Tag Archives: Von Miller

Mike Shanahan’s lead lasted about as long as his tribute video

It’s beginning to look like these tributes to homecoming out-of-towners are a scam, like the email congratulating you for winning the Etruscan lottery. In Indianapolis, they honored Peyton Manning, then beat him. In Denver, they honored Mike Shanahan, then slapped him around for 38 consecutive points, like a barber’s razor on a strop.

I guarantee that somewhere, someone will write this proves Thomas Wolfe right; you can’t go home again. What this will actually prove is that almost no one alive has read this longwinded novel.

In truth, the Broncos did something to Shanahan and his current team from Washington that about half of them have been waiting to do for a long time. Last year’s top-five defense suddenly emerged from behind the curtain and replaced the impostors who ranked 32nd out of 32 teams against the pass coming in. In the process, they gave the Broncos more hope for a happy ending this season than all of Manning’s heroics combined.

“I know they haven’t done some of the things that they would like to do defensively, but I think we all know they were one of the top defenses in the league last year,” Shanahan said afterward. “And this is not the end of the season. This is not even the mid-way point. So you can judge Denver’s defense at the end of the season.”

Actually, it is the mid-way point for the Broncos, who are 7-1 and now get a week off before slogging through their remaining eight games. Shanahan’s team had its week off already, so it is one game shy of the halfway point. But his point is well taken. He used to say you wanted to be in the top five on both sides of the ball to be a true championship contender. There are always exceptions, of course, but it’s as good a way as any to deploy the ruler.

Shanahan’s return made me a little nostalgic, so I retrieved my yellowed Rocky Mountain News clips from 1984, when I was covering the Broncos as a beat writer and head coach Dan Reeves hired Shanahan, then a college assistant, to be his wide receivers coach. Attached to one of my training camp reports from Greeley that summer is a photo by my former colleague George Kochaniec Jr. of Shanahan and the quarterback trio of the day — John Elway, Scott Brunner and Gary Kubiak. They’re all very young and wearing athletic shorts they would find embarrassing today.

Youthful and cool and ready to gamble on Elway in a way Reeves never would, Shanahan is talking about offensive concepts. The three quarterbacks are listening, all eyes on him. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Shanahan and Elway formed an alliance that ultimately cost Reeves his job and set the stage for the Super Bowl championships of the late 1990s.

After Elway’s playing career ended, the relationship frayed. Elway was interested in a meaningful role of some kind with the Broncos. Shanahan had them all and wasn’t surrendering any of them. Elway did not get his current job as executive vice president, running the football operation, until after Shanahan was dismissed. So while everyone said all the right things about the pre-game Shanahan tribute, it was, in fact, about as perfunctory as it could have been. The tribute video lasted 20 seconds. The Manning tribute video in Indy ran 90.

In the 29 years since that first summer in Greeley, Shanahan has lost his reputation for being on the cutting edge. Since Elway retired, following the 1998 season, Shanahan is 114-101 in the regular season and 1-5 in the playoffs.

In Washington, he’s 23-36 over three seasons and seven-sixteenths of a fourth, but the venerable franchise in the nation’s capital has been such a freak show under owner Daniel Snyder that anybody who even vaguely knows what he’s doing gets a long leash. Still, a record of 2-5 in his fourth season, with Robert Griffin III widely considered a franchise quarterback, isn’t a great sign. At 61, Shanahan applies a sharp football mind and deep competitive desire to concepts others are advancing. He’s trying to adapt, but it’s not like the old days, when he knew he knew stuff most other coaches didn’t know.

One minute, the Broncos were behind by two touchdowns and seats on the bandwagon were being auctioned off for beer. The next, they’d rolled up 38 consecutive points without a peep from Shanahan’s team and won going away, 45-21. The bandwagon was full again and it was Washington fans wondering why he didn’t use that famous zone running scheme to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall put Washington up 21-7 when he intercepted a Manning pass intended for Demaryius Thomas, who fell down, and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Manning responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with rookie running back Montee Ball’s first pro touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14. Shanahan’s offense never actually took the field trying to protect a 14-point lead.

