensively, to get comfortable with the culture. I talked to some other players that had changed teams and I think it depends on the individual — how you mesh with your new teammates, how comfortable you are in your new surroundings. So the folks here in Denver, the city and the organization, made me feel welcome. That has certainly been very helpful. I have put a lot of hard work in. A lot of people — teammates, coaches, trainers — have helped me along the way.”

Sunday’s game was like a gift from his new home. In the middle of January, Denver delivered a September day, sun-splashed with temperatures in the 60s and a slight breeze. You might remember what Manning did last September. Fifty-two points in one game. Forty-nine in another.

The Broncos didn’t score that much against the Patriots, settling for field goals more than usual, but Manning was basically the same guy, completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 118.4. Among all the other records he set or challenged this year, the fact that he became just the third quarterback to throw for 400 yards in an AFC championship game seemed barely a footnote. The Broncos’ 507 yards of offense was the most a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team has ever surrendered.

You had a feeling it might be Manning’s day early when he bobbled a shotgun snap, then bobbled it again — that close to an early fumble, twice — and not only regained control but hit Eric Decker for a first down.

“New England does a great job disguising coverages and you do want to get a post-snap read on their coverages,” Manning explained. “Your job is to look the ball in, and I’m not sure I looked it in all the way. I was trying to get a read on (safety Devin) McCourty or (safety Steve) Gregory and I thought I had it, then I bobbled it again. I was glad to finally get a hold of the grip and get the laces. I know my quarterbacks coach (Greg Knapp) will be proud of me that I was still able to go through my progression on that play and find an open receiver.”

This is the sort of thing that still gives Manning pleasure, pleasing a position coach by attending to the smallest details.

His counterpart, Tom Brady, to whom he is often compared unfavorably owing to Brady’s 3-1 edge in Super Bowl championships, was also good, completing 24 of 38 for 277, one touchdown and a rating of 93.9. But he missed some available big plays down the field, one to Julian Edelman early and another to Austin Collie later.

“I just overthrew them,” Brady said.

The storyline coming in was the magnificent performance of Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount the previous week. All anybody could talk about was whether the Broncos could stop New England’s power running game. After rushing 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns against Manning’s former team the previous week, Blount carried five times for six yards against the Broncos.

“They didn’t play the Broncos last week,” said Bailey, who returned to his left cornerback position after a long absence and will play it in his first trip to the Super Bowl after a 15-year career that has included 12 Pro Bowl selections. “They are a good running football team, but we got some guys up front that don’t like that, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop that run. That’s really what it’s all about, the guys up front.”

After rushing for 234 yards as a team against the Colts, the Patriots managed but 64 against the Broncos. As they did the previous week against San Diego, the Broncos deployed their base defense on more snaps than usual, moving Bailey into the spot vacated by Chris Harris, who tore an ACL last week. Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made a formidable tandem in pass defense and Tony Carter, called on to replace Bailey as the nickel back, held his own.

After losing defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson late in the regular season, enormous Terrance Knighton — they call him Pot Roast for a reason — repeatedly forced his way into the Patriots’ backfield and disrupted their running plays before they could get started.

But devotion to the running game was not really the Patriots’ problem. Their plan seemed to call for Brady to pass against the Broncos’ base defense and run against the nickel. He started every possession of the first quarter with a pass. All three ended in punts, two without gaining a first down. By the time Brady got into scoring position late in the second quarter, he trailed 10-0.

“We definitely had some chances on third downs and I had a chance down some lanes and I certainly wish I would’ve made that,” Brady said. “You know, it’s a tough day for our team. We fought hard and we came up short against a pretty good team.”

The Broncos settled for field goals on four of six scoring drives, a much higher percentage than usual, but they dominated the time of possession, 35:44 to 24:16.

“We were able to hold them to some field goals defensively, but our third-down defense and our third-down offense, especially in the first half, weren’t in it,” Belichick said. “We let them get too far ahead and they stayed on the field.”

The Broncos led 13-3 at intermission and emerged from the locker room with a long touchdown drive to open the third quarter. The Patriots responded by driving 51 yards in an effort to stay in the game. Rather than take a field goal on fourth-and-3 at the Broncos’ 29-yard line, Belichick elected to go for it. Brady had barely looked upfield when Knighton slipped past Patriots All-Pro guard Logan Mankins, wrapped him up and tossed him to the ground.

The Broncos responded with another drive of their own, culminating in another field goal, which gave them a 20-point lead with 12 minutes remaining. The Patriots made it interesting with a couple of fourth-quarter touchdowns, but they never got within a single score. Manning characteristically credited offensive coordinator Adam Gase for a good plan.

“They do a great job of taking away your key receiver,” Manning said. “With us, we’ve spread the ball around so well all season, it’s hard to know who really to key on. On any given play, one of five guys could get the ball. I think that puts pressure on the defense.”

