Tag Archives: Jack Del Rio

Broncos on a mission


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.

A quadruple Decker

The chess metaphor has become a cliche in sports, but football, at its highest level, requires a similar skill: Your chances of success derive largely from your quarterback’s ability to read the board. When the Broncos play the Chiefs, it’s a pretty crowded board.

For the second time in three weeks, the Chiefs’ starting lineup Sunday against the Broncos was what is known as a dime defense, in which six of the 11 defensive players are cornerbacks and safeties.

Traditionally, a “base” defense consists of four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties. Over the years, as rules changes have encouraged the crowd-pleasing passing game, offenses have deployed more receivers and defenses have responded with more defensive backs. The fifth defensive back was called the nickel back. The sixth made it a dime in something of a linguistic non sequitur.

These used to be situational packages. Against Peyton Manning, they are what you start with. At least, if you’re Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, they are. In both matchups, the Chiefs started three cornerbacks (Sean Smith, Brandon Flowers and Marcus Cooper) and three safeties (Eric Berry, Quintin Demps and Kendrick Lewis).

Facing this maze of defensive backs two weeks ago, Manning chose the Cooper Gambit, for reasons not that difficult to divine. On one side of the formation, the defensive right side, the Chiefs deployed Smith, one of the bigger, better defensive backs in the game. In the middle, against Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker, they positioned Flowers, a somewhat overrated but also well-known cover corner. On the other side, the defensive left, they deployed Cooper, a rookie drafted by the San Francisco 49ers three picks before the draft ended, then cut at the end of training camp.

So Manning connected with Demaryius Thomas five times for 121 yards at Mile High in that first matchup, including a 70-yard bomb, on the way to a 27-17 Broncos victory. Thomas started the game split wide left, opposite Smith. When Manning flipped the formation, sending Eric Decker left and Thomas right, Smith stayed where he was and picked up Decker. So Manning feasted on the DT-Cooper matchup.

Afterward, I wondered why the Chiefs wouldn’t tell their best cover corner — Smith — to stick with the Broncos’ best wide receiver no matter where he lined up. Sunday, I learned the answer:

It doesn’t matter.

Decker is equally capable of exploiting a rookie defensive back. When Thomas hurt his shoulder on the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage Sunday, Manning turned to Decker. By the time he was finished, the Broncos had a 35-28 victory, a season sweep of the Chiefs and a clear path to the AFC West title.

On the way, Decker did something no Broncos receiver had ever done before, catching four touchdown passes in a game. He finished with eight catches for 174 yards and became just the 12th player in NFL history to post four receiving touchdowns and at least 170 receiving yards in the same game. Jerry Rice is the only one to do it twice. Other names on the list include Lance Alworth, Bob Hayes and Terrell Owens.

Cooper was covering Decker on two of the touchdowns, Flowers on the other two. Decker routinely fought Cooper off at the line of scrimmage and roamed free. The preview of coming attractions came midway through the second quarter, when he shook off Cooper at the line and beat him on an out-and-up that went for 42 yards to the Chiefs’ 3-yard line as the Broncos fought back from a 21-7 deficit.

“DT got hurt on the first play of the game,” Manning explained afterward.

Actually, he didn’t learn this until the end of the Broncos’ first offensive series, when he tried to pick up where he’d left off two weeks before, exploiting the Thomas-Cooper matchup with one of those jump balls that Thomas routinely snatches out of the air. This time, Thomas reached for it with only hand. The ball rolled down his arm and into the hands of Demps for an interception. Turned out that safety Lewis had slammed Thomas’s left shoulder on his first catch, after he’d beaten Cooper on a short slant.

“That third down to him, in that type of play, usually he can go up and make it,” Manning said. “He couldn’t even reach with his other hand. He goes up with one hand and obviously tips it, and it ends up getting intercepted. I probably told him he could have told me that earlier, that he only has one hand, and I might not have thrown to him.”

After that, it was pretty much Decker on the right side the rest of the way. Occasionally, Welker would come out of the game and Flowers would slide over, but mostly, it was the Cooper Gambit all over again. Even the one-armed Thomas eventually took advantage, catching a 77-yard fly route off him.

The rookie from Rutgers had his moments, including an interception of a Manning floater early in the second quarter, but by the time Decker’s record-setting day was over, it was obvious the master had read the board, found the weakness and battered it once more.

“I’m a corner,” Cooper explained. “That’s just the life I live. Sometimes things are going to work for me, sometimes things aren’t. I just have to keep going at it at practice and continue to learn.”

Asked about getting over such a tough day, Cooper said: “Peyton is a great quarterback. He’s going to make those plays. We just have to limit those. This is a learning experience.”

It was reminiscent of Darrent Williams, the late Broncos cornerback, after Manning, then with the Colts, took him to school back in 2006.

“It’s the great Peyton Manning,” Williams said then, with a smile. “That’s what I call him now.”

Sunday at Arrowhead, Manning completed 22 of 35 passes for 403 yards and five touchdowns. That gives him 41 touchdown passes for the season, breaking the Broncos’ franchise record with four games to play. The record — 37 — was set by Manning last year, his first with the Broncos. He is now nine shy of the NFL record, which is 50, set by Tom Brady in 2007.

Manning declined to acknowledge he targeted the Chiefs’ rookie cornerback for the second time in three weeks. Asked about the matchups, this is as much as he would say:

“They double (Wes) Welker often. In the two games we’ve played, we knew the double Wes was a scenario, so sometimes Eric is going to draw single coverage, and he played well. He ran good routes. I thought Adam (Gase) called some good plays. We were able to get down the field. Protection held up and allowed us to get down the field. Eric was awesome. Hats off to him and the way he played today.”

Decker’s wife and reality television co-star, Jessie James Decker, was somewhat more effusive on Twitter.

“Omg, omg, omg, I am crying,” she tweeted.

Manning was asked a second time about the Cooper Gambit.

“(Decker’s) touchdowns were on two different guys — Flowers, who is a top cover corner, and 31 (Cooper),” he said. “Those guys are good players. Hey, you’re not in the NFL unless you’re a good player. If you run good routes and you have time to make an accurate pass, sometimes it’s tough to defend. I really just give Decker more of the credit as opposed to saying we were going after one particular guy.”

Even with tight end Julius Thomas out with a knee injury and Demaryius Thomas hampered by the shoulder, the Broncos had more than enough offensive weapons. And even with all those defensive backs in the game, the Chiefs had not enough answers.