To get that responding touchdown, Broncos coach John Fox had to authorize going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Washington 20-yard line rather than kicking a gimme field goal. Knowshon Moreno gained five yards on the fourth-down play and three plays later, Ball was in the end zone.

“Certainly as an offense we like it,” Manning said of Fox’s gamble. “But we feel determined to make him pleased with his call. He’s kind of — he’s giving you that go-ahead because he expects you to do it. So I think there is some real motivation to please him and make it successful so you can do it again.”

Shanahan’s offense got the ball back with a seven-point lead. Of the five plays it ran before punting, three were runs by Alfred Morris, who gained 93 yards on the day, 66 of them in the first half. On those three running plays when Washington was trying to control the ball and protect a lead, Morris gained three, one and two yards, respectively. Washington punted and the Broncos drove for the tying touchdown. They went for it on fourth down again, this time at the 1-yard line. Manning converted it again, this time on a pass to tight end Joel Dreessen.

Now Shanahan didn’t have a lead anymore. Falling further and further behind, his team ran the ball only twice in the fourth quarter. Which should have worked out well, considering the Broncos entered the game ranked last in the league against the pass. But it didn’t. Griffin held the ball too long, missed open receivers and saw the ball dropped when he hit them.

The second pick of the 2012 draft, right behind Andrew Luck, RG III completed 15 of 30 pass attempts for a meager 132 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 45.4. He was no factor as a runner, rushing five times for seven yards. Jack Del Rio’s defense took away the read option without compromising the pass defense. Shanahan’s offense looked nowhere near as accomplished as it did a week ago, when it put up 45 points on Chicago.

The Broncos sacked Griffin three times — one each by Derek Wolfe, Terrance Knighton and Von Miller (a sack fumble recovered by Wolfe) — and harassed him countless other times. The sack by Knighton, listed at 335 pounds, frightened Griffin right out of the game, although he said afterward he was fine.

“I’m not sure which D-tackle it was, I think it was Knighton, came in and landed all 300-plus pounds of hisself on my leg, and I think it really just scared me,” Griffin said. “After I got up and the docs checked me, I was fine, ready to go back in the game. Talked with Mike and just the way the game had gone and Kirk (Cousins) was already out there, it was just smart to keep me off the field and be ready to go next week.”

I asked Griffin about his difficulties in the passing game against an apparently vulnerable pass defense.

“We knew that they were going to rely on their back four, the two safeties and the corners, to take away the passing game and really dedicate the rest of the guys to the run,” he said.

“We just had times when we had guys open and we couldn’t make plays. And then there were times when you had to have those tough catches, those tough throws, and we didn’t make those, either . . . . Regardless of what the Denver secondary is ranked in the pass or their defense is ranked in the pass, they have good players back there. That’s what guys have to realize. Every week you step on the field there’s good players on every team. And you have to be better than them.”

Manning had his worst game of the season, committing all four of the Broncos’ turnovers with three interceptions and a sack-fumble, but he still threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating was more than twice Griffin’s (94.3) and he deftly conducted one of the most oxygen-sucking comebacks in NFL history. When I asked Shanahan whether his defense was gassed in the fourth quarter during the 38-point onslaught, which seemed obvious just watching his players gasping and taking turns delaying the game with alleged injuries, he blamed his anemic offense.

“I think what hurt our defense was keeping them on the field as long as we did,” he said. “Offensively, we didn’t get much going, so we gave them a lot of opportunities. You don’t give Peyton that many opportunities because he’s going to take advantage of it. Normally he’s going to figure out what you’re doing and come up with some big plays. That’s what they were able to do today.”

Griffin kept giving the ball back to Manning because of Del Rio’s defense, of course. It may be coming around right on time.

“I think without a doubt that was our best defensive outing,” Fox said.

So the homecoming tour is over for a while. Well, three weeks. The Broncos get a week off, then play division rivals San Diego and Kansas City. It resumes Nov. 24, when they visit New England. That will be Wes Welker’s homecoming. Think Bill Belichick will authorize a tribute video?

Ready for some football?

On the first day of Broncos training camp, running back Ronnie Hillman rolled into the players’ parking lot with a flat tire.

