Tag Archives: Joe Flacco

Peyton Manning: ‘Shove that one where the sun don’t shine’

Half an hour afterward, Peyton Manning was diplomatic about the third 50-point explosion of the season by the Broncos offense he runs.

“I wasn’t trying to answer it because I didn’t give it validation in the first place,” he said of the cold-weather narrative that became the main storyline going into Sunday’s frigid matchup with the Tennessee Titans. “We had a good plan and I thought we threw the ball well and guys caught the ball well.”

He was a little more direct in his post-game conversation with 850 KOA play-by-play man Dave Logan, which occurred shortly after he came off the field.

“Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don’t shine,” Manning said.

Actually, he should probably be thanking the many writers, commentators and fan blogs that broke down his career results by temperature last week. Since his arrival in Denver, Manning has never so clearly inhabited the Michael Jordan in him. He used the cold-weather critiques as motivation — and it worked, producing his seventh game of the season with at least four touchdown passes, an NFL record.

The narrative quickly turned to how ridiculous the previous narrative had been.

All sports are now in a period where stat geeks are cool — rebranded as analytics gurus. Numbers will tell the story if you just let them. So we saw studies over the past week pulling out Manning’s win-loss record in games that begin at temperatures below . . . 40 . . . 32 . . . and, on the CBS telecast, 30 (1-5 going in). The official starting temperature Sunday was 18.

Starting temperature became the proxy for foul weather generally because it is recorded in each game book and therefore readily available. Pretty much any other discussion of weather would be harder to quantify for purposes of numerical analysis.

Much of the Manning-as-a-bad-foul-weather-quarterback narrative predates his arrival in Denver. Losing a bad-weather game for the Colts, who play their home games indoors, was often explained as Manning and his teammates not being accustomed to playing in the elements. But “bad weather” takes in a host of conditions, at least two of them deleterious to anybody’s passing game — wind and precipitation. On the other hand, you can have days like Sunday, which are extremely cold but otherwise sunny and still.

Win-loss records in a small sample can be misleading anyway, as we’ve seen since Manning’s arrival in Denver. Before Sunday, he had started two games at temperatures below 30 — the playoff game against the Ravens last season (13 degrees) and the Sunday night game at New England two weeks ago (22). The Broncos lost both as a result of freak plays that had nothing to do with their quarterback — the Joe Flacco prayer and the punt that bounced off Tony Carter. Either could have been a win and it wouldn’t have changed how Manning played.

Sunday, he didn’t leave it to chance, throwing six touchdown passes if you count the two overturned on review.

“I got tired of them overturning them,” Manning said of consecutive touchdown passes reversed in the first quarter. “I’ve never gone back and forth that many times to the sideline and bench.”

The genesis of the Denver cold-weather narrative was the playoff game last January against the Ravens, when analytics confirmed Manning threw the ball 20 yards or more down the field only once. Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, now retired, said the Ravens knew he couldn’t throw the ball deep. Throughout his first year following spinal fusion surgery, Manning had vaguely acknowledged issues of nerve regeneration in his arm and hand, experimenting with gloves that would help him get a better grip on the ball.

Manning also said he was making progress in that area all the time, so the question became whether another year of recovery would make a difference. Sunday, it certainly looked like it had. Manning threw the ball crisply and accurately, an amazing 59 times in all. He completed 39, a franchise record, for 397 yards, four touchdowns and a passer rating of 107.8, far better than the 70.4 he put up in New England two weeks ago.

It didn’t hurt that he had a chance to practice all week in even colder temperatures during the arctic blast that hit Denver.

“I thought he did a superb job, I think our team did a superb job of getting ready for those elements,” said head coach John Fox, back on the sideline after missing a month following open heart surgery.

“We went inside one day because there was a lot of snow and we didn’t want to risk injury, but Thursday, Friday and Saturday were pretty frigid and I thought it was great for us. I think this year one of the advantages has been that we’ve been in cold-weather games. We got to practice in it for three straight days. So I think it’s just going to be something that’s going to help us as we get into December and even into January.”

From the Tennessee defense, which had surrendered only eight touchdown passes in 12 games before surrendering four Sunday, the lament was familiar.

