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A stunning self-destruction

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A Broncos nightmare in New Jersey ended in a Seahawks celebration

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Super humbling of the highest-scoring team in NFL history began on the first play from scrimmage and continued pretty much unabated for the remainder of a deceptively warm and beautiful February evening just off Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike.

It was shocking in its suddenness and humiliating in its comprehensiveness. The Broncos played like a pickup squad that met for the first time an hour before kickoff.

The first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern climate turned out to be a travesty all right, but the environmental conditions were the one factor the Broncos couldn’t blame. The temperature at kickoff was 49, fully 10 degrees warmer than the coldest Super Bowl on record, back when they used to play outdoors in New Orleans.

If Mother Nature treated the Broncos well, she was alone. The Seattle Seahawks manhandled and dismantled them in every way imaginable on their way to a 43-8 blowout. Give them credit, as the Broncos kept saying afterward, but blame the Broncos, too. Their early wounds, the ones that set the doleful tone, were self-inflicted.

It began on the first play from scrimmage, when the Broncos’ first snap from their own 14-yard line sailed past Peyton Manning into the north end zone of MetLife Stadium. Somehow, the Broncos were lulled by the neutral site into believing they would be able to convey their signals verbally. Had the game been in Seattle, they would undoubtedly have used a silent snap count. Buried deep in their own end, enveloped by the boisterousness that always accompanies the beginning of a Super Bowl, Manning lined up in the shotgun and called for the ball.

Center Manny Ramirez failed to snap it. So Manning walked toward the line to reset the play. Ramirez, suddenly realizing he was late, chose that moment to snap the ball.

“That was on cadence, so it was about what he was saying,” a miserable Ramirez explained afterward. “It was really loud and I (thought) I heard him. Unfortunately, I was three seconds late.”

“A little bit of a cadence issue,” said head coach John Fox.

“I felt terrible for them,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “We didn’t deserve that. They just gave it to us.”

Running back Knowshon Moreno hustled back to the ball, turning the faux pas into a safety rather than a touchdown. It was a screw-up, but the damage was minimal. Twelve seconds into the game, the score was 2-0. It was the fastest score in Super Bowl history.

“That’s the way the start of any Super Bowl is,” said receiver Wes Welker, a veteran of three. “It’s going to be loud. The fans are going to be yelling. They don’t really know why they’re yelling, it’s just the start of the Super Bowl. We didn’t prepare very well for that, and it showed.”

Imagine that. A team that prided itself on preparation all season was unprepared for something that seemed obvious to a player who had been there before.

Following the required free kick, the Seahawks’ lightly-regarded offense marched 51 yards on its first possession, converting two third downs along the way. The Broncos again managed to minimize the damage, stopping the Seahawks about six inches short of a first down inside the 10-yard line and forcing a field goal. When Manning & Co. got the ball back, it was still only 5-0.

Following a three-yard gain on a running play, Manning completed the first two passes he threw — for two yards to Demaryius Thomas and three yards to Julius Thomas. Two completions, five yards. They had to punt.

The Seahawks began another march, using up most of the remainder of the first quarter. The Broncos’ defense once again limited the damage near the goal line, forcing another field goal when linebacker Nate Irving knocked an apparent touchdown pass out of the hands of wide receiver Jermaine Kearse.

The first quarter wasn’t over yet and the Broncos had already prevented two touchdowns on hustle plays by Moreno and Irving. Despite a disastrous start, the score was a manageable 8-0.

For the third time, Manning took the controls. For the third time, the crowd waited for the precision passing game that produced a record 606 regular-season points. A five-yard completion to Welker. A three-yard run from Moreno.

But wait. When Moreno was stopped, he was still on his feet. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons ripped the ball from his grasp. Guard Zane Beadles made the Broncos’ third fortuitous play of the quarter, falling on the loose ball and preventing a turnover. Instead of third-and-2, now it was third-and-7.

Manning tried to convert it by hitting Julius Thomas, his tight end, up the middle, but Seahawks pass rusher Cliff Avril came around right tackle Orlando Franklin on a speed rush and Manning was forced to step up in the pocket to avoid him. He let loose a throw that wasn’t even close to its mark — a duck, as Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would call it, both too high and behind the intended receiver. It landed gently in the arms of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, a room service interception.

“A poor play on my part,” Manning admitted afterward.