So there’s your room-service metaphor for the bumps in the Broncos’ road heading into a camp that is supposed to serve as prelude to a Super Bowl.

For perhaps the first time in NFL history, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was the most forthcoming interview of the day. While Belichick talked at length in New England about the implications of murder charges against former tight end Aaron Hernandez, Broncos coach John Fox declined to address either the DUI charges against two Broncos executives or the reported suspension facing linebacker Von Miller.

“The front office situation, obviously, is not a good thing for the organization, but again, an old coach told me a long time ago to stay in your lane,” Fox said. “My job’s dealing with the football team and that’s where we’re ready to be focused on and embark on. I have great confidence in Pat Bowlen and Joe Ellis and John Elway to handle anything in that area, and that is their area. So all my focus is on our area and that’s to make sure our coaches and players are ready for this season.”

Asked about the four-week suspension Miller has appealed, Fox said this:

“First of all, let me make one thing perfectly clear. We’re aware of the reports. Due to confidentiality, we can’t report, but I can sit here and tell you as of right now, when we start camp, every one of our players is eligible, there’s no suspensions, and that’s the way we’ll start the season.”

I’m assuming Fox used “the season” in its broadest sense, meaning it starts tomorrow with the first practice of training camp. He was asked if he’s thought about how he would handle a Miller suspension if it comes.

“No, because that’s not reality,” he said. “Again, we’re going to embark on a very long season. I’m sure there’s going to be some adversity as well as some prosperity along the way, no different than any other season that I’ve ever approached. This will be no different.”

For his part, Miller came equipped with a few talking points and he stuck to them.

“I want to start off by saying I’m obviously aware of the situations surrounding me, but out of respect for confidentiality and out of respect of this being an ongoing situation, I can’t really touch into further detail about it,” the third-year linebacker said. “I have filed an appeal with the NFL, obviously, and I cantouch in more detail whenever this subject gets resolved.”

Miller was also not ready to apologize to his teammates or anybody else.

“No, I don’t think I let my teammates down,” he said. “Everybody has toughmoments in their lives. I have great teammates. Teammates have been great for me. But out of respect for the whole situation, I can sit down and talk to you guys or talk in further detail about this when everything’s resolved.”

Asked if smoking marijuana is part of his life, Miller replied: “Absolutely not.”

The Broncos’ defensive star also declined to repeat his prediction, posted on his Twitter account in March, that the Broncos will win the Super Bowl this year:

“You can post this where ever . . Denver broncos will win the Super Bowl 2013 #4UJEREMIAH #IGUARANTEEIT58”

Later on Twitter, he elaborated on the meaning of the first hashtag.

“This is why we win the Super Bowl 2013. My little cousin Jeremiah came out of a coma frm a car wreck In west Tx I (heart) U.”

Wednesday, I asked him if he still felt the same way.

“Our focus is where it’s always been, and that’s coming out here and winning games,” he said. “That’s where it starts. It starts out here in practice when we go out there and start practicing, running around, having fun. That’s where we’re going to keep our focus at.”

For one day, anyway, all this overshadowed the very high expectations for the Broncos, who are favored to win the Super Bowl by oddsmakers in Vegas. Fox said the hype won’t bother his team.

“Having done this for a long time, there’s always a lot of noise,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but you’d better be able to focus through the noise. That’s not going to change, whether it’s this week or next week.

“I think what you do is you prepare your players to be able to stay focused through those situations and whether it’s training camp, preseason, regular season, playoff season, I think it’s an important part of being a good or a championship football team.

“You know, I’ve been to a lot of horse races where I’ve seen a lot of favorites not win, so you’ve got to take care of things between those lines and I think everybody in that building understands that.”

While it’s tempting to pronounce judgment on Miller and the effects of his pending four-week suspension, we probably won’t know the outcome of his appeal until the middle of August. Until then, the best Broncos team since its last Super Bowl championship will be working its way into game shape on the practice fields of Dove Valley.

The additions of offensive lineman Louis Vasquez, wide receiver Wes Welker, running back Montee Ball, defensive linemen Sylvester Williams and Terrance Knighton, linebacker Shaun Phillips and defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Quentin Jammer promise one of the most competitive camps in Broncos history.