Having surrendered 280 rushing yards to the Broncos in the regular-season meeting between the teams in New England, Belichick seemed as focused as Fox on stopping the run. When Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combined for minus one yard in the first quarter, Manning turned to his many weapons in the passing game. Demaryius Thomas caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Julius Thomas caught eight for 85. Veteran Jacob Tamme, his teammate in Indianapolis as well, caught the first touchdown. In all, Manning spread his 32 completions among eight receivers.

It didn’t help the Patriots that their best defensive back, Aqib Talib, went out early with a knee injury after colliding with Wes Welker, but the Broncos had too many weapons for the Patriots even before that.

A year ago, the Broncos went 13-3, got the top seed in the AFC, then blew their first playoff game, much as John Elway’s Broncos did in 1996. A year later, they bounced back to make the Super Bowl, as Elway’s Broncos did in 1997.

Fox, who underwent open heart surgery on Nov. 4, will be coaching in the championship game for the first time in 10 years. His only other trip there as a head coach ended in a 32-29 defeat for his Carolina Panthers to Brady and the Patriots.

“It feels great,” Fox said. “It’s felt great for about eight weeks. Not so much before that. My medical team did great. My wife, Robin, my nurse, did even greater. A lot of good people are the reason I’m standing here.”

Manning will be back for the first time in four years, and that will be the most compelling storyline of Super Bowl 48. Amazingly, he has a chance to rewrite his biography in the twilight of his career, much as Elway did. For 14 years, Elway was the awesomely talented quarterback who could win a ton of games but never the big one. He finished by winning consecutive Super Bowls and the old tag vanished.

Manning is the awesomely talented quarterback, albeit in a different way, who won a Super Bowl following the 2006 season and lost his second following the 2009 season. That doesn’t sound so bad, but compared to Brady, who has played in five and won three, it produced a narrative that Manning hasn’t been as good a clutch player as his rival.

The bizarre part of this analysis is the assumption that Brady’s team, the Patriots, and Manning’s team, the Colts, were essentially equivalent, leaving the quarterbacks as the difference in the number of titles. This happens to be complete nonsense. The Patriots of the Brady era were superior to the Colts of the Manning era, but these tags seem to have a glue that’s impervious to logic.

Now Manning has the opportunity Elway had, at the same age. Sunday’s win gave him a 2-1 record vs. Brady in AFC championship games. A victory in New Jersey two weeks from now would be his second in three tries at the Super Bowl. And who knows? If Manning’s Broncos continue to follow the template of Elway’s Broncos, he could have yet another opportunity at 38.

But one thing at a time. Manning lost his ability to throw a football at age 35 and regained it through a long, painstaking rehabilitation. Two years later, he produced arguably the best season by a passer in NFL history at age 37. If you hadn’t seen it, you wouldn’t buy it.

“You do take a moment to realize that we’ve done something special here, and you certainly want to win one more,” Manning said.

“I just shoot him a pre-game thought,” said his older brother, Cooper. “It was, ‘Hey, you’ve come this far. Go ahead and pretend you’re a 10-year-old playing in the front yard.’ That’s what it looked like.”


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.


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.


Broncos may not be dominating, but they are rolling

So Mitch Unrein was doing what he does on the football field, which consists mainly of hand-to-hand combat with offensive lineman, when Jamon Meredith, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ right guard, reached through his face mask and gouged both his eyes simultaneously.

Temporarily blinded, Unrein reached out to fend off Meredith and was immediately penalized for the personal foul of putting his hands in another man’s face. These are the ironies NFL players live with.

Red-eyed but unbowed, Unrein absorbed this particular injustice more easily than most because he had caught a touchdown pass from Peyton Manning just a few minutes before, a rare moment of glory for a 290-pound defensive tackle from Eaton, Colorado who went undrafted and started his career on the practice squad.

“I was just glad he caught it,” teammate Champ Bailey said afterward. “You see a lot of linemen get wide open and drop that thing.”

“I’ve never had a TD catch in my entire life,” Unrein said. “The last time I scored a touchdown was as a freshman in high school. So it feels pretty good. I mean, it’s still kind of surreal.”

It was that kind of day for the Broncos, who marched down the field the first time they had the ball, topping off the drive with a goal line formation in which Unrein lined up at fullback. When he released into the left corner of the end zone, Manning lofted a floater into his arms for the one-yard touchdown.

But the Broncos seemed to regress into confusion for the remainder of the first half. At intermission, they trailed 10-7, and the mere seven points suggested their offense was short on rocket fuel.

“Their defense does a good job of moving around,” explained tight end Jacob Tamme, who, in the absence of veteran Brandon Stokley, became Manning’s security blanket.