When the first quarter ended, the Seahawks had the ball at the Broncos’ 17-yard line on their way to a 15-0 lead. The Broncos had possessed the ball only momentarily, it seemed, mostly because they were in such a hurry to give it away whenever they did.

Yet another self-inflicted wound contributed to that first Seahawks touchdown. The Broncos defense, again playing damage control near its goal line, forced a third-and-4 from their 5-yard line. It was looking to limit Seattle to another field goal when nickel back Tony Carter face-guarded Seahawks receiver Golden Tate in the end zone while gripping his jersey, possibly the most obvious pass interference call of the season. This resulted in a first down at the 1. It still took the Seahawks two running plays to punch it in.

Three minutes into the second quarter, the most prolific offense in NFL history didn’t have a first down. Credit the Seahawks’ hard hitting or pass rush if you like, but if this was tennis, both the bad snap and errant throw would be ruled unforced errors.

Moments later, the Seahawks lived up to their reputation for creating turnovers. Avril again beat Franklin, this time pushing past him and hitting Manning’s arm as he threw. The ball fluttered like . . . well . . . yes . . . a wounded duck, directly into the arms of Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, whose 69-yard return for a touchdown would be the key to his Super Bowl MVP award a couple of hours later.

Now it was 22-0. Slightly more than three minutes remained in the first half. The Broncos desperately needed a score. Slowly, uncertainly, they began to matriculate down the field, in Hank Stram’s famous phrase from another era. They achieved a first down. Then another. Facing a manageable third-and-4 for yet another, Louis Vasquez, their best offensive lineman, was called for a false start. Yet another error. Maybe Seattle’s fearsome foursome made him do it, but still.

Moments later it was fourth-and-2. Fox decided to go for it.

“I’m thinking that three points wasn’t going to make a big difference in the game, and it proved to be true,” he explained.

At the snap, it looked like an uncovered Julius Thomas signaled to Manning for a simple pitch-and-catch that would move the chains. Instead, Manning looked the other way and threw the ball into the ground at the feet of Demaryius Thomas.

In the press box, in the stands, on social media and in living rooms all over Colorado, people who had watched this offense operate like a jet engine all season watched in astonishment as it sputtered like a lawn mower. Who were these guys?

It wasn’t just that the Broncos had switched hotels the night before the game, they appeared to have switched players, too. The replacements looked a lot like the guys they’d replaced. They even wore the same numbers. But they didn’t play anything like them.

The cherry on top came on the first play of the second half. Matt Prater, the Broncos’ Pro Bowl kicker who led the league with 81 touchbacks, inexplicably pooched the kickoff in an apparent attempt to keep it out of the hands of returner Percy Harvin. Kicking it out of the end zone, which Prater had done more often than any other kicker, would accomplish the same result.

Harvin had rushed twice in the first half for 45 yards. Rather than match strength with strength and let Prater try to boom the kickoff across the Hackensack River, the Broncos got cute. Harvin charged out of the end zone and the pooch bounced directly into his hands. Members of the Broncos’ coverage unit converged and knocked each other down as if playing electric football. Harvin took it all the way for a touchdown, 87 yards in all.

The Seahawks had again scored just 12 seconds into the half. This would converge with the narrative surrounding their 12th man — their fans, who arguably influenced the mistake that led to the first 12-second score — into a sort of mythic sense of numerological destiny.

More to the point, it was now 29-0 and the Broncos had shown themselves to be vulnerable in every phase of the game. No team had overcome a deficit greater than 10 points to win any of the previous 47 Super Bowls. At 2-0, 5-0, 8-0, 15-0, a Broncos comeback still seemed plausible, given their own precedents. Even at 22-0, a miraculous comeback from a team that averaged 37.9 points a game in the regular season seemed possible.

But the Harvin kickoff return dashed whatever hope remained. Not only was a 29-point deficit an insurmountable obstacle against the league’s best defense, the Broncos had shown little sign of even elementary competence. The more pertinent question seemed whether the Seahawks could impose the first shutout in Super Bowl history.

“We just weren’t real sharp executing our offense,” Manning said in perhaps the understatement of the season. “We got ourselves in a hole and we weren’t able to overcome it.”

Once the game was out of hand, the Broncos managed to roll up enough meaningless yards to make the final statistical comparisons look benign. In fact, of the six Super Bowl records set Sunday, four were by the Broncos. Of course, one of them was for most Super Bowl losses (five), which is not a record you want to hold. But Manning’s 34 pass completions were a record, as were Demaryius Thomas’ 13 catches. They were as hollow as any Super Bowl records ever set.