But the question of Miller’s availability for the first quarter of the season will hang over the club until the league resolves his appeal. Until then, it’s likely to remain the biggest question facing the Broncos.

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.

Broncos may not be dominating, but they are rolling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bailey, of course, was having none of it.

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

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

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

This just in: Peyton Manning is not a cyborg

Remember the ad with Albert Pujols where ESPN anchors call him by his nickname, The Machine, and his inner robot offers him the options of denying the allegation or eliminating the allegators?

When he chooses to deny, his inner robot asks in a Hal-like voice, “Why didn’t you eliminate them, Albert?”

The way the two players have performed since, Pujols ought to surrender the name to Peyton Manning. For weeks now, Manning has resembled nothing so much as a football-savant cyborg with a microprocessor just a little bit faster than anyone else’s and the robotic physical skill to execute its commands.

So it was almost reassuring to see him make a couple of mistakes Sunday in Cincinnati. Robots have come to surgery already, but not yet to sports.

Manning’s mistakes also allowed the Broncos to keep developing as a contender by overcoming a little adversity on the road, requiring another fourth-quarter comeback (Manning’s 48th). For good teams, such tests are mile markers of their progress.

In their third consecutive win, a 31-23 decision over the Bengals that left them with a record of 5-3 at the season’s halfway mark, the Broncos continued to hone a dynamic combination of elite veteran leadership and impressive, improving young talent.

In the area of veteran leadership, you don’t do better than Manning on offense and Champ Bailey on defense. If anyone in that locker room is inclined toward giddiness, they are swiftly corrected.

In the area of emerging young talent, the offense is benefiting from Manning’s increased confidence in receivers Eric Decker (eight catches, 99 yards, two touchdowns) and Demaryius Thomas (six catches, 77 yards).

The defense is benefiting from Von Miller, the outstanding second-year pass rusher who added three sacks to his previous six; Wesley Woodyard, the replacement for the suspended D.J. Williams who was in on 14 tackles; and Chris Harris and Tony Carter, unheralded defensive backs who have done a better job covering NFL receivers than a series of bigger names brought in over the years to help Bailey out.

“We had great coverage,” Miller said, sharing the credit for his sacks. “Chris Harris, Champ Bailey, Rahim Moore, all those guys had great games. They were able to give us time to rush the passer. And whenever you can get time to do your job, we’ve got to get there, and that’s what we did today.”

Remarkably, Manning was not sacked all day by a Cincinnati pass rush that led the AFC with 23 going into the game. Part of it was due to the offensive line, which lost guard Chris Kuper again to a reinjured left ankle, part of it to Manning for getting rid of the ball quickly, and part of it to the Broncos’ receiver corps, which got open fast enough to give Manning early targets.

The Broncos front office under John Elway has also made a number of key veteran acquisitions now contributing in bigger ways than may have been anticipated. Keith Brooking, imported at age 36 to see if he could add a little depth and leadership to the linebacking corps, is now the middle linebacker in the base defense. Dan Koppen, picked up after New England cut him, is now the starting center. Jim Leonhard is getting more time at safety.

And Trindon Holliday, the speedster the Broncos claimed off waivers from Houston last month, made the longest play in franchise history, a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half.

The Broncos were on their way to a second consecutive comfortable win when Manning made his first mistake. Holliday’s return of the second half kickoff made it 17-3. The Bengals responded with their first touchdown, the big play a 52-yard reception by wide-open tight end Jermaine Gresham.

The Broncos marched right back down the field in that methodical way Manning had led them over the previous five weeks, when he totaled 14 touchdown passes and one interception (and even that, a misread on a hot route by receiver Matt Willis, wasn’t Manning’s fault). After driving from their own 17 to the Bengals’ 9-yard line, the Broncos looked poised to restore their two-touchdown advantage.