Once 9-0 and considered the best defense in football, the Chiefs are now 9-3 after being slapped around in consecutive weeks by the Broncos, Chargers and Broncos again. At 10-2, with the tie-breaker by virtue of beating the Chiefs twice, the Broncos have a clear path to the AFC West title and a first-round playoff bye.

As they learned last year, this guarantees them nothing, but it’s better than the alternatives.

“We came into a tough environment and got it done,” Jack Del Rio said after his fourth and final game as interim head coach. John Fox, who underwent open heart surgery four weeks ago to replace a valve, resumes his duties Monday. “I’m really proud of every man in the room and every guy that traveled, in terms of helping us get this win.”

The Broncos still have issues, of course. They surrendered 452 yards of offense to the Chiefs, not to mention a 108-yard kickoff return. They have the usual bumps and bruises of a team three-quarters of the way through a 16-game season.

But they’re back to their old ways, setting records on offense and playing just enough defense to win. When the elements cooperate — it was clear and mild in Kansas City — it’s going to take a pretty good chess player to beat them.

Peyton Manning’s kryptonite

Call it some kind of weird, backwards karma. Rahim Moore was the apparent goat the last time the Broncos played in a freezer, at home in the playoffs last season, even though Tony Carter was at least as responsible for the catastrophic play.

Almost a year later, Carter was the apparent goat in another blisteringly cold game, even though Wes Welker was probably more responsible for the catastrophic play.

“I’ve got to get to him earlier and tell him and get those guys out of the way if I’m not going to make the catch,” Welker acknowledged, referring to the Marx Bros. routine that handed the game to the New England Patriots. “I was a little bit in between and you can’t be that way.”

Welker was back there to receive the final punt in overtime at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, where the Patriots play, because Trindon Holliday, the Broncos’ usual punt returner, had already muffed one at the end of the first half. That became the first of the Broncos’ four turnovers, but only five seconds remained before intermission, so it didn’t seem to matter.

After all, the Broncos had turned three New England turnovers into scores and led 24-0 at halftime. As if satisfying a cosmic need for symmetry, the Patriots did the same to the Broncos after halftime, catching up and taking the lead with 31 consecutive points, then giving up a late touchdown to set up overtime.

With a little more than three minutes remaining in the extra period, the Broncos forced the Patriots to punt for the sixth time in the game and the second in overtime. Because of the wind, Welker decided at the last minute not to risk trying to catch the ball. He tried to wave his teammates off, but it was too late for Carter to find the ball in the air. As the backup defensive back tried to flee the scene, the ball landed right next to him and bounced off his leg. The Patriots recovered at the Broncos’ 13-yard line. Two plays later, Stephen Gostkowski kicked the winning field goal in a 34-31 victory.

“It’s just one of those freakish things that happens in football,” Carter said. “The ball took a bad bounce and obviously, you know, we were all trying to get out of the way. It just so happened to hit me and they recovered and it set them up for a field goal, so it was a big play in the game and just one of those things you wish you could take back.”

The ball gets hard and slick in frigid conditions. Both teams had trouble holding on. The Broncos fumbled five times, losing three. The Patriots fumbled six times, also losing three. All New England’s giveaways came in the first half. Except for the Holliday muff, all of Denver’s — two more lost fumbles and a Peyton Manning interception deep in his own territory — came after intermission.

“Really good first half for us, really good second half for them, and back and forth in the overtime,” said Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio, offering the CliffsNotes. “I thought we had a shot, really felt confident we were going to pull it out. They ended up making a play there at the end and getting a field goal up and won the game, so it was really a tale of two halves for us.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick told a similar story with a different ending:

“I thought we were moving the ball pretty well in the first half, but we turned it over. We couldn’t finish the drives. And they ended up not only with the ball, but one time they ended up with a touchdown. You can’t move the ball when you’re losing it. We’ve got to hang on to it. So, once we started doing that and converting a few third downs, we had some plays in the red area.”

This makes the Broncos 0-for-2 in spectacularly cold games during the Peyton Manning Era. The veteran quarterback has been sub-par in both.

Well, you might say, that’s only natural. It’s harder to play quarterback in conditions more commonly found on Jupiter. Just one problem with this narrative: They didn’t affect Manning’s counterpart nearly as much in either case. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco had a passer rating of 116.2 in that playoff game last season; Manning’s was 88.3.

Sunday, Tom Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 107.4. Manning threw for 150 yards, by far his lowest total of the season, two touchdowns, that interception, and a rating of 70.4, also his lowest of the season.

Manning has long had a reputation for struggling in adverse weather conditions, in part because he was stereotyped as an “indoor” quarterback during the 14 seasons he played all his home games inside a dome in Indianapolis. I didn’t cover him back then, so I don’t really know if that reputation was justified.

I do know the Ravens were convinced Manning couldn’t throw the ball down the field in the frigid playoff game last January because former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo told us so on the radio not long ago. At the time, Manning explained that the Ravens’ two-deep zone defense forced him to throw shorter routes to his backs and tight ends, even though the stat sheet showed he threw to his wideouts more often than to his backs and tight ends combined.

Sunday, his explanation for the first pedestrian stat line of his season was that the running game was going so well. Certainly, that was true. Knowshon Moreno carried 37 times for 224 yards, the third-highest total in Broncos history (behind Mike Anderson, who had 251 at New Orleans in 2000, and Clinton Portis, who posted 228 against Arizona in 2002).

When Manning was asked Sunday night about the effect of the conditions on his passing, this was his reply:

“Like I said, our running game was working, so that’s what we were going with. When you’re running the ball well, that’s a good thing for the offense. Just, when you turn it over and give them two short fields, that’s disappointing. That’s not good execution. So that’s kind of the way that worked out.”

It’s not altogether clear which short fields he was talking about because the Broncos gave the Patriots two in the second half — on a Montee Ball fumble and the Manning interception — and a third at the end of overtime. What he didn’t mention were the five Broncos possessions after intermission that ended in punts. There must have been a few moments in there where a nicely-thrown pass could have kept a drive alive, no matter how well the running game was working.

Manning won’t go there. He just frowns and deflects questions about the conditions. Everybody else acknowledged the effects, particularly that of the wind, which caused Belichick to give the Broncos the ball to begin overtime so that the Patriots might have the wind at their backs.

“It was a strong wind,” Belichick explained. “I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive. So, we were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game.”

Manning’s performance in these cold-weather games increases speculation that in the two years since he underwent spinal fusion surgery, the nerve regeneration in his arm and hand is adequate for routine conditions but still inadequate for extremely cold weather. This may or may not be true, but the speculation will continue until he dominates a cold-weather game the way he has dominated so many warm-weather games over the past two seasons.