“Their combination of Manning at quarterback with the weapons that they have on the outside is definitely the toughest offense we have played thus far,” said Titans cornerback Jason McCourty.

Keeping everyone involved and happy, Manning finished with one touchdown pass to each of his four main weapons in the passing game — Wes Welker in the first quarter, Julius Thomas in the second (“I was thankful the referee finally said, ‘The ruling on the field stands,'” Manning said of yet another review), Demaryius Thomas in the third and Eric Decker in the fourth.

As if Manning and his mates aren’t threatening enough records, Fox decided to give kicker Matt Prater a shot at a record-breaking 64-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, with the Titans leading 21-17. It seemed an unlikely day to try it, given the temperature. Prater drilled it just beyond the cross bar.

“I’ve never seen a cement brick kicked 64 yards before,” Ed McCaffrey said on the radio broadcast.

“In those conditions, it was really pretty miraculous,” Fox said. “It was a great kick. I’m sure everybody in the stadium was thinking about the play that happened in college football not that long ago. That was a concern. But he nailed it.”

In fact, Tennessee deployed a return man to try to recreate Auburn’s game-winning touchdown on a missed Alabama field goal in the Iron Bowl a week earlier, but he watched helplessly as Prater’s kick cleared the bar. Prater broke a record shared by Tom Dempsey (1970), Jason Elam (1998), Sebastian Janikowski (2011) and David Akers (2012). Fox rewarded him with a game ball.

If the soap opera surrounding the offense has abated for now, the melodrama surrounding the defense has not. The inability of Jack Del Rio’s unit even to approach last year’s rankings has been a source of frustration.

The Broncos trailed 21-10 midway through the second quarter after giving up a five-play, 73-yard touchdown drive, a 95-yard kickoff return and an eight-play, 89-yard touchdown drive.

“We’ve lost a few starters here over the last three weeks,” Fox said. “Derek Wolfe missed this game. I think there’s no question that there is room for improvement. There is room for improvement in our whole team. To get whole again is going to be important coming down the stretch. We need to play a little better.

“We took a look at some other guys a little bit tonight to develop that throughout the rest of the season. We’re not satisfied at this point. There’s room for improvement and I’m not ashamed to say it.”

Paris Lenon played middle linebacker in the base defense in place of Wesley Woodyard. Omar Bolden got considerable time at safety in place of Duke Ihenacho. The Broncos got cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie back from a shoulder injury, but Champ Bailey was back on the inactive list after an ineffective outing last week. With Wolfe out following “seizure-like symptoms” prior to last week’s game in Kansas City, Malik Jackson started at defensive end and rookie Sylvester Williams started at tackle in place of Kevin Vickerson, out for the season with a hip injury.

The offense is so explosive it can turn a 21-10 deficit into a 34-21 advantage in less than 10 minutes of game time, as it did Sunday. The 51-28 final score made the Broncos the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to score at least 50 three times in the same season. Their 515 points are a franchise record and they have three games still to play. Manning’s 45 touchdown passes are a franchise record and five shy of the league record, set by Tom Brady in 2007.

And he isn’t satisfied.

“You score 51 points, so you’re doing something right,” Manning said. “We’ll study the film, even in this short week, and we’ll look at a couple of the red zones where, ‘Hey, what could we have done better to get into the end zone?’ You’re down there that close inside the 2- or 3-yard line, I want to say maybe twice, and had to settle for field goals. Those are points left on the board.

“There are still a lot of things we’re doing well. But you study each game individually, and it’s about doing it each week. And we’ve got a short turnaround. Ninety-five (offensive) plays is probably not the best scenario for a Thursday night game. And we took some injuries and we’re not sure how that’s going to affect us. I’m not a fan of Thursday games for this reason alone. But we’ve got to deal with it and we’re playing a division opponent who we had a close game against the last time.”

That would be San Diego, up Thursday night in the final home game of the regular season. Manning becomes maniacally worried about the next game as soon as the last one is over. Last week, the cold-weather critique gave him fuel for his fire, but he doesn’t really need it. At 37, he remains on a pace to produce the greatest season by a passer in NFL history.