If Manning throws his pass into the end zone a foot or two to the right, it might have been caught by Decker rather than Bengals cornerback Terence Newman. That would have made the score 24-10. Instead, when the Bengals turned the turnover into a field goal, the Broncos’ lead was only 17-13. It wasn’t immediately obvious whose fault that first pick was — Manning’s for leading Decker a sliver too much, or Decker for letting the smaller Newman keep him from getting to his spot. Tony Dungy, Manning’s former coach, said on NBC that Manning and Decker would be watching the video on the flight home to correct whatever the problem was.

The second Newman interception, on Manning’s very next pass, from his own 3-yard line, overshot Decker, and Manning took responsibility.

“Obviously, the interception, the second one to Newman, was a poor decision on my part,” he told KOA. “I just can’t give them that kind of field position, put our defense in a tough bind. So that was a disappointing decision on my part. But offensively we responded.”

One thing you can say for Manning — interceptions don’t chasten him in the least. He keeps heaving it, and his completion rate remains spectacular. Despite the mistakes, he ended up with more touchdowns than interceptions in Cincinnati.

“My father always talked about level zero, get back to level zero,” he told reporters afterward. “You’ve got to erase the play from your mind, a good play or a bad play, and move on to the next one. So, not the scenario that we wanted, anytime you’re on the road and you have a chance to put a team away, you’d like to. You hate to give them a little life, which we did. And give credit to them for responding. But when we had to, our team responded as well, and that was important.”

The Bengals turned his second turnover into a touchdown and a short-lived 20-17 lead. The Broncos responded with an 80-yard touchdown drive on five plays, the big ones a 30-yard completion to Decker, most of it after the catch, and a 29-yard pass interference penalty on Adam “Pacman” Jones on a pass in the end zone intended for Thomas.

The Broncos had the lead back, 24-20, and when Bailey came up with his first interception of the year on Cincinnati’s next possession — a pass to A.J. Green underthrown by Andy Dalton because of pressure from the Broncos’ pass rush, which had five sacks — Manning had a short field and turned it into another touchdown to make it 31-20.

“It’s hard to be at 100 percent every week, and so the good news is we’ve strung three wins together, and for us to continue that takes a lot of mental toughness, especially in the preparation to go on the road,” coach John Fox said.

NFL players and coaches know that plaudits from those of us in the cheap seats are less annoying than our second-guessing when they lose, but possibly more harmful. After consecutive wins over San Diego and New Orleans, everyone was already telling the Broncos how great they were. Exuberant internet columns predict they won’t lose again this season.

One of the encouraging things about these Broncos is they very firmly don’t want to hear it. This starts with Manning, who doesn’t even want to hear that he’s all the way back from last year’s injury.

“We feel good about where we are, but if we want to be a really good offense we’ve got to continue to improve,” said veteran receiver and Manning pal Brandon Stokley. “There’s things to clean up. We had a few too many drops today and we’ve got to put some more points on the board in the first half. So it’s still a work in progress.”

For the same reason, it’s probably better for the Broncos that Manning had those interceptions and the Broncos did not enjoy a second straight easy victory. No matter how much the veterans preach, complacency is a natural reaction to a series of lopsided wins. Instead, as Manning suggested, navigating some stormy seas may serve the team better in the long run.

“I think the more scenarios this team can get into, fourth quarter being down, two-minute drill to win it, whatever it is, this team needs to form its identity going through those type of situations, playing on the road in a hostile environment,” Manning said. “So any time you can persevere when you’re kind of doing it for the first time as a unit, to me that’s a real positive. So to get the win today was really key.”

It’s not often you can throw two interceptions and still finish with a passer rating over 100, but Manning finished at 105.8 by hitting 27 of 35 attempts (despite several drops) and throwing three touchdown passes, leaving him with a still-sensational ratio of 20 touchdowns and six picks on the season. He is leading his new offense, in his first year, by demonstrating personal accountability and demanding that teammates focus on the little things as much as he does.

And also playing really well, even if he does turn out to be human.

Throw in a little defense and the Broncos look scary good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broncos remain a work in progress

The local pro football club entered Week 5 ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing defense, surrendering an average of 87.5 yards a game on the ground. Needless to say, that ranking will tumble after the Patriots steamrolled them for 251 rushing yards Sunday on their way to a 31-21 victory.