“They run a lot of games up front and make it tough to run the ball because they’ve got D-linemen moving everywhere and linebackers doing the same thing. It was really just kind of adjusting to how they were playing us and we were able in the third quarter to come out and put some big drives together.”

Tampa defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan might have gotten this idea from Mike Nolan, the Atlanta coordinator with whom he competes in the NFC South. Nolan’s walk-around, amoeba defense confused Manning into three interceptions and the Broncos’ first loss in the second week of the season.

In this case, Manning seemed less confused than his linemen. He connected on 11 of 15 first-half passes, but the Broncos sabotaged their own efforts with six penalties for 60 yards before intermission, including 10-yard infractions against offensive linemen Orlando Franklin and Chris Kuper that short-circuited the two drives following the touchdown.

“I really felt like there were some opportunities there,” Manning said. “We had some self-inflicted penalties, some mistakes we thought were hurting us. Believe me, they have an excellent defense, but we thought we were doing some things to make it a little tougher.”

After scoring at least 30 points in the first five wins of their current seven-game winning streak — the fourth-longest in franchise history and longest in 14 years — the Broncos managed only 17 the previous week in Kansas City. Sitting with seven at halftime against Tampa, the orange-clad denizens of Sports Authority Field at Mile High began to grow restive.

If game balls went to coordinators, which they seldom do, Mike McCoy and Jack Del Rio might have deserved them after this one. In a contest of halftime adjustments, the Broncos dominated. They won the third quarter 21-0 and the fourth became a formality.

So much so that fans began to entertain themselves by doing the wave. Unfortunately, the Broncos had the ball at the time. Manning, needing quiet so his signals could be heard in the no-huddle offense, politely shushed them.

“I’m all for excitement, but certainly, in a no-huddle offense when you’re calling something at the line, the quieter the crowd can be, it certainly is helpful,” he explained, while also paying obligatory tribute to the crowd’s enthusiastic spirit.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side, the Broncos gave up consecutive scoring drives in the first quarter, then shut out quarterback Josh Freeman and his troops until the fourth, when a couple of late scores accounted for the 31-23 final. They limited Doug Martin, one of the NFL’s leading rushers also known, unfortunately, as The Muscle Hamster, to 56 yards on 18 carries, a measly average of 3.1 yards per.

“We just settled down,” Bailey said. “You’ve got to give (Freeman) credit. He’s a good quarterback. He’s been doing that all year, making plays early in the game. We knew if we just stay with it and just keep trusting our technique, we’ll be fine.”

“The hype these guys get is well-deserved,” Freeman said of the Broncos’ defense, which is ranked in the NFL’s top 10 for the first time since 2005. “They get after it. Their front four did a good job of timing their blitzes. The Denver defense played a great game today.”

Freeman completed six of eight passes in the first quarter, when the Bucs scored 10 points, but only two of six in the second and three of 12 in the third as the Broncos took control.

Von Miller had a quarterback sack to give him 15 on the year — third in the league behind San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (17.5) and Houston’s J.J. Watt (15.5) — but he also returned an interception for a touchdown, yet another plank in his campaign for defensive player of the year.

“He’s the best player in the NFL right now on defense,” said safety Rahim Moore. “He’s unstoppable. I’m just glad to be a part of his team. He makes all of us better.”

The Broncos improved their record to 9-3, clinching the AFC West title — and the playoff berth that goes with it — with four games still to play. They tied the Raiders, whom they play Thursday night in Oakland, for most AFC West titles all time, with 12.

They remain in a battle with the AFC’s other division leaders for playoff seeding. Baltimore, which leads the North, lost to Pittsburgh on Sunday, dropping them into a three-way tie with the Broncos and Patriots at 9-3. Like the Broncos, the Patriots clinched their division Sunday.

A win at Baltimore in two weeks would leapfrog the Broncos over the Ravens, but they still need help to pass the Patriots, who beat them earlier in the season, to get one of the top two AFC seeds and the first-round bye that goes with it. New England still must play Houston, which has the inside track on the AFC’s top playoff seed at 11-1, and San Francisco.

“Winning the division, that was certainly one of our goals,” Manning said. “We still want to keep getting better throughout the season.”

So the Broncos keep rolling along, playing well enough to win each week without exactly dominating.

“A year ago we were getting critiqued if we won or lost,” club vice president John Elway said last week. “Now we’re getting critiqued on how we win. So that’s a good thing, as long as we’re winning.”

The critics of the Manning signing have disappeared. The apocalyptic talk about his age and injuries has been silenced. The Broncos rule their division once more, the first step in Elway’s plan to return to their glory days.


‘Von Miller is the next Lawrence Taylor, plain and simple’

On at least one San Diego third down Sunday, a third-and-10 early on, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio dispatched two defensive linemen, two linebackers and seven defensive backs.

If five defensive backs is a nickel defense and six is a dime, I’m guessing seven is a quarter, or possibly a JFK half-dollar, considering the effects of inflation.

As defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson pointed out afterward, Von Miller wears a linebacker’s number (58) but he’s generally rushing the passer, so maybe that was a 3-1-7 alignment rather than a 2-2-7. Either way, let’s just call it Del Rio’s freakout package.

That’s what it did to Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who was under pressure because of Miller and looked downfield to see nothing but the Broncos’ alternate blue uniforms. Symbolizing the frustration he showed much of the day, he threw the ball away into his own bench.

“I’ve never been a part of a team that’s shown this many looks,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, now in his 14th season. “It’s funny because every guy that comes out there could start. It’s not like we’ve got a bunch of guys we’re just trying to get playing time. These guys can play. I’ve got to give Jack a lot of credit for trying to utilize all the guys he has around him.”

Do all those different looks — pretty much every coin in the change machine — confuse opposing offenses?

“I sure hope so,” Bailey said. “I think it does. But I think the most important part of our defense is that front. They’ve been getting it done and that’s what’s really enabled us to play better.”

Good as the front wall has been overall, the difference maker is Miller, who took over the NFL lead in quarterback sacks Sunday, adding three to his previous 10. He became just the fourth NFL player since 1982 to record at least 11 sacks in each of his first two seasons, joining the late Reggie White, Jevon Kearse and Dwight Freeney.

“I told him today, he’s a beast, man,” Vickerson said.

“That boy works his butt off and he plays with a lot of confidence and I see him doing it for a long time,” Bailey said.

“Von Miller is the next Lawrence Taylor, plain and simple,” said safety Rahim Moore. “No lineman in the country — born, not born, past — can block him.”

With the inquiring minds, Miller takes his lead from Bailey, returning the compliment.

“I think it all starts in the secondary,” he said. “I don’t think our guys in the background get too much credit. We got Champ Bailey out there, Chris Harris, Rahim Moore’s been having a great season. I think that’s where it starts.”

The media scrum around Miller afterward was almost as deep as the Broncos’ defense. He used the word “relentless” relentlessly to describe his mindset, citing other dominant defensive players who play with that attitude, including the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, a two-time league sack champion who had 19.5 a year ago and has 10 so far this year, three back of Miller’s league-leading total.

“He’s explosive, he’s fast, he’s a savvy football player,” Chargers center Nick Hardwick said of last year’s defensive rookie of the year. “He uses his hands and feet well and ties his moves together.”

“It’s probably his speed,” said San Diego guard Rex Hadnot. “He probably runs under a 4.4 (40-yard dash). He’s really fast and plays pretty physical.”

For the second week, the Broncos’ defense took the lead. The offense ended up scoring 30 points, but 17 of them came as a result of Chargers turnovers (a Wesley Woodyard interception, a fumble forced by Miller on one of his sacks, and a punt blocked by Nate Irving), giving Peyton Manning and the offense short fields.

Manning’s streak of 300-yard passing games came to an end — he managed only 270 — although he did throw for three touchdowns again, becoming the first quarterback in Broncos history to do that six times in the same season. And he still has six games to play. The previous record was five, set by John Elway in 1997. Still, the story was the defense again, and Manning knew it.

“Anytime you have a change in the defensive coordinator and you have some new players, it’s going to take time forming a little chemistry and getting on the same page,” he said. “I think they just continue to get better each week, understanding coach Del Rio’s system, and those guys are playing at a really high level right now. It sure is fun to watch.”

In fact, the offense sputtered enough that someone actually asked Manning if he felt more happiness or frustration after this one.

“Happiness,” he replied. “We won, didn’t we? Are you not happy? Strange question . . . strange question.”

The defense surrendered a couple of late drives that made the final score closer than the game actually felt, but the Broncos’ growing confidence on the defensive side is a propitious sign for the postseason.

And, yes, although they can’t talk about it, we can start talking about that now. With a record of 7-3, they lead the Chargers by three games with six to play, and effectively four since they swept the season series and own the head-to-head tie-breaker.

In the process, they stretched their string of third-down denials to 26 over three games, the longest such streak in the NFL in 10 years, before the Chargers finally converted one into a first down. San Diego finished three of 16 on third down.

“It’s the best defensive team they’ve had since we’ve been playing against them,” said Rivers, who has been playing the Broncos twice a year since taking over the starting job in San Diego in 2006. “This is definitely as good, if not the best defense they’ve had that I can remember.”

Bailey, of course, was having none of it.

“You look at the fourth quarter, they had two drives that we just can’t give up,” he said. “We’re better than that. We’ve shown we’re better than that. It’s just being consistent. We’ve just got to find a way to keep pressing on the gas throughout four quarters.

“Never become complacent. That’ll put you on your couch.”

It’s now five in a row since they came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit in San Diego on Oct. 15. On both sides of the ball, the Broncos are on a roll.