For the Broncos, a puzzling, timid ending

“Thanks,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said afterward, “for bearing witness to one of the greatest football games you’re ever going to see.”

You could understand his enthusiasm without buying his analysis. From the Ravens’ point of view, Saturday’s four-hour, 11-minute marathon represented an unbelievable comeback that will go down in Baltimore sporting lore. From the Broncos’ point of view, the only thing remotely great about it was the play of a five-foot-five-inch kick returner.

The word that best describes the home team’s approach is timid, right up until the key play with 41 seconds left in regulation, when a 22-year-old safety suddenly turned into a risk-taker. All in all, the Broncos’ judgment — when to play it safe and when to take a chance — seemed poorly calibrated.

I was standing in the south end zone when their fingernails slipped off the ledge, in the waning light of a day so cold that field security personnel were deployed in full facial gear. Rahim Moore, the free safety still a month from his 23rd birthday, was cornerback Tony Carter’s deep help in a situation that demanded the soft, safe prevent defense that fans hate.

When Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco stepped up through an ineffectual pass rush and launched a prayer of a bomb up the east sideline toward speedster Jacoby Jones, Moore cut in front of the receiver to intercept or deflect the ball.

Too late, he realized he had misjudged the angle on Flacco’s rainbow. He stumbled backward like an outfielder who has misjudged a fly ball. The football sailed over both Broncos defenders and settled into Jones’ hands. He jogged into the end zone without resistance.

This was the Ravens’ impossible situation before that play began: Third-and-three at their own 30-yard line with 41 seconds remaining, no timeouts, down 35-28. They had already used a precious 28 seconds going seven yards on two plays.

The Broncos led the NFL in quarterback sacks this season. When they knew opponents had to throw, they feasted. But they got very little pressure on Flacco all day as the Ravens’ reconstructed offensive line held the Denver pass rush at bay. Flacco completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 116.2.

Which made him the best quarterback on the field by a substantial margin. This was quite a surprise considering how Peyton Manning had outplayed him a month earlier in Baltimore. Manning completed 28 of 43 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 88.3. Not bad, especially if you consider that his first interception bounced off receiver Eric Decker’s hands, but not exactly immortal, either, especially at the end.

Like the team around him, Manning seemed strangely timid for most of the afternoon. After that disastrous blown coverage in the final minute of regulation tied the game at 35, the Broncos got the ball back with 31 seconds showing and two timeouts. Manning took a knee and welcomed overtime.

Afterward, head coach John Fox explained this by pointing out what happened near the end of the first overtime quarter, when Manning threw behind Brandon Stokley into the arms of Ravens cornerback Corey Graham and put the visitors in position to kick the game-winning field goal.

“With 30 seconds it’s hard to go the length of the field and some bad stuff can happen, as you saw at the end of the game,” Fox said.

It was a contrived answer, like boilerplate when the actual explanation cannot be disclosed. For one thing, the analogy to the end of the fifth quarter was a poor one because the end of a fifth quarter in the postseason is like the end of a first or third. The game just continues. There’s no need to hurry up. So Manning’s mistake near the end of the fifth quarter was not a result of trying to do things in a hurry and bore no relation to the end of regulation other than the coincidence of a quarter winding down.

In addition, the Broncos didn’t have to go the length of the field at the end of regulation. They just needed to get into field goal range.

But they chose to be timid, just as they did in the series before Moore’s blown coverage. Having forced the Ravens to surrender the ball on downs, the Broncos took over at their own 31 with 3:12 remaining, leading by a touchdown. Two runs by rookie Ronnie Hillman, in for the injured Knowshon Moreno, gained 13 yards and a first down. The Ravens called their second timeout to stop the clock with 2:23 remaining.

The Broncos gave it to Hillman again, forcing Harbaugh to use his final timeout with 2:19 on the clock. They gave it to Hillman again, running the clock down to the 2-minute warning.

At this point, with the Broncos facing a third-and-seven, the Ravens no longer had any means of stopping the clock. The Broncos had a four-time Most Valuable Player at quarterback and one of the league’s most productive offenses. They needed a seven-yard pass completion to ice the game and move on to play for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Instead, they gave it to Hillman for a fifth consecutive time. He was stopped for no gain. They let the clock run, finally punting the ball back to the Ravens with 1:09 showing, setting the stage for Moore’s brain freeze.