In fact, Denver’s defense as a whole looked Charmin soft most of the afternoon, especially on third down, when the Patriots made an interminable series of big plays. New England’s three longest gainers came on third down, as did the ultimate humiliation of Denver’s defense — a third-quarter running play on third-and-17 that gained 19.

Whatever the Broncos are doing defensively on third down, they need to re-examine it. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to do a top-to-bottom review of a defense that gave up 444 yards to the Patriots.

“You’ve got to translate things from the meeting room and practice field to the game,” cornerback Champ Bailey told KOA afterward. “Coaches can’t go out there and play for us. We’ve got to make sure we put ourselves in the position to make plays and get off the field on third downs or whatever it may be. We worked on everything they did to us. It wasn’t no surprises. They just hit us in the mouth and we didn’t hit back hard enough.”

On the bright side, if it weren’t for three killer turnovers, the offense might have kept pace with the Patriot juggernaut. When he could get on the field, Peyton Manning was excellent, completing 31 of 44 passes for 345 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating on the day (116.2) was slightly better than Tom Brady’s (104.6).

Down 31-14 early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos were driving when running back Willis McGahee dropped an easy swing pass on fourth-and-one to end the possession. Still, after the Patriots turned the ball over on downs on their ensuing series, Manning drove the Broncos offense 43 yards in six plays and hit Brandon Stokley with a short touchdown pass to make it 31-21 with more than six minutes remaining.

Three plays later, Von Miller, who was the Broncos’ only defensive playmaker in Foxborough, stripped the ball from Patriots running back Stevan Ridley for Denver’s only takeaway of the afternoon. Manning drove the offense another 54 yards in less than two minutes to the New England 14. With 3:48 to play, the Broncos had a chance to get within one score and set up a potentially memorable comeback.

Instead, Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich stripped the ball from McGahee at the New England 11 for the Broncos’ third giveaway and that was that.

“Man enough to admit I messed the game up,” McGahee posted on Twitter soon after it was over. “Put it on my shoulders. I can handle it.”

Between the defensive softness and the offensive turnovers, the Broncos demonstrated that they are still a work in progress and not quite ready for prime time (although they’ll have a chance to dispute that assessment in prime time next Monday night, when they face off against the Chargers in San Diego).

The continuing deficits in the turnover battle are a growing concern. New England entered the game first in the AFC in turnover margin at plus 8 and improved to plus 10. The Broncos were tied for 12th at minus 4 and are now minus 6.

Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, in particular, needs a crash course in ball security. If anyone doubted Thomas’ vast potential as a playmaker, those doubts should have been erased by his nine catches for 188 yards, including a couple of sensational grabs where he looked like a man among boys. But after fumbling a ball last week while switching it from one hand to the other to short-circuit an apparent touchdown, he prevented the Broncos from getting off to a quick start Sunday by fumbling at the New England 10 on Denver’s first possession of the game.

There’s no telling how that might have changed the complexion of the game. As it was, the Patriots scored first and ultimately built a seemingly prohibitive 31-7 lead.

The Broncos’ second giveaway was a Manning fumble when Ninkovich beat right tackle Orlando Franklin on a pass rush and came up behind Manning to slap the ball out of his hand. The third was McGahee’s fatal fumble with 3:48 to play.

“They are a good team, and when you play a good team at their place, you don’t have to play perfect football, but you have to eliminate mistakes and be sound and can’t have self-inflicted wounds,” Manning said. “We had a couple of those today which kept us from having a chance to get back in the game. It’s tough when you do that against a good opponent.”

If the turnovers were maddening, the defense was mostly frustrating. The Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs (65 percent) and the Broncos couldn’t get them off the field for long stretches of the afternoon.

New England had the ball for 35 minutes and 49 seconds of the available hour, the Broncos for the remaining 24:11. When you have two of the best quarterbacks of all time facing off, you’d like to give them roughly equal time to do their stuff. The Broncos were unable to manage that.

The Patriots’ three longest plays of the game came on third down:

— On third-and-14 from the New England 11-yard line in the second quarter, Brady’s short pass to Danny Woodhead went for 25 yards with safety Mike Adams and linebacker Joe Mays finally making the tackle.