The Seahawks set records for fastest score to start a Super Bowl and most time playing with a lead (59 minutes, 48 seconds).

The cumulative record for losses in the big game might seem fastidious, conflating a 21st century result with games played in the 1970s and ’80s, but this one was eerily reminiscent of those losses in the ’80s, when the Broncos won the AFC in three out of four seasons and were blown out by successively larger margins in the ensuing Super Bowls — 39-20 by the Giants following the ’86 season, 42-10 by the Redskins following the ’87 season and 55-10, the worst blowout in Super Bowl history, by the 49ers following the ’89 season.

In each case, the result was disturbing and dispiriting. The Broncos had gone through a long season and postseason with the look of a champion, only to look utterly overmatched in the most important game of all. It’s hard to know how to react to such a dramatic reversal of fortune.

“I think we were playing a great football team,” Manning said. “I think we needed to play really well in order to win and we just didn’t come anywhere close to that . . . . Give Seattle credit. They’re an excellent football team and they caused a lot of our mistakes. But at the same time, we just didn’t play well tonight.”

Twenty-four hours after winning his record fifth Most Valuable Player award, Manning bristled when asked if the loss was embarrassing.

“It’s not embarrassing at all,” he said. “I would never use that word . . . The word embarrassing is an insulting word, to tell you the truth.”

Welker was not so reticent.

“To get this far and lose like this, it’s embarrassing,” he said.

“They dominated us across the board,” said fellow receiver Eric Decker.

The Seahawks were exuberant, of course, having won so much more powerfully and easily than even they expected. The Broncos needed to credit them to save face, and certainly they kept Manning unsettled in the pocket and hit hard in the secondary, as is their reputation.

Still, the number of self-inflicted wounds made the Broncos look amateurish and unqualified for the game. They finished with four turnovers — two lost fumbles and two interceptions — to Seattle’s none. The third turnover, by Demaryius Thomas following a 23-yard, third-quarter completion deep in Seahawks territory when a comeback was still theoretically possible, verged on slapstick.

Which was a terrible shame, considering how well the Broncos played all season. You could empathize with Manning’s sense of dignity without agreeing with him that this was not an embarrassment.

On any given Sunday, and all that. They just picked the most important game of all to pull out a true stinker.

“We had some chances to get back into it,” said John Elway, the quarterback in those losses of the ’80s and now the team’s executive vice president of football operations. “We just couldn’t get it done.”

“This team used last year’s playoff loss to fuel us; I think it made us a better team,” Manning said. “Hopefully we can use this loss to fuel us and make us better.”

Maybe they will. Elway’s Broncos were unable to bounce back from the Super Bowl blowouts of the ’80s until nearly a decade later, but Manning’s team was so uncharacteristically bad, maybe it can turn this one around much faster.

Asked if the loss reminded him of those blowouts a generation ago, Elway replied: “No. Those are separate.”

Still, for all the praise Manning gets when he’s dominating opponents, it is only fair to point out his mediocre play when opponents dominate him. The Broncos’ oft-maligned defense wasn’t great in this game, but it was required to perform a great deal of damage control for its far more famous offense.

Manning completed 34 of 49 passes for 280 yards, many of them in garbage time, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 73.5. His counterpart, second-year Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the former Rockies farmhand, was 18 of 25 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 123.1. Wilson was clearly the better quarterback in this championship game.

“Offensively, we were clicking on all cylinders,” Wilson said. “That’s what we wanted to be, especially the last game of the season, to finish that way in that fashion. That’s our mindset. We want to be champions every day and bring it every time.”

Credit the Seahawks for playing a very sharp game. They deserve congratulations on winning their first NFL championship in very convincing fashion.

“We ran into a buzz saw,” Fox said.

That’s a little too easy. The Seahawks played very well, but the Broncos took themselves out of the game early by playing very badly. From a vantage point high above the action on a beautiful night for football in the New Jersey Meadowlands, it looked like the highest-scoring offense in NFL history mostly self-destructed.


A Super story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just overthrew them,” Brady said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Learning from the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The engineer as artist: Peyton Manning sets a new standard

For those who weren’t in or around Denver at the time, it may be hard to believe that there was a vigorous debate, at least on sports talk radio, about the relative merits of Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning as the Broncos’ quarterback for 2012 and beyond.