“I just misjudged it, man,” the miserable young safety said afterward. “It was pathetic, you know? It’s my fault.”

The Broncos did what they could to deflect attention from Moore’s gaffe by talking about their other mistakes, and there were plenty to talk about. Champ Bailey, the normally reliable Pro Bowl cornerback, was consistently beaten by Ravens receiver Torrey Smith. Smith caught two touchdowns on him, and it could have been worse.

Von Miller, the Broncos’ Defensive Player of the Year candidate who finished the regular season third in the league in quarterback sacks with 18.5, eventually shared a sack with Elvis Dumervil in overtime, but was neutralized for most of the day by Ravens right tackle Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame.

Manning had a timid 6.7 yards per pass attempt, meaning he was usually checking it down, dinking and dunking, while Flacco’s remarkable 9.7 yards per attempt reflected Baltimore’s aggressive downfield passing game.

The Ravens’ three longest plays from scrimmage — the 70-yard bomb to Jones in the final 41 seconds, a 59-yard bomb to Smith over Bailey in the first quarter, and a 32-yard heave to Smith in front of Bailey in the second quarter — were all touchdowns.

The Broncos’ three longest plays from scrimmage were a 32-yard pass from Manning to Decker in the second quarter and two short gains extended by penalties. Manning showed no interest in throwing the ball deep.

“I couldn’t tell you what their defensive game plan was, but for a good bit there in the second half, (they had) a lot of two-deep safeties, man-to-man underneath,” Manning explained afterward. “They are going to take away some of those guys on the outside, which means you’ve got to beat them on the inside — the back out of the backfield, the tight end. That’s how you have to attack that defense.”

Maybe, but Manning threw to his backs eight times, his tight ends 11 times and his wideouts 24 times. He had only two pass plays that went for more than 20 yards.

Their big plays came not from Manning and the offense but from kick returner Trindon Holliday, who authored the longest punt return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (90 yards) and the longest kickoff return for a touchdown in NFL playoff history (104 yards). No one had ever returned both a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in the same playoff game. Trindon Holliday’s day will be in the record book for a long time.

If Manning lacked confidence in his ability to throw a deep, accurate ball in the frigid temperatures, he wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly. All season, he declined to discuss the progress of his comeback from four neck surgeries and the nerve regeneration in his throwing arm and hand it required, other than to say it was incomplete. We do know he decided to wear a glove on his throwing hand beginning with the final two regular season games because he was having issues gripping a cold ball.

My only basis for suspecting this was an issue Saturday is that Manning played with a timidity that simply isn’t characteristic of him. I find it hard to believe that any defensive game plan could turn Peyton Manning into Elvis Grbac.

For whatever reason, the Broncos’ stars for most of a 13-3 season were ordinary in the most important game of the year, and that includes Manning, Miller and Bailey. Following an 11-game winning streak to finish the regular season, they seemed oddly flat.

“If you don’t win, you get criticized on everything,” said Fox, dismissing all second guesses with a single swipe.

The Vegas sports book fantasy of Manning vs. Tom Brady in the conference championship is off the books. As they did in 1984 and 1996, the Broncos had both a playoff bye and home field advantage and still bowed out of the postseason at their first opportunity.

Manning called the loss “disappointing,” as great an understatement as Harbaugh’s analysis was an overstatement. To some extent, Manning, Fox and everybody else were covering for Moore, trying not to say, “Look, we had the game won with 41 seconds left, whaddaya want?”

Still, they also committed three turnovers that led to 17 Ravens points and kept the visitors in the game. Two of those were Manning interceptions, one of which deflected off Decker’s hands. The third was a Manning fumble when no one was open and he had to pull the ball down in the pocket. Again, we don’t know if his ability to grip the ball was an issue there. And the defense, ranked in the league’s top five, surrendered 479 yards and innumerable big plays that kept Baltimore in the game.

Fox is presumably responsible for the decision to have Manning take a knee with two timeouts and 31 seconds left in regulation. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is presumably responsible for the play calls with his team leading by a touchdown near the end of regulation, although Manning said the running play on third-and-seven with two minutes remaining was an audible on his part.