— On third-and-12 from the New England 18 to start the fourth quarter, wide receiver Deion Branch beat cornerback Tracy Porter up the middle for another 25.

— On third-and-one from the New England 45 late in the second quarter, Brandon Bolden rumbled 24 yards to the Denver 31.

But the third down conversion everyone will remember was the third-and-17 from the New England 43 midway through the third quarter. The score was still 17-7 at that point and the Broncos had an opportunity to get the ball back with plenty of time to make up the deficit.

The Patriots seemed to concede the change of possession by calling a running play. Woodhead, their 5-foot-8-inch bowling ball, rambled around left end for 19 yards and a first down. Eleven plays later, the Patriots scored on a quarterback sneak to make it 24-7.

“They’re a good offense,” said Miller, who had two of the Broncos’ four quarterback sacks in addition to their only forced fumble. “We knew that coming into the game. We prepared for the type of offense that we knew they were going to run. I felt like we were very prepared coming into this game. We just didn’t execute. Another week we didn’t execute and we put ourselves in situations that we can’t get out of.”

Some of this is to be expected. The Broncos have a new defensive coordinator again — Jack Del Rio is their seventh in seven years — so his schemes may take some getting used to. Still, it seems clear that Del Rio and head coach John Fox, a former defensive coordinator himself, need to sit down together in a video room early this week and figure out what’s going wrong with their third-down defense.

For some time, the Broncos have had a dilemma on third down. Last year, when they went to their nickel defense in passing situations, the fifth defensive back took the place of middle linebacker Joe Mays, who plays the run a lot better than he plays the pass.

Opponents reacted by running the ball against the Broncos’ nickel, often with great success. So this year the club has experimented with keeping Mays on the field in the nickel. Opponents have responded by targeting him in the passing game.

Sunday, it didn’t seem to matter who the Broncos had on the field. The Patriots ran it down their throats at will. But the tendency to give up big plays on third down is not one that can continue if the Broncos hope to climb into contention.

Fox and Del Rio need to diagnose what went wrong and be willing to make whatever changes to their schemes or personnel that diagnosis demands. Surrendering 251 yards on the ground is an embarrassment, or should be.

“It’s a disappointing loss,” Manning said. “We’re 2-3 and we’ve got a pivotal division game (coming up). I just made a little talk to the team. We have to learn from this. It hurts. It just rips your guts out to lose a game against an AFC opponent, but we have to learn from it, have to find a way to get better from it. I think we’ll see some things on the film that were good, some guys made some big plays at some pivotal times. We just need to have more consistency throughout the 60-minute game.”

There’s a tendency to overreact to whatever has happened most recently in the NFL, but it’s worth remembering that it’s still early. A win in San Diego next week would keep the Broncos in touch with the division leaders while they wait for their schedule to lighten up, which it does on the back end.

It’s also worth remembering that the three teams they’ve lost to — Houston, Atlanta and New England — are three of the best in the league. Such losses early in the season, while you’re getting acclimated to a new quarterback and defensive coordinator, are not particularly surprising. Lots of experts figured if the Broncos could make it through a difficult first half schedule at 4-4, they’d be in good position to make some noise in the second half of the season.

But if they want to be ready to make a move following their bye week, they need to address their defensive issues now, while there’s still time.

Tom Jackson: ‘There is a collective sigh of relief and a sense of joy in this building’

As a former teammate, Tom Jackson felt for John Elway from afar last year.

“Some of the stuff that I heard, and I hear everything that goes on in this town, some of the stuff that was happening over the net and the tweets that were coming when he attempted to tell the truth about his feelings about Tim (Tebow), I think he was somewhat shocked by the reaction of fans: ‘You need to leave town.’ ‘You’re jealous of him.’ It was hurtful. I wish I would have been around here when that happened. They would have heard an earful,” Jackson said during a recent visit to Broncos training camp.

As a member of the Orange Crush defense of the late 1970s, Jackson admits he’s partial to the Broncos, but it’s as a long-time analyst for ESPN that he says the Broncos with Peyton Manning are the best story in the NFL going into the 2012 season. And he thinks the events of Elway’s first 18 months running the Broncos front office may represent the most dramatic change of direction in NFL history.