One of the arguments advanced by the Tebow backers was there wouldn’t be much “beyond” with Manning. He was not, as they say, a quarterback of the future. At 36, he was a veteran of 13 NFL seasons coming off multiple neck surgeries and a full season of inactivity.

To jettison Tebow, who had just led the Broncos to an improbable postseason berth and first-round playoff victory in 2011, and replace him with what might turn out to be a relic, must be an act of desperation. The final acts of John Unitas, in San Diego, and Joe Namath, in Los Angeles, were referenced. John Elway, now pulling the strings in the Broncos’ front office, must be jealous of Tebow’s celebrity, some said. With many Tebow backers animated by imperatives beyond the world of football, it got pretty silly.

I remember one contending on the radio show that a Manning signing could only be justified by another championship parade in downtown Denver.

It did look that way. Manning was Elway’s attempt to go for greatness right away, just one year into his tenure as owner Pat Bowlen’s chief football executive. If the Broncos didn’t win a championship during whatever time Manning had left on the field, they would have to start over with his understudy, Brock Osweiler, which would make them just another team banking on potential.

Sometime between then and now, Manning changed all that. He recovered his brilliance so quickly, and made such an impact on the Broncos’ culture, and covered so ably for those physical abilities slowest to return, that he presented an opportunity we never imagined. He reached a skill level never before seen in football, a combination of intellectual and athletic rigor that took the game to another level. The quarterback was no longer a gunslinger. He was an engineer.

The Broncos have finished with a won-loss record of 13-3 in each of Manning’s two seasons in Denver. Before his arrival, they won that many games four times in 34 years of 16-game schedules. This year, at 37, Manning put up the best statistical season by a passer in NFL history.

Football fans had the sublime pleasure today of watching him finish the regular season with near perfection. He established league records for passing yards in a season (5,477, exactly one more than Drew Brees in 2011) and passing touchdowns (55, five more than Tom Brady in 2007). His largesse extended broadly, allowing the Broncos to set an NFL record for most players scoring ten touchdowns or more (five: Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker and Wes Welker).

When Manning took back the passing touchdown record from Brady in the Broncos’ fifteenth game last week, he reached 51, one more than the previous mark. He predicted this record, like its predecessors in the category, would prove temporary. Manning began this stair-step escalation by exceeding Dan Marino’s 20-year-old mark of 48 by one in 2004. Brady slipped past, again by one, in 2007. Busting Brady’s six-year-old record by five may mean Manning’s mark stands a bit longer.

He made today’s regular-season finale at Oakland look like a Broncos practice and the Raiders’ defense like the Broncos’ scout team. Actually, that’s probably unfair to the Broncos’ scout team. In former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s second season as a head coach, the Raiders finished as though they deserved their 4-12 record.

As long as Manning was on the field, the matchup seemed unfair. The Broncos had five possessions. Four ended in touchdown passes, the fifth in a Matt Prater field goal. Manning failed to complete only three of 28 passes, spread the 25 completions among nine receivers and passed for those four touchdowns, one of them a gorgeous 63-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas that made even Manning smile. It did not help the Raiders that their offense, directed by Terrelle Pryor, kept giving the ball back, once at its own 21-yard line on a bad snap. By halftime, it was 31-0.

“Obviously, not our best effort in the first half of the football game,” Allen said. “We got beat by a better team today. Offensively, we weren’t able to really get anything going. Defensively, obviously, that quarterback is really good. I thought there was a couple times where we had some opportunities to potentially get off the field. I thought they put the throw in there when they needed to and they were able to convert and that’s the difference between getting off the field and saving points and giving up points.”

Following the intermission, Broncos coach John Fox chose discretion, replacing Manning with Osweiler. This was, as the ever-competitive Manning pointed out afterward, “a coach’s decision.”

“Our goal was to play as good as we have to date this season,” Fox said. “And the way it worked out, I thought the first half was about as good in all three phases as we’ve been all year. It allowed us to get some guys out of the game and rest them, not to risk injury, and still take care of business on the field.”

By taking care of business, Fox meant winning the game and earning the top postseason seed in the AFC, meaning any and all Broncos playoff games prior to the Super Bowl will be in Denver. Of course, that was the situation last year, too, but we’ll get to that in a minute. As is his custom, Manning explained a memorable regular season by talking about the team’s accomplishments and not his own.