So you can blame the coaches or you can blame Moore or you can blame Bailey or Miller or Manning. Or you can blame them all. For 59 minutes and 19 seconds the only Bronco who played at a championship level was the kick returner. Then, 41 seconds from victory, a 22-year-old safety had a brain cramp that will haunt him and fans of his team for a long time.

Of course, you can also blame the officials, as many fans did. The crew led by Bill Vinovich seemed particularly inept, calling 18 penalties and constantly stopping the flow of the game. The Broncos seemed unable to get into a rhythm with their no-huddle offense.

On Manning’s first interception, the one that bounced off Decker’s hands and turned into a Ravens defensive touchdown, replays seemed to show Decker was hit before the ball arrived. Broncos fans found the absence of a flag particularly galling because the previous Ravens touchdown had been aided by a dubious pass interference penalty against Carter.

But frankly, the Broncos weren’t much better than the officials. Even after Moore’s mistake, even after they declined an opportunity to move the ball at the end of regulation, the Broncos had the entire overtime, slightly more than a quarter, in which to score three points and win the game. Of the 16 minutes, 42 seconds of overtime, the Broncos had possession of the ball for just 6:30. Their deepest penetration was their own 39-yard line.

“The worst thing about it is we’re going home off a play I could have made, and I’m here to make,” Moore said, standing stoically in front of his locker and answering every question.

“Coach Fox and his staff and everybody is relying on me to make that play. I didn’t make it. That’s what I do. I’ve been blessed with those skills and I didn’t use what I was blessed with today. But at the end of the day, it was a great season. I’m sorry it ended like this, but next year it won’t.”

Could be. The last time the Broncos were 13-3 and a No. 1 seed, the year was 1996 and the Jaguars came to Denver and shocked them. John Elway & Co. came back the next year to win the first of two consecutive Super Bowls. So maybe this year was their dress rehearsal for a similar run behind Manning. Certainly, they have an excellent young core of players.

But when it came time to rise to the occasion Saturday, the Broncos couldn’t do it. They were out-coached and outplayed by a team they had dominated four weeks before. And they never showed the swagger that defines a champion.

Nevermore: Broncos ditch doomsday scenario

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –

Only this, and nothing more.’

Spoiler alert: ‘Twas not a visitor. ‘Twas the Raven. And this is what the Broncos said Sunday about the Ravens’ previous dominance in the city of Edgar Allan Poe:


No single Sunday has delivered results so promising for Denver’s football squad since the Sunday in March when Peyton Manning elected to join it.

It was not merely that the Broncos expunged an ignominious losing streak in Baltimore, nor that they won their ninth consecutive game, a streak now tied for third-longest in franchise history.

It was mainly that they leapfrogged the defrocked New England Patriots in the conference standings, with a little help from the San Francisco 49ers, who blitzed the Pats on Sunday Night Football, then hung on by their fingernails in the second half.

If the Broncos win out at home against the hapless Cleveland Browns (5-9) and Kansas City Chiefs (2-12), they will finish the season as at least the AFC’s No. 2 seed. (If the Houston Texans were to lose both of their remaining games, against Minnesota and Indianapolis, the Broncos could ascend to No. 1.)

Earning one of the top two seeds not only gets them a first-round bye, meaning they would need two playoff victories to reach the Super Bowl rather than three. It also exempts them from another postseason trip to Foxboro, Mass., and you may remember how the last one of those turned out.

This was widely assumed to be the Broncos’ doomsday scenario. No matter how well they played in the regular season, if they finished with a playoff seed inferior to that of the Patriots, the season likely would end again in disappointment far from home. After all, last year’s dream ended with a 45-10 spanking at Gillette Stadium. Even with Manning on board the Broncos’ bus, the Patriots beat them at Gillette again, 31-21, earlier this season.

The combination of the Broncos’ win at Baltimore and the Patriots’ 41-34 loss to the Niners means that if the Broncos win out, any postseason meeting with Tom Brady & Co. will be in Denver, not New England.

And so, as surely as winter follows fall, here comes the Super Bowl talk. Whether you get your sports conversation from the radio, TV or social media, you will be treated to a barrage of excited Super Bowl talk for at least the next three weeks. The Broncos will do their best to ignore it.