For all the drama of Sunday night’s clash — Brady is now 10-4 against Manning all time, for those keeping score, which is pretty much everybody — it didn’t change the Broncos’ landscape much at all. Obligingly, the Chiefs also lost, to San Diego, so the Broncos remain in a nominal tie with their AFC West rivals going into their rematch this Sunday in Kansas City. They are still one game better than New England — 9-2 versus 8-3 — and this loss will come into play in postseason seeding only if they end up with the same record.

It is true, of course, as Manning pointed out, that even after all the mistakes by both teams, if the Broncos don’t screw up that final Patriots punt, they have the ball with about three minutes left and an opportunity to win the game or, at least, prevent Brady from doing so by running out the clock.

“Still felt like we had a chance, getting the ball there at the very end,” Manning said. “I thought we were going to have the ball last and we were going to score and win the game or I guess it could have ended in a tie. So I hated the way that ended and not getting a chance there to get our hands on the ball.”

The Broncos had two decent drives in overtime. One was undermined by an offensive pass interference call against Eric Decker that Manning called “very disappointing,” and the other ended in a decision to punt with the ball at the New England 37-yard line and not quite five minutes remaining.

“We just were probably five yards short of where we needed to get to to have a realistic shot of making a field goal,” Del Rio said. Had the wind been at the Broncos’ backs, Del Rio said he might have sent Matt Prater out to attempt a game-winning field goal. Against the wind, he said special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers told him a 53-yard attempt was too far.

The game had enough subplots for a Russian novel, including a first-half cameo by a brilliant Broncos defense that left for intermission and never came back. In the end, all anyone is likely to remember is that the Broncos could not hold a 24-point lead and that Manning, the four-time most valuable player and certain Hall-of-Famer, was reduced to an ordinary quarterback in the blustery conditions.

More than ever, the Broncos’ Super Bowl hopes seem to hinge not only on all the things that must normally go right to be the last team standing, but also on environmental conditions that don’t rob their superstar of his powers.

Behind a determined, hobbled quarterback, Broncos hold serve

For the entire 21st century — all thirteen years of it — many folks in Denver with a sense of history have decried the replacement of venerable Mile High Stadium with its thoroughly modern, multi-revenue-streamed, marble-clad successor.

Sure, it allowed the Broncos to remain economically competitive with their peers, all of which were doing the same thing, but the thunder was gone, the shake, rattle and roll, the whole erector set bouncing thing that freaked out novice national broadcasters every time.

Sunday night, it was back. Well, maybe not the erector set bounce, but everything else. The 77,076 who packed the place, many of whom came early and spent the cool, sunny afternoon in sweet anticipation, gave the visiting Kansas City Chiefs a preview of the fourth quarter in the first, roaring and stomping from their very first snap, which, not coincidentally, turned into a penalty for a false start.

In a battle for first place between a highly-admired 8-1 team and a somewhat less admired 9-0 team, the 8-1 team not only won, it also kept its quarterback upright throughout, no small feat against a defense that had sacked opposing quarterbacks more often than any other.

For the Broncos, keeping Peyton Manning upright is the overarching goal because if the 37-year-old quarterback is lost, so is the season. This is the PFM window, and the Broncos have no chance to crawl through it without PFM.

Wearing a brace on the right ankle he re-injured last week in San Diego, Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase hobbled a fine line between risking Manning’s health on the one hand and playing it too close to the vest on the other. They ran the ball more than usual and Manning threw fewer touchdown passes than usual. But the Broncos won, 27-17, pulling them into a tie with the Chiefs for now.

“I worked hard all week to get ready to play physically, and certainly, our protection was excellent the entire game,” Manning told KOA afterward.

The Chiefs’ capable duo of edge pass rushers, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, came into the game with 20 quarterback sacks between them and left with the same number.

“I thought Peyton did a good job getting the ball out fast, and I thought he worked the pocket pretty well,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “There were times where we had pressure and you saw him slide and throw opposite (side), which isn’t an easy thing to do. He’s a pretty good quarterback. He did that and got away with a couple that most guys wouldn’t be able to get away with. But listen, we can do a better job there. We can get more pressure on him, and we’ll work on that.”

For the second consecutive week, the Broncos forced an AFC West opponent to settle for a field goal at a key moment, in this case after a first-and-goal at the Broncos’ 2-yard line. Meanwhile, the Broncos were doing what they’ve done all year — scoring touchdowns.

“I thought our red zone was outstanding,” Manning said after completing 24 of 40 passes for 323 yards and a touchdown. “This team (Kansas City) has been excellent in the red zone. They’ve held a lot of teams to field goals. That has been a big reason why they’ve been winning games. Teams have driven the ball, and they get down there and get three points (or) a turnover down there. The fact we were able to get three touchdowns down in the red zone and the two field goals by Matt (Prater), that was enough to win. That’s something we work on a lot. I thought that was critical. Two weeks in a row, our red zone has been critical.”

One intriguing aspect of the game was the Chiefs’ defensive game plan. In March, they announced they had signed Sean Smith, a big, physical cornerback, to join the accomplished Brandon Flowers in their defensive backfield. This was widely explained as a chess move to defend the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas, a wide receiver too big and strong and fast to cover with a traditional, small defensive back.

So if it surprised no one else, it surprised me to look up early in the game and see the Chiefs allowing the Broncos to dictate the matchups in their defensive backfield. Rather than have Smith shadow Thomas wherever he went, they had Smith stick to his right cornerback position and cover whoever the Broncos split wide left.

Unsurprisingly, the Broncos sent Eric Decker over there early and deployed Thomas to the opposite side. With Flowers inside covering Wes Welker, rookie Marcus Cooper repeatedly found himself in man-to-man coverage against the most dangerous receiver on the field.

It didn’t take long for Manning to take advantage, hitting DT with a pass down the right sideline that flew almost 50 yards in the air and went for 70 before safety Quintin Demps finally pushed Thomas out of bounds. Two plays later, tight end Julius Thomas caught a short slant for a touchdown and the Broncos had a 10-0 lead.

This was exactly the scenario the low-scoring Chiefs could not abide. Playing catch-up is not their strength.

With the two teams scheduled to meet again in Kansas City in just two weeks, no one was going to disclose anything of even remote strategic significance. But you have to try, so I asked Manning if he expected Smith to shadow Thomas or stick to the right defensive side.

“They’ve done both,” he said. “Certainly, they’ve rotated different guys in the secondary. They’ve had some different guys playing than were playing earlier in the season. Every game you’re never quite sure how their rotation is going to be.”