“I think it’s been really good focus on the players’ part,” he said. “We’ve had a number of distractions — injuries, off-field situations, on-field situations — but I think the one constant has been the players’ focus. They have remained focused on the task at hand, on trying to improve everybody’s individual play, which hopefully would result in better team play. But it’s a season unlike any other for me as far as having your head coach ill and missing for a while. We’ve had some injuries. We had the offseason. Those things are well documented. But the players have kind of kept their focus on trying to do players’ jobs. I think that’s been constant, and I think that’s served us well.”

This is the Manning mantra: Do the little things, do your job, take care of every detail. If every individual does that, it can add up to something quite remarkable. Particularly if the signal-caller, the quarterback, is the most maniacal of all about this preparation.

The 34-14 final score against Oakland gave the Broncos a season total of 606 points, another league record. For the benefit of trivia buffs and those already preparing for Mardi Gras, the 2011 New Orleans Saints retained the record for most yards gained in a season with 7,474. This year’s Broncos managed 7,317 for second place.

Manning’s surgical accuracy prompted analyst Solomon Wilcots to extol him on the CBS telecast as the greatest quarterback in the 94-year history of the NFL. Watching him against the Raiders, it was hard to argue. If he doesn’t win his fifth most valuable player trophy — extending another record — there should be an investigation. His relentless drive, combined with the Broncos’ seemingly endless supply of capable receivers, made Denver’s merciless offensive efficiency seem inevitable. Compared to the hope-and-prayer offenses of so many teams, it represented the NFL’s version of fine art.

On the flip side, there was this, from CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan: “The Raiders’ performance in the first half was about as bad as we’ve seen.”

Manning has made a lot of teams look that way this year. Three that didn’t, the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers, made the postseason tournament as well, so now we get a week or two of reminiscing about last year, when the Broncos had the same record and the same playoff seed and still lost their first playoff game, to the Baltimore Ravens.

So we’ll see. Tony Dungy, Manning’s coach for seven years in Indianapolis, likes his chances to get through the AFC side of the bracket this year because none of the other playoff teams have great defenses to stop him. Where the 2012 edition was riding an 11-game winning streak and feeling pretty good about itself, this year’s version lost just three weeks ago and remembers it quite clearly.

Another advantage is the still-raw memory of that bitterly cold day last January when the Broncos surrendered a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation by blowing the coverage on a hope and a prayer by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Elway likens it to 1996, when the Broncos team he quarterbacked to a 13-3 record was upset in its first home playoff game by the Jacksonville Jaguars. That memory helped propel those Broncos to Super Bowl championships after each of the next two seasons.

Are these Broncos ready to do the same? They certainly looked like it in the regular season finale, although allowances must be made for the quality of the opposition. The regular-season losses to Indianapolis, New England and San Diego made it clear they are not invincible. Environmental conditions can turn any outdoor mid-winter game into a crap shoot, including the Super Bowl this year in New Jersey. So can ball control that keeps the football away from Manning, as the Chargers demonstrated.

Whatever happens in the new year, it no longer seems even remotely true that the Broncos need to win a Super Bowl to justify the Manning signing. It has already brought the Broncos two of the best seasons in their history. Manning’s remarkable comeback and relentless work ethic have set a standard we’ve never seen before.

He was asked, of course, whether the Broncos need to confirm the regular season this year in the playoffs.

“Well, sure,” he said. “We’ve had our goals all along. And this is why you work hard in the offseason. This is why you lift weights and have the offseason program, is to give yourself an opportunity to play in the postseason. But I’ll tell you, it’s a fun group of guys to play with. Offensively, it’s been a fun unit to meet with, practice with, watch tape with, work after practice with. And I’ve really enjoyed the coaches and the players on offense. It’s been a fun group.”

This is Manning acknowledging the obvious, but also sharing what he can about how he and his teammates got to this point. He loves the process, from offseason workouts to training camp and every week of practice through the long season. Only someone who loves it that much could so utterly master it. But he won’t entertain any of the big-picture questions — the records, the legacy — at least until the postseason is over.

“It’s not easy to go back-to-back 13-and-3s,” Fox said. “It’s not easy to go back-to-back 1-seeds. Obviously, everybody in our building, in our city, probably in our region, maybe in the country, was disappointed in how we finished a year ago. So hopefully that’s been a fire in the bellies of everyone in our building since that last January.”