“We’re not measuring ourselves now,” coach John Fox said after his team improved to 11-3 on the season. “We need to measure ourselves at the end to be the best. Right now, our guys have responded very well to just improving every week, and we’ve kept it as simple as that. The big challenge this week was to win the turnover battle and we were able to do that. I thought that was the biggest difference in the game. This (Ravens) team is a very good football team and we may run into them again.”

To appreciate how hard it is to do what the Broncos did — playing every phase of the game expertly with two rushing touchdowns, a passing touchdown, an interception for a touchdown, a stifling defense, two takeaways, no giveaways and a dominant time of possession — you have only to observe the frustration along the other sideline.

“The thing about football is the offense can be playing really well and then the defense is not playing really well; it’s lopsided,” said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was held to 38 rushing yards. “Today the defense was playing really well, and we didn’t. Last week, it was the flip side. We have to find a way to come together and play as one unit. ”

For all the Broncos’ ultimate dominance, the key play in this one came at the end of the first half, with the Ravens on the verge of a touchdown that would have cut the Broncos’ lead to 10-7. The home team, which had only four first downs and 119 yards before intermission, finally got its offense moving in the last two minutes, connecting on a 43-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones to begin the drive and arriving at the Broncos’ 4-yard line with a first-and-goal and barely 30 seconds showing.

Head coach John Harbaugh, new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and Flacco, the quarterback, had two choices. They could call timeout — they had all three remaining — and set up a play, or they could run to the line of scrimmage and run a play out of the no-huddle offense in an effort to catch the Broncos off guard. They chose the latter. The Broncos were not caught off guard.

“There were 34 seconds when the ball was snapped,” Harbaugh said. “With three timeouts left that’s going to give us time to run three plays. That’s plenty of time. Throughout the course of the drive, we wanted to score, but we didn’t want to leave a lot of time on the clock. That’s a strategic call. We have a number of plays we run with no-huddle that are not kill-the-clock plays, but they are run-route plays, and that was the play we had. And we thought that gave us a great chance to score, and that’s what we ran.”

The Ravens chose a pass play with one receiver running a fade to Flacco’s left and another, Anquan Boldin, running a flat route beneath the fade. Flacco is supposed to check the fade first, then the flat. If neither is open, he’s supposed to throw it away, stop the clock, try again.

“That’s one of our plays that you kind of get a flat and a fade, and it’s kind of like going up and clocking the ball,” Flacco said. “It’s kind of like calling a timeout in that situation because it’s one of those things that you catch it and get out of bounds, you catch it in the end zone, or you throw it away, and you live for the next down. I just made a mistake, there’s no other way to put that. I made a mistake. I wanted to have the fade, and I came down to the flat, and the guy undercut it, picked it and went the whole way. It’s just a mistake on my part.”

The guy was Chris Harris, the former undrafted free agent who took over for Tracy Porter opposite Champ Bailey earlier in the season and has not permitted Porter to get back on the field. He cut in front of Boldin, caught Flacco’s pass at the 2-yard line and sprinted up the Broncos’ sideline 98 yards for a touchdown, the longest regular-season interception return for a score in franchise history. The previous record — a 93-yard return at Cleveland 32 years ago — was authored by linebacker Randy Gradishar.

“Chris did a good job kind of hanging back there, and stepped in front, right in front of our bench,” Fox said with a smile. “He had a lot of direction from the sideline on that (return).”

“A 14-point swing,” Manning said. “Baltimore has some momentum there on the drive and looks like they’re probably going to get the touchdown. Plus they get the ball the first series of the second half. So just a huge play by Chris, undercutting it. The turnover is good; the fact that he took it all the way to the house for a touchdown is even bigger. Big swing in the game, in the momentum, and I thought it kind of jump-started everything in the second half for us.”

“I didn’t really expect him to throw that out-route, but he threw it to me, and I just wanted to make sure I scored,” Harris said. “That was a long run, but once I got to the 40, I was like, ‘I just have to stride it on in.’ ”

Flacco tried to run him down, but managed only to dive at his feet as he flew into the end zone.