Cooper, a seventh-round draft choice waived by the 49ers and picked up by the Chiefs just before the season began, has been surprisingly good considering how often he’s been targeted when the Chiefs play man-to-man defense in the secondary. Still, DT made both of his long catches against him and it will be interesting to see if the Chiefs change their strategy for the rematch in K.C.

Besides quarterback sacks, turnovers were the Chiefs’ other strength in building that 9-0 record. They got one early on a fumbled exchange between Manning and rookie running back Montee Ball deep in the Broncos’ territory. But the Denver defense got the ball back on the very next play when linebacker Danny Trevathan separated it from Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman. So the turnovers canceled out. With neither sacks nor turnovers, the Chiefs couldn’t keep up.

They did manage an 80-yard touchdown drive spanning the end of the first and beginning of the second quarter, and then a 79-yard march on their next possession. That one-yard difference turned out to be pretty important. The Broncos’ much-maligned defense kept the visitors out of the end zone the second time, forcing them to kick a field goal.

“The defense came up big in spurts, and in the end it was enough,” interim head coach Jack Del Rio told KOA.

Turned out, the experts were pretty much on it. Even though the Chiefs came in with a better record, oddsmakers made the Broncos an 8-point favorite, mostly because the Chiefs hadn’t beaten anybody good. The Broncos had the league’s best offense, the Chiefs its best defense.

The Broncos’ 27 points were their lowest output of the season, although just barely, so the Chiefs defense did about as much as it could be expected to do. The offense, managed ably but soporifically by Alex Smith, did the same.

For all the excitement at the replica of the old barn off Federal Boulevard, this thing was little more than a foreword. The next two weekends will offer the Broncos their greatest challenge of the season — consecutive road games against New England and these same Chiefs.

“From a scheduling standpoint, I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before,” Manning told KOA. “There’ll be great familiarity between both teams. Unfortunately, we’ve got a really good team we’ve got to play in between.”

Finishing ahead of the Chiefs is necessary to win the division, a route that offers a slightly smoother road in the postseason, at least in theory. But if the Broncos were to lose these next two, the advantage bestowed by Sunday night’s win would likely disappear.

So this was a necessary but insufficient condition to get where the Broncos want to go.

“We knew when the schedule came out that these were going to be three critical games,” Manning said. “We hoped they were going to be critical. We hoped they were going to matter, because that meant we had taken care of business early in the season. So this was an excellent win. We’ll enjoy it tonight. We’ll be in there tomorrow studying this one and getting a head start on New England.”

As the players and coaches left the field Sunday night, Del Rio circled back to find Gase and congratulate him. Normally, when head coach John Fox is about, these two are peers, coordinating the offensive and defensive game plans. When you consider that they’ve managed these last two division victories in the absence of their head coach, you can understand the joy they felt at keeping the team rolling while Fox recovers from open heart surgery.

“Great, great night of football,” said an enthused Del Rio. “Two very good football teams going at each other. I thought our fans were tremendous. I was told on the way in we only had 74 no-shows, which means that place was full and rocking. It was awesome.”

Imagine how happy he’ll be if they’re still in first place the next time they get to play there.

‘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.

Two stats suggest Broncos growing into legit contender

Five weeks ago, the Broncos were 2-3 and ranked 19th in the NFL in points allowed. Peyton Manning and the offense were coming together, week by week, but the Broncos had all kinds of questions on the other side of the ball. Having surrendered 62 points to Houston and New England over the previous three weeks, their defense scared no one.

Sunday, the Broncos won their fourth consecutive game since then. For the first time, Manning was not the main reason. The Denver defense, which had improved to 13th in points allowed in the interim, dominated Carolina, forcing Cam Newton to run for his life most of the day.

Two stats best reflected this defensive dominance:

— Seven quarterback sacks by six different Broncos defenders, the first time they’ve had that many in a game in nine years.

— The Panthers’ astonishing 0-for-12 success rate on third down, the first time the Broncos have shut out an opponent on third down in 12 years.

Jack Del Rio’s unit had improved from 29th to 20th in third-down defense over the past three weeks, and that ranking will rise again when all of this weekend’s action is over.

Combine a stifling defense that held Carolina to 250 yards of offense (the Broncos had 360) with another kick return for a touchdown by Trindon Holliday — a kickoff last week in Cincinnati, a punt this week in Carolina — and the Broncos resembled, for the first time, a complete team that could be a legitimate championship contender.

“It was a heck of an effort by the defense today,” Manning told KOA afterward. “They really put a lot of pressure on Carolina’s offense. And, boy, that’s two straight weeks with a (special teams) return for a touchdown. Just can’t tell you what that does for a team. Just a huge swing. Holliday and the entire return team has done a heck of a job. So, good overall team win. Offensively, obviously, some things we need to do better, but it sure was a good win.”

This is the key intangible the Broncos have going for them — veterans on both sides of the ball who are dissatisfied after a convincing 36-14 road win.

Asked by Channel 4’s Gary Miller if the defense was coming along faster than he expected, cornerback Champ Bailey did not hesitate.

“No,” he said. “I think we’re going too slow. We need to pick it up a little bit.”

It sounded like a joke, but if you know Bailey, who held the great Panthers receiver Steve Smith to one catch on seven targets for 19 yards, you know it wasn’t. At 34, Bailey’s sense of urgency to get to his first Super Bowl is palpable.

Similarly, Manning returns to Denver determined to work on flaws in the offense.

“I thought we were close on offense all day and really had some chances to put some more points and maybe have a little more separation,” he said. “We still had a few self-inflicted wounds. I’ve learned never to take winning for granted in the NFL, but certainly some things we can improve on and hopefully correct on offense.”

Even on a relatively modest day for Manning — he completed 27 of 38 passes for 301 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 103.1 — the Broncos’ quarterback continued his assault on the record book. The touchdown tied Dan Marino for second on the career list at 420. Only Brett Favre, with 508, had more. The win tied him with Marino for third on that list with 147, behind only John Elway (148) and Favre (186).

Now in charge of the Broncos’ front office, Elway gets appropriate credit for courting and signing Manning, giving the franchise instant credibility on offense. The front office he leads has continued to add veteran pieces that have played major roles, among them linebacker Keith Brooking, center Dan Koppen and safety Jim Leonhard.

But no pickup on the fly has had a bigger impact than Holliday, just the third player in Broncos history to return both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same season, joining Al Frazier in 1961 and Eddie Royal in 2009. The Broncos claimed him off waivers from Houston last month.

“We look at the wire every single day to see who’s on that wire and if there’s a possibility that we can improve our football team,” Elway said on the Dave Logan Show last week.