The Broncos and many fans will be bitterly disappointed at any outcome other than a Super Bowl this year. Manning will most certainly be among them. That doesn’t change the fact that his 2013 regular season is already immortal, a story we’ll be telling a generation from now, no matter what happens next.


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.


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.


History loves the Broncos

Two melodramas played out in the aftermath of one of the great shootouts in NFL history Sunday. They were pretty different.

The Broncos, on the road, stomped in muddy boots across the open record book again, setting or tying or threatening a slew of franchise and league records as they rolled to 51 points, which would have been the highest score in their history if they hadn’t scored 52 last week.

The Cowboys, at home, saw the quarterback they want to believe in deliver the best performance of his career, keeping them in the game the whole way — and then give it away with a characteristic mistake at the end. Linebacker Danny Trevathan’s interception deep in Dallas territory with the score tied at 48 and two minutes remaining turned a dramatic tossup into a filibuster by the best offense in football.

Despite throwing for 506 yards and five touchdowns, Tony Romo carried the hangdog look that has become his post-game trademark when he met the inquiring minds afterward. He explained that the Cowboys had looked at tape of the Broncos in the two-minute drill and decided they were prone to leave the seams open. He had completed a similar seam route earlier.

“They did a good job,” he said. “The kid made a good play. I didn’t get as much on it, just with the people around me, as I wanted to. I wanted to put it another foot or two out in front and the ball, I didn’t put it exactly where I needed to to complete the pass. It’s frustrating and disappointing.”

Replays showed his front foot landed on another shoe in the pass protection traffic around him as he stepped into the throw.

This is Romo’s rep, of course — the best quarterback around until it’s time to win.

“When I was in New England or even in San Diego, the scouting report was the same — that he was a talented guy, he made a lot of plays and he had what we call a ‘wow’ factor,” former safety Rodney Harrison said on Sunday Night Football. “When you watch him on film, he makes some incredible plays.

“But we also knew in the fourth quarter that he was going to make one or two mistakes in those critical moments. He was going to either turn the ball over, fumble, interception, he was going to make that key mistake.”

It’s all very Shakespearean, this fatally flawed hero.

The Broncos got wheels up out of Dallas and left the Cowboys’ drama behind. They have a happier one of their own. They are challenging offensive records by the boatload, entertaining a growing slice of America in the process. They may have to hire someone just to rewrite their record book.

History loves them. They continue to make people look up things that happened 40 or 50 years ago. Various quarterbacks of the past get unexpected moments in the sun as Peyton Manning challenges or surpasses some long-ago achievement.

On the other hand, the Broncos surrendered 48 points to the Cowboys, their worst defensive performance since Jack Del Rio took over the defense before last season. They lost starting linebacker Wesley Woodyard (neck) and starting cornerback Chris Harris (concussion) during the course of the game. Combined with linebacker Von Miller (suspended) and cornerback Champ Bailey (out with a foot injury since the beginning of the season), that’s four of 11 starters on defense who were not on the field for much of Romo’s assault.

Nevertheless, the Broncos were a top-five defense last season and they’re nowhere near that this year. They have surrendered 139 points in five games, an average of nearly 28 per, or about 10 more than the 18.1 they gave up last season, when they ranked fourth in scoring defense.

Of course, they’ve scored 230 of their own, an NFL record through five games, so the defense is still doing enough to win, although just barely this week.

“Was it perfect?” Broncos coach John Fox asked. “No. Are any of them perfect? No. But, we made some adjustments there at the end. We weren’t matching up very well. We (gave up) some explosive plays at some inopportune times. At the end, we were able to hang on.”

The pattern of the game doesn’t seem to matter. In this one, the Broncos fell behind 14-0 early thanks to an Eric Decker fumble and Romo’s fast start. They roared back with 21 second-quarter points to take a 28-20 lead into the locker room at halftime. Manning was 11 of 14 for 163 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 154.8 at that point.

“He’s fantastic,” said Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee. “There is no doubt. He’s playing unbelievable. He’s playing like a Hall of Famer and one of the best players of all time. I give him all the credit in the world.”

Among the records trembling or falling:

— The 99 total points in Dallas tied for the fourth-most in NFL history and second-most since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger.

— The Broncos’ 51 points was second-highest in franchise history.

— The Broncos broke the record for most points in the first five games of a season, surpassing the 2000 St. Louis Rams, who scored 217.

— Manning set a league record for touchdown passes in the first five games (20), breaking Daunte Culpepper’s mark of 18 in 2004.