Asked to explain what happened on the play, Boldin, the intended receiver, replied: “I’d rather not.”

Someone asked Flacco if he changed his mind at the last moment about where to go with the ball.

“No, I was just reading it out,” he said. “The fade was just taking a little bit longer than I wanted. I was probably a little bit late on it because the sideline was squeezing with (Boldin) and all that. In hindsight, I should have just taken the ball and thrown it over Anquan’s head and lived for the next play.”

The Ravens did manage a scoring drive to start the second half, but they got only a field goal out of it. When the Broncos responded with consecutive touchdowns, it was 31-3 and all over but the excuses. The first of Denver’s two third-quarter touchdowns came on a 51-yard bomb from Manning to Eric Decker, who finished with eight catches for 133 yards in an oftense that seems to reward a different receiver each week.

“(We) were hitting some outs and some intermediate routes and we thought it was time to maybe send something down the field,” Manning said. “They had good cover guys outside, so anytime you’re playing against good cover guys you’ve got to give them the mix, you’ve got to give them the short, the intermediate and the deep stuff.

“It was a double-move by Eric, a good route, good protection. I really thought it was set up by the run game. We were running the ball well. It was off a run play we’d been running. Had a good fake. I don’t know that it necessarily froze the safety or anybody, but it just gives you that good mix of run and the play-action when you’re running the ball well.”

Ravens safety Ed Reed undercut the route, leaving Decker with single coverage, perhaps because Decker had been running comeback routes for much of the day.

The Broncos ran the ball 45 times and threw it just 28. Even subtracting the final series — two kneel-downs by backup quarterback Brock Osweiler and a no-gain run by rookie running back Ronnie Hillman — this is a heavier dose of running plays than one normally associates with Manning, who set or extended two more NFL records Sunday (most 11-win seasons, 9; most 4,000-yard passing seasons, 12).

Manning said one series where he threw it on all three downs — and went three-and-out, getting knocked down by the pass rush twice — represented probably the worst play-calling of the day. Heavy reliance on the running game was not a plan solely for the Ravens. The Broncos are coming to understand it will be a good strategy in the playoffs against higher-scoring offenses as well. If the re-emergence of Knowshon Moreno is paired with veteran Willis McGahee, who could be ready to return from injury for the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos’ ground game could be nearly as formidable as their aerial attack.

“It’s something we’re going to have to be able to do,” Manning told KOA. “Especially against teams that have these explosive offenses, you don’t want to give them the ball back.”

So let the fans and media types talk about the Super Bowl. Manning will make use of every moment of practice and game action between now and then to get in closer touch with his new teammates. They may not seem new to you anymore, but they do to him.

“You try to learn something every day,” he said. “You get a little more comfortable with something every day, but it’s still very new, there’s no question about it.

“I think the goal is to get on the same page. Obviously, the more that the receivers and I are on the same page, the better for our offense, the better for our team. I do think the more games you play, the better you’re going to be; the more practice reps you get, going against our secondary in one-on-one drills in practice.

“What are we, in Week 15 here, that’s all the time we’ve had to improve our timing. It’s not what it’s going to be if you play with guys six, seven, eight years. So it feels like a scramble and you’re trying to use every piece of practice that you have — walkthroughs, meetings, special teams periods where you might get them off to the side. We try to use all those things to talk football.

“There’s some things we’ve made strides on; there’s some things that I think you just have to have more time in order to get more on the same page. But I appreciate the work ethic. I know Decker had a good day today. DT probably didn’t have the numbers that he’s been having, but his presence, I can assure you, is a huge part of what’s going on out there. It’s a huge part of why the run game is good.

“For the most part, those runs, Baltimore had their safeties and corners apart, or removed from the line of scrimmage. That’s because the respect they have for a guy like Demaryius Thomas and Decker. So if you can run it versus those looks; when they come up, if you can throw it, that means you’re playing good offensive football.”

Winners of nine in a row, now in position to earn a first-round bye and second-round home game in the playoffs, the Broncos, according to their quarterback, remain a work in progress.

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

Nothing further then he uttered – not a feather then he fluttered –

Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before –

On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’

Then the bird said, `Nevermore.’