“When we had a chance to get Trindon Holliday and claimed him a couple weeks ago, it was key for us because we needed a returner and he’d had so much success in preseason and even earlier this season . . . It was kind of an area of need and we saw what he could do last week. He’s really upgraded our return game.”

Holliday’s 76-yard punt return on the first play of the second quarter broke a 7-7 tie. Returners with the ability to break one at any time are a rare breed and provide a dimension that few teams have. To add that, in midseason, to improving units on offense and defense, makes the Broncos a threat to score in all three phases of the game, as they did Sunday.

“Especially a guy with that kind of speed,” Elway said. “If we can get people on people and get him some space, then he’s going to be very dangerous and it puts that much pressure on the other team. We really can look at it as another offensive weapon that when we do get in the return game, we have the ability to make some big plays.”

Indeed, the 5-foot-5-inch, 170-pound Holliday has been so impressive the Broncos are working him into the passing game. In Carolina, he had his first two NFL catches.

On the other hand, replays appeared to show Holliday flipping the ball away before crossing the goal line on the punt return. Neither the officials nor the Panthers noticed. Broncos coach John Fox told him to bring him the ball next time.

Meanwhile, Von Miller continued his ascent into one of the dominant defensive players in the league. Although he got credit for just one of the Broncos’ sacks after registering three the week before, he seemed to be in the Carolina backfield all day. He denied any special motivation going after the one player picked ahead of him in the 2011 NFL draft, but his teammates knew better.

“It was important not only for our head coach coming back here, but the first time Von has gone up against Cam,” said fellow linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “So it was exciting for him.”

Fox, of course, coached the Panthers for nine seasons and was less than thrilled when he was set up to fail with a stripped-down roster in his final season. But Fox, like Miller, declined to talk about his motivation publicly.

Broncos defenders credited with quarterback sacks in addition to Miller were defensive linemen Kevin Vickerson (two), Robert Ayers and Elvis Dumervil; and defensive backs Mike Adams and Chris Harris.

About the only negative for the Broncos was the running game, which put up only 65 yards, averaging three yards per rush. The starter, Willis McGahee, fumbled twice. Luckily, one rolled back to him. The other became his third lost fumble of the season.

Still, their turnover ratio continued to improve from a horrible start with interceptions by cornerback Tony Carter — a third-quarter pick six that extended the lead to 24-7 — and safety Rahim Moore. They improved to minus three on the season.

Combined with the Chargers’ loss to Tampa Bay, the Broncos’ fourth straight victory gave them a two-game lead in the AFC West with a chance to make it effectively four by beating San Diego next week and sweeping the head-to-head matchups, the first tie-breaker.

“It’s certainly a big game, and we all know how the game went last time,” Manning said, referring to the turning point of the Broncos’ season so far. It came at halftime of the game in San Diego on Oct. 15. The Chargers led 24-0 and the Broncos were 30 minutes from falling to 2-4. Instead, they came back with 35 second-half points and haven’t lost since.

“Everybody talks about the comeback, but we were down 24-0 for a reason, because they are a good team and they forced us into some mistakes,” Manning said. “So we’re going to have to play a whole lot better than we did last time . . . We need a good week of practice.”

Now 6-3 on the season, the Broncos’ record is beginning to reflect the quality of their game. One memorable stat that made the rounds last spring, just after Manning signed, seems increasingly relevant these days. Throughout his career, Manning’s teams have averaged 26 points a game. Throughout his career, Fox’s defensively-oriented teams have won more than 90 percent of the time when they score at least 26 points.

It’s working so far. When the Broncos have scored 26 points or more this season, they are 6-0. If the defense continues to improve at its recent rate, they could be as scary as any team when the playoffs get underway.

Throw in a little defense and the Broncos look scary good

Sitting in the shadow of the media scrum around Wesley Woodyard, the linebacker who gave the Broncos’ resurgent defense a face Sunday night, veteran Keith Brooking considered the question briefly, then bent over deliberately to tie his street shoes.

The question, of course, was how a defense that had looked so ordinary through the first six games — tied for 17th in points allowed, 24th in red zone touchdown percentage, 29th in third-down percentage — could suddenly dominate one of the NFL’s best offenses, as it did Sunday night against the Saints, powering a surprisingly easy 34-14 victory that left the Broncos alone in first place in the AFC West.

“It’s a new system,” Brooking explained. “We knew it was going to be a progression to get acclimated to Jack’s system and what he wants. We were going to get better week in and week out if we just believed in the system and what the coaches were telling us to do.”

The Broncos are familiar with this process of acclimation. Jack Del Rio is their seventh defensive coordinator in seven years.

“We obviously have the talent and the ability to play dominating defense,” Brooking said. “When you’re shown the film, you see the way we play. We play with great intensity, with great energy, with great effort. When you add that to talent and a great scheme and really good coaches that put you in position to make plays, I feel really good about where we’re at and, most importantly, where we’re going.”

Talk to enough veterans who have played this game at the highest level and you finally accept that the difference between good and bad is an episode or two of brain lock in a three-hour contest, the sort of thing that happens to many of us routinely in considerably less stressful circumstances. The newer and more complicated the scheme, the more of those there are likely to be.

“It does take a while,” said veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, finally part of a Denver defense that doesn’t require him to be the only playmaker. “It’s really getting a feel for everybody around you — the people you’re playing with, the coaches. It’s a big team thing. Once you get comfortable with your team and your teammates, I mean, the sky’s the limit.

“I’ve said for a long time how important practice is, but it’s getting the younger guys to understand the importance of it. And they bought in and they continue to buy in and everybody’s getting better, which makes our team better.”

In particular, young cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tony Carter have made an impression of late with starter Tracy Porter on the shelf, which should make for an interesting coaching decision when Porter is fully recovered from seizure-related symptoms.

Before you start checking into Super Bowl reservations, keep in mind that despite their gaudy offensive statistics, the Saints are a battered football team. Two of their players — defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma — remain tied up in a contentious dispute with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over suspensions arising out of the team’s so-called bounty scandal. More important, the scandal cost the team its head coach, Sean Payton, for the entire season.

Sunday was the first game back for his replacement, interim coach Joe Vitt, who was suspended over the same scandal for the first six games. It’s all added up to a 2-5 start for a team that went 13-3 last season.

“I just met with our football team and I certainly share in their disappointment,” Vitt said afterward. “I told them quite frankly there was probably too much hype and not enough substance about me coming back last week. I’ve got to do a better job . . . .”