— Manning set a league record for touchdown passes without an interception to start a season (20), breaking Milt Plum’s mark of 16 in 1960.

— Manning moved into second place on the career passing yardage list (61,371), passing Dan Marino (61, 361). The leader is Brett Favre (71,838).

— The Broncos extended their franchise record for consecutive regular-season wins to 16, breaking the mark of 15 they set last week. They extended their franchise record road winning streak to eight.

— Wes Welker became the first player in 31 years to have at least one touchdown catch in each of his first five games with a team.

And so on. The Broncos offense continues to wow the world, now averaging 46 points a game.

“He’s a brilliant, brilliant football player,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Manning. “He has been for a long, long time, and I think much of his brilliance comes from his ability to find the weakness of the defense. Any defense you play, since the beginning of time, has a weakness to it. He’s unbelievable before the snap and after the snap finding what that weakness is and getting to it. He did it consistently throughout the ballgame.”

At a time in NFL history when young, athletic quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are making plays with their legs as well as their arms, the 37-year-old Manning picked Sunday’s game to show off his own wheels, scoring his first rushing touchdown since 2008 on a naked bootleg at the goal line.

“I’ve run it actually a couple of times, believe it or not, but the key is you want to do it about every five years or so,” Manning said. “Naked bootlegs only work – the ones that I’ve done – when you don’t tell anybody. You call the run play and it’s a run play and you just kind of make a decision there as you get to the line of scrimmage based on the right look. You think they’re going to maybe slant one way.  As soon as we brought Julius (Thomas) in motion, the guy covered him, went with him. I kind of said, well, that’s a good look for it.  I’ll be retired by the time I’m able to do it again.”

Counting Todd Helton’s play against the St. Louis Cardinals in the Rockies’ final homestand of the baseball season, it was the second hidden ball trick by a former Tennessee quarterback playing for a Denver pro team in less than a month.

Manning finally threw his first interception of the season, but for most of the day, he did what he’s done throughout the early going — diagnose the defensive weakness at each snap and take advantage of it. Against man-to-man defenses, he found favorable matchups with linebackers or safeties trying to cover Julius Thomas, the tight end, who led the Broncos with nine catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns. When the Cowboys tried to play zone, Manning found his big three wide receivers — Demaryius Thomas, Decker and Welker.

After all the offensive fireworks, Trevathan’s interception in Dallas territory with two minutes remaining changed everything. The Broncos found themselves in the uncharacteristic position of trying to milk the clock rather than score.

“I’ve never been in a situation quite like that at the end, where we needed to get the first down but we didn’t need to score, and that difference was about half a yard,” Manning said. “Knowshon (Moreno) and I were arguing at the end.  He basically was asking, ‘How am I supposed to do that?  How can I get half a yard but not get a yard and a half?’ And I just said, ‘You can’t score.  You can’t do it. We’ve got to get the first down and kick a field goal and get out of this place.'”

“I was confused on how to do it,” said Moreno, who carried 19 times for 93 yards and a touchdown. “Peyton said ‘Just do it.’ Whatever he says, do . . . You always talk about a ‘first down, fall down’ mentality. I’ve never been a part of that before.”

With the Broncos facing a third-and-one on the Dallas 2-yard line and 1:40 showing, Garrett had to decide whether to try for the goal line stand or let the Broncos score in order to get the ball back.

“The consideration there is on the third-and-short,” Garrett said. “You’re balancing the idea of getting a stop there. If you get a stop there, they kick the field goal and you give yourself a much better chance to tie the football game coming back. If you give them the opportunity to go score a touchdown right there, and kind of give up, you do give yourself a chance to go back and score a touchdown. But you have no timeouts and all that, so you weigh those out. We decided to try to make the stop on third down and they made it by about an inch.”

So the Broncos gave up 48 points and still won. Three teams remain unbeaten after five games and the Broncos are one of them. The other two — the Saints and Chiefs — have been less prolific on offense and stingier on defense. The Broncos continue to combine intelligence, discipline and playmaking in a way few offenses ever have. The early line on next week’s game against Jacksonville, which is 0-5, is the biggest in league history at about 28 points.

Two of the Broncos’ first five games were instant classics — Manning’s record-tying seven touchdown passes in the opener and Sunday’s shootout, which saw more than 1,000 yards of offense.

They’re the best show in the NFL, and that’s saying something.