Vitt admitted a more sure-footed head coach might not have had to call timeout before going for it on fourth-and-two at the Broncos’ 47-yard line with the game tied at 7 midway through the second quarter. Woodyard, the defensive star of the game, leaped and intercepted a Drew Brees pass intended for tight end Jimmy Graham. Woodyard became the first Broncos linebacker with more than one interception in a season since Al Wilson in 2004.

“They ran that play earlier in that drive and I wasn’t there to make that play, so I knew I had to come back and make something happen,” the fifth-year linebacker from the University of Kentucky explained. Woodyard, who went undrafted in 2008, also had the Broncos’ only quarterback sack of the game.

But that wasn’t the last of the Saints’ coaching issues. Vitt also acknowledged he should have gone for it on fourth-and-six at midfield in the third quarter trailing 24-7, while his team still had a chance to climb back into the game. It’s rare that an NFL team is breaking in a new head coach at this stage of the season, but that’s part of the bounty scandal’s legacy for the Saints.

The Broncos, on the other hand, are coming together just as their schedule softens up a bit. They didn’t believe they were as bad defensively as they had looked, particularly against the Falcons, Texans and Patriots, but their inability to get off the field on third down overshadowed anything good they did on earlier downs.

Coming back from their bye week fresh and rejuvenated, their mission was to shut down New Orleans on third down. Mission accomplished. The Saints converted one of 12, or eight percent, a far cry from the 46 percent conversion rate the Broncos gave up through their first six games.

“I felt like you have to give their defense credit — they played well and made some plays — but overall I believe there were things that we did to ourselves in a lot of cases that prevented us from converting those,” Brees said.

“We’ve been preparing for third downs,” said Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who chased down Darren Sproles from behind for his 14th tackle of the season behind the line of scrimmage, putting him just one back of Houston’s J.J. Watt for the league lead.

“We were ranked 29th in the league on third downs and there’s no way we should have been ranked there,” Miller said. “We’ve got all the personnel on this team. We’ve got Champ and Elvis (Dumervil) and all these guys. We just haven’t had too much success on third downs. That was our mindset coming in this week, was to get off the field on third downs, and I think that was the key to the game today.”

If you expected a shootout between two of the best quarterbacks in the game, you weren’t alone. I spent much of last week telling anyone who would listen to bet the over on an over/under of 55 1/2 total points in the game. After all, these were two of the NFL’s most prolific offenses, and two of its more pedestrian defenses.

So the performance of the Broncos’ defense — or, conversely, of the Saints’ offense — was the surprise. Averaging 29 points a game coming in, New Orleans managed only seven while the outcome was in doubt.

Denver’s offense, averaging 28, scored six more, perhaps predictably given that the Saints ranked last in defense by a number of metrics. In fact, they became the first team in NFL history to give up 400 yards or more to each of their first seven opponents. The Broncos piled up 530.

Slightly more than half of them came from the arm of Peyton Manning, who had another nearly flawless outing, completing 22 of 30 passes for 305 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 138.9. In the process, he passed Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers to become the top-rated passer in the league at 109.0 for the season.

“I’m a different player coming off the injury, I’m on a different team, and so I’m just working on kind of finding my way, and our team is finding our way,” Manning said modestly, referring to the four neck surgeries that forced him to miss all of last season.

“I keep mentioning finding our identity, and we’re starting to form it,” he said. “I still think there are some things we need to improve on, and we’re going to build off this win — build some consistency as an offense and hopefully I can just continue to make strides and be on the same page as the receivers.”

“You could just see his comfort level rising,” Bailey said of Manning. “I don’t know if he could be any better than he was, but after you see how he’s progressing and getting more comfortable with the guys around him, I don’t know how far he could go.”

Although his fondness for old friends and teammates Brandon Stokley and Jacob Tamme is undiminished, Manning’s top targets are emerging as the Broncos’ talented young duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.

Decker had two touchdowns Sunday. Thomas had seven catches for 137 yards and a touchdown, including a 41-yard catch in the first quarter that served as the centerpiece of a 98-yard touchdown drive after a New Orleans punt had backed the Broncos up on their own 2-yard line.

“I feel like stuff can always get better, but I feel like I know what he wants and he feels like he knows what I can do and knows where I’m going to be, that I’m going to be in the right spot,” Thomas said. “So I think it’s good and can only get better.”

For the rest of the NFL, that now qualifies as a scary thought. The Broncos moved up to fourth in the league in scoring at 29.1 points per game. Manning now has 17 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season. People who doubted his arm strength are stubbornly sticking to their story, but he is making all the throws and, as usual, all the right reads. He bloodied his thumb on a defensive lineman’s helmet Sunday and played through it. After missing an entire season, toughness may be Manning’s most underrated quality.

Granted, the Saints are lousy defensively and the Broncos were coming off their bye week, fresher and friskier than usual. Nevertheless, seven games into the Manning era, they look like a team with a relentless offense and an improving defense.

The version in which they play five defensive backs, a previous weakness, became a strength Sunday by doubling down on speed. Woodyard and rookie Danny Trevathan, another University of Kentucky product, manned the linebacker spots while Miller put his hand on the ground and became a defensive end. Teams usually run against the Broncos’ nickel, but that didn’t work Sunday. New Orleans gained only 51 yards rushing compared to the Broncos’ 225.

“I tell my DBs all the time, ‘If you want to play, we’ve got to stop the run in nickel. We’ve got to make sure we don’t give up big plays,'” Bailey said. “It’s those little things that cause coaches to want to put the big guys out there. We (defensive backs) feel like we’ve got the best room on the team, so we’ve got to keep proving it every week.”

The biggest threat to the Broncos now might be feeling too good about their situation. Although they are on the road the next two weeks, their opponents get markedly less challenging than the first six weeks. The Ravens are the only team remaining on the schedule with a winning record.

Not only that, but San Diego’s unsightly 7-6 loss to Cleveland on Sunday left every team in the AFC West other than the Broncos below .500. At this rate, they might be able to sleepwalk to the division crown, but if they hope to be a threat in the postseason, that’s not how they want to do it.

“That’s about as complete as we’ve looked all year,” Bailey said. “One thing we can’t do is become complacent. That can happen after big wins. We’ve had two in a row and we just got to keep it rolling.”

Broncos melodrama: Does Del Rio know what he’s doing?

Tracy Porter, the Broncos’ starting right cornerback, departed Sunday’s loss to Houston slightly before the end of the first half. He did not return.

Neither did he disappear into the locker room to get urgently-needed medical attention. Every time my binoculars found him on the Broncos sideline, he was sitting on the bench or standing and watching the action.

Perhaps he was injured, as head coach John Fox said afterward. “Knee,” Fox said by way of explanation, and Porter was indeed limping as he walked off the field at the end of a 31-25 home loss, although he was still in his uniform pants and there was no evidence of ice or any other treatment during the intervening two hours or so.

Normally, there’s little doubt about injuries because we see them take place or the club announces them in the press box or both. Neither occurred in the case of Porter. The Broncos announced injuries to linebacker Nate Irving and running back Willis McGahee during the game, but made no mention of an injury to Porter, leading to the conclusion that he he’d been benched.

After all, he came out of the lineup after Texans quarterback Matt Schaub completed a pair of long touchdown bombs to receivers Porter was covering. Andre Johnson caught a 60-yard scoring pass in the middle of the first quarter to give the Texans their first lead at 7-5 and Kevin Walter caught a 52-yarder in the middle of the second to make it 21-5. These were the biggest plays of the afternoon.

“They challenged us, played a lot of man coverage,” Texans head coach and former Broncos quarterback and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said afterward. “Jack got very aggressive in some of the things he did, so I tried to give us chances to make big plays, and we did.”

He was referring, of course, to Jack Del Rio, the Broncos’ first-year defensive coordinator, long known for aggressive defensive schemes.

“Andre makes a big play on the boot throwback early in the game,” Kubiak continued. “The throw that Matt made to Kevin for a touchdown was a tremendous play. But we knew we were going to have to make some big plays. It wasn’t a percentage-type throwing day because of the way they played us. But it was a big-play throwing day, so we were able to make those plays.”

Porter was the AFC defensive player of Week 1, largely for the pick six that sealed the Broncos’ opening night victory over the Steelers. Del Rio made it clear that night that he was not flipping the coverage to keep Champ Bailey on the opponent’s top receiver, which the Broncos did routinely before Del Rio’s arrival. For one week, anyway, it didn’t hurt them.

Sunday, it did. Once Porter went out, nickel back Chris Harris took his place as the second cornerback. Tony Carter moved up to nickel back.

At that point, Del Rio allowed Bailey to return to the old formula. He generally shadowed Johnson for the rest of the game, shutting him down without a catch until Schaub found him on a short out with just over two minutes left in the game.

So I asked Bailey afterward if, given a choice, he would cover the opponent’s top receiver all over the field, wherever he lines up.

“I really just do what my coaches game plan for the week,” said the 11-time Pro Bowl selection. “I think everybody in the world knows I always want the best guy. I’ve never been shy about saying it. It’s really their call. I can’t just go against them.”

So there’s the challenge for the Broncos’ defensive coaches. If Del Rio wants to play aggressive defenses that leave his corners on their own, perhaps he should take some advice from one of the best to play the position.

“As a corner, that’s one thing you just don’t want to do, is give up the deep one,” Bailey said. “They could throw a hundred comebacks or curls, but don’t give up the deep one. It’s tough out there on that island, I’m telling you, but it is what it is. We’ve got to learn from it and try to get better.”

On the bomb to Johnson, it looked as if Porter was expecting help over the top from safety Mike Adams. The touchdown throw to Walter looked like basic man-to-man coverage.

Adams offered no insight: “I got to go back to the film and see what happened,” he said. “I just saw the (still) pictures and that didn’t help me much.”

The last time a cast wanted to see the film as much as these Broncos, Francis Ford Coppola was making the original Godfather.

“You never really feel like somebody’s better than you,” Bailey said. “It’s just we’re killing ourselves because we know what they’re going to do but our eyes aren’t in the right place, and that makes you look bad. That’s how they make plays. I mean, their offense is set up off that run game and if you don’t stop the run effectively they can eat you up in the boots and play-action and stuff like that.”

That’s what happened on the first-quarter touchdown to Johnson.

“It was just a double move,” Johnson explained. “They had the perfect coverage. There wasn’t anybody on the other side of the field.”

The Broncos thought the rebuilt back end of their defense was good enough to play man coverage and let Del Rio play the run and go after the quarterback with everybody else. So far, it looks like they were wrong.

Schaub threw four touchdown passes against Del Rio’s defense. That’s a lot. The Broncos’ front seven was victimized by the zone blocking, cut blocking scheme other teams complained about for many years when the Broncos ran it under Mike Shanahan, Kubiak’s former boss.

“You try to practice and prepare for it as much as you can, but you can’t practice (cut-blocking),” Broncos rookie defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said. “You can’t practice the back cutting on you like that. So that was definitely something new for us. I thought we handled it well at times, but there were just some misfits here and there. We got out-schemed, I think.”

Schaub’s shortest touchdown flip was a three-yard swing pass to running back Arian Foster. Somehow, 330-pound defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson seemed to have coverage responsibility. I have no idea what scheme that is, but it may need further review.

Schaub also had a scoring strike to Owen Daniels. Covering tight ends has not been the Broncos’ forte through the season’s first three weeks.

And then there were the two big plays. Kubiak denied he was going after Porter.

“I wouldn’t say we target anybody,” he said. “We’re attacking scheme, attacking what they’re doing on the back end, whether it’s quarters, quarter-quarter-half, or man. But we knew that we would have to try to get the ball down the field because they had a lot of people committed to the run. We just came off a game where we played a team that played us in a bunch of two-deep and we had to play the game totally different. So we did what we had to do to win. Convinced them to make some big plays and they did.”

If this is the sort of defense that Del Rio intends to run — a high-risk, gambling unit that leaves corners on their own — he’d better make sure his best cover corner is covering the other team’s most dangerous weapon.

Yes, Schaub completed a key 12-yard pass for a first down to Johnson with Bailey on him at the end, but that’s still the matchup you want if you’re a Broncos fan.

On the other side of the ball, the Broncos were uninspired and uninspiring for most of the game. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy seems determined to use the no-huddle as a change of pace, so the Broncos go long stretches huddling conventionally and looking thoroughly mediocre. Then they’ll break into the no-huddle and start moving the ball.

For most of the afternoon, Peyton Manning was clearly the second-best quarterback on the field. Through three quarters, he had completed 17 of 35 passes for 210 yards, no touchdowns and a pedestrian passer rating of 67.6. The one saving grace was he eliminated last week’s interceptions.

In the fourth quarter, against a Texans defense protecting a 20-point lead, he finally connected on a 38-yard touchdown to Brandon Stokley, his old Colts teammate, to cut the lead to 13.

“It was just a seam route,” Stokley said. “Peyton made a great throw right over the top of the guy. I thought we were able to get some stuff going after that. It kind of got our confidence going maybe and the defense started playing well and we were able to claw our way back into the thing.”

Fired up, the Denver defense delivered a rare three-and-out. Freed by the urgency of the no-huddle, the offense marched down the field with Manning leaning heavily on Stokley, the most familiar of his receivers. When his throw for Eric Decker was deflected into the waiting arms of tight end Joel Dreessen in the end zone, it seemed karmic compensation for Demaryius Thomas’ failure to get two feet down on a perfect touchdown throw five plays earlier.

Suddenly, the Broncos were down only six, just as they were a week earlier in Atlanta. Using their timeouts, they forced the Texans into a third-and-five with 2:49 on the clock. Johnson pushed Bailey off him at the line of scrimmage far enough to give him room to break to the outside. Schaub placed the ball perfectly, just beyond Bailey’s outstretched arm.

“We lined up in one formation and shifted to another,” Johnson said. “Champ was playing outside of me and I knew I had an out-breaking route. I started outside and pushed back up and broke out and Matt gave me a chance.

“I went to Matt earlier, before we got the ball, and said, ‘I’ve been playing (badly). Just give me a chance. Don’t give up on me.’ He came to me and said that I’ve been playing too much football to get down on myself. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to make a play.”

Johnson was referring, probably, to a couple of earlier near-misses — a bomb down the right sideline broken up by Bailey that Johnson appeared to catch momentarily with one hand, and another that he almost juggled into Adams’ arms. But it’s instructive that despite his early touchdown, he was frustrated enough at the end to apologize to Schaub before his third-down catch, just his second of the game.

“I was right there,” Bailey said. “It’s just two good players making a play. His quarterback put it right where I couldn’t get it, so I’ve got to give him a lot of credit. Once I started following him around, he didn’t have a catch. In crunch time, he made it happen, so you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for that.”

If an opposing receiver can beat Bailey, the Broncos will have to live with it. He’s the best they have and one of the best there’s ever been.

If, on the other hand, they lose because an opposing No. 1 receiver beats their No. 2 cornerback, as Johnson did in the first quarter, that’s like a pitcher getting beat on his second-best pitch. That’s a mistake.

The Broncos may well need to play the high-risk defense Del Rio called Sunday. They may still not be stout enough up front to shut down the ground game and pressure the quarterback with four down linemen and the occasional linebacker, as the Texans were able to do.

But one lesson of Sunday’s loss seems pretty obvious: If that’s how they’re going to play, they need to let Champ Bailey cover their opponent’s best receiver until somebody else proves he can do it better.

Broncos on cusp of new record

It was 363 days ago that I first talked with Dennis Allen, who had agreed a couple of days before — a year ago today — to become the Broncos’ sixth defensive coordinator in six years.

“As a matter of fact, I’m sitting here in my old office right now, packing all my stuff up and trying to get everything ready to get shipped out to Denver,” Allen said that day from his office at the New Orleans Saints complex, where he had been secondary coach.

When I asked him if he intended to break the Broncos’ streak of a new defensive coordinator every year, he laughed.

“Well, absolutely,” he said, “because my math says if it keeps up I’m only going to be there for a year.”

This could only happen, we figured, if Allen, like his five predecessors — Larry Coyer, Jim Bates, Bob Slowik, Mike Nolan and Don Martindale — was fired. Or, in the case of Nolan and Josh McDaniels, “agreed to part ways.” Neither of us imagined at the time that Allen, then 38, would be hired as a head coach after just one year as a coordinator.

But that’s looking like the way to bet. ESPN is reporting that the Raiders have told other candidates for their head coaching vacancy that they’ve found their man. Allen is reportedly in negotiations on a contract to succeed Hue Jackson as head coach of the Broncos’ AFC West rivals.

If it happens, the Broncos will become the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to employ seven defensive coordinators in seven years. The 1982-87 Bills and 1999-2004 Redskins each had six coordinators in six seasons, a mark matched by the Broncos with the hiring of Allen last year.

As odd as it may seem for a one-year coordinator to get a head coaching gig, it’s happened to Broncos head coach John Fox before. In fact, you’ll forgive Fox if he’s getting a sense of deja vu.

A decade ago, when he took over as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, Fox hired Jack Del Rio, then the linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, as his first defensive coordinator. Like Allen, Del Rio had not been a coordinator before.

And, like Allen, he was hired away to become a head coach, in Jacksonville, after just one season as a coordinator. Fox responded by promoting his defensive line coach, Mike Trgovac, to coordinator. Trgovac remained in the job for six years before being replaced by Ron Meeks, who had been defensive coordinator for the Colts before joining Fox’s Carolina staff.

So if you’re looking for potential candidates to replace Allen, here are a couple of names to keep in mind:

— Richard Smith, Broncos linebackers coach. Smith has worked for Fox the last three seasons — two in Carolina, one in Denver — coaching the linebackers. But he also has experience as a defensive coordinator — with the Dolphins in 2005 and the Texans from 2006-08. He would provide continuity, having worked under Allen this past season.

— Jack Del Rio, currently unemployed. There has been speculation that Del Rio, fired as Jacksonville’s head coach in November, might turn up in Los Angeles after he and his son, top Florida prep quarterback Luke Del Rio, were reported to be visiting Southern California high schools recently.

There are, of course, plenty of other possibilities, including Meeks, now the Panthers’ secondary coach, or any number of defensive position coaches on other staffs whom, like Allen, Fox might have admired from afar.

Fox and the rest of the Broncos’ coaches are in Mobile, Ala., this week at the Senior Bowl, the closest thing the NFL has to an annual coaching convention. It’s an excellent place for Fox to network with potential replacements for Allen.

Allen did a good job lifting the Broncos’ defense off the NFL floor in his first season. After finishing 32nd, or last, in both points allowed and yards allowed a year ago under Martindale, Allen lifted the unit to 24th in scoring defense and 20th in total defense this season.

After finishing last in the league in quarterback sacks with 23 in 2010, the Broncos moved up to a tie for 10th with 41 in 2011. Much of the credit for the improvement goes to rookie linebacker Von Miller, the second overall pick in the draft, who led the club with 11.5, but Allen also deserves credit for the unpredictable pass rush packages he brought with him from New Orleans, where he worked under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The last time the Raiders hired a Broncos assistant to be their head coach, his name was Mike Shanahan, and we all know how that worked out. Like Shanahan then, Allen is an up-and-comer with a bright future in the league. And without the late Al Davis around to meddle, he might actually get an honest chance to flourish in Oakland.

Assuming he gets the job, the Broncos will go where no team has gone before by hiring their seventh defensive coordinator in as many years. With any luck, this will be the one who breaks the streak.