“The stars had to be perfectly aligned for this to happen,” he said. “I always speak frankly: What happened last year is that there was a clamoring from the Tebow faithful for Tim to play football. I think that the Broncos resisted that as long as they could.

“At some point they said, and it had to do somewhat with Kyle Orton not playing very well, they said, ‘OK, we’re going to let you see him and see what we see.’ I believe they used the term at times in a different context, ‘You don’t see him every day.’ So they were going to go, OK, you’re going to get to see what we see every day. And they put him in.

“And then Tim won. And he won a lot. And he won in the most remarkable fashion that I’ve ever seen. So by the time you got to the end of the year with the win against Pittsburgh, if you were John, if you were this organization — and I think it’s the right of every GM, vice president of football operations, to do two things: name your head coach and name your quarterback — and John was having that opportunity taken from him. And I believe that without this alignment of the stars, Tim was your quarterback, period. And maybe more than a year. He was just going to be entrenched as the quarterback.

“Peyton becomes available, somehow John and Pat Bowlen land him, and now we’re going to have a revision of what goes on here in Denver. This is the story in the NFL, is this guy returning to play football, the once and only four-time MVP of the National Football League, returning to play football. And it’s a remarkable story.”

But will he be the Peyton Manning of old? Studies of late-stage veterans changing teams are all the rage. Will Manning be more like Ray Bourque in Denver or John Unitas in San Diego? Or maybe somewhere in between — say, Joe Montana in Kansas City? What about the Broncos’ receivers? What about the defense? (And, in light of Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage, what about the offensive line?) Are they good enough to constitute the supporting cast of a championship contender?

“I think that they’re going to be a pretty good team because I have faith that Peyton is going to be a pretty good quarterback,” Jackson said. “John Elway did his homework before he made this move. I was just like a lot of people — very pessimistic about the fact that Peyton could come back and return to form.

“You talk to some medical experts, they all say the same thing: His neck is fine. As soon as he strengthens the arm, as he has, he should be fine to play. I worry a little bit about the rust. When he lines up against the Steelers (in the Sept. 9 season opener), he will be 20 months having not played a meaningful game.

“But given that, if Peyton is back to form, which I think he will be, then all of those things that you talked about become better. You lose 20-25 percent of your running game because Tim Tebow leaves. You gain 20-25 percent because Peyton’s going to pull two or three guys out of the box, at least one or two.

“The defense, I was talking to Von Miller, Von and Elvis get 21 sacks (last season). I told him, ‘I have no idea how you do that when you’re behind all the time.’  If Peyton comes in and puts up 20-plus points per game, then you’re going to have a better opportunity to play defense because it’s easier to play when you have the lead.

“The wide receivers, (Eric) Decker, Demaryius Thomas, (Brandon) Stokley; the tight ends, (Jacob) Tamme, (Joel) Dreessen, all of those players are pretty good players. They will be made better by the guy pulling the trigger.

“All you need do is be around here to understand that there is a collective sigh of relief and a sense of joy in this building that did not exist when I was here last year. And I can feel it and it’s permeating every area of this football team.

“I think they’re almost hesitant to talk about it because they see it as a bashing of what they did last year, or a bashing of Tebow, to really go overboard on what they’re feeling about Peyton being here. But I think as time goes on they’ll get more and more relaxed with the fact that this, as Gene Hackman said in Hoosiers, this is your team. Feel comfortable this is your squad. Not something that’s going on in New York. Not the attention given to someone else. This is your team.”

Jackson’s Broncos career overlapped with Elway’s for four seasons: 1983-86, so he’s known him since he was the fresh-faced rookie who once lined up under guard. Having watched him since, he thinks Elway has a good chance to be a notable exception to the old saw about great players not being great executives or coaches.

“I believe that John is going to have great success over the long run, whether it’s in terms of the players that they’re picking — Von Miller probably the most high profile amongst them thus far — or going out and being able to get a Peyton Manning when there were numerous teams that wanted him. That move is going to resonate for a long time with him and this organization.

“John just has a golden touch. He understands the game. I think he has a clear vision of what he wants to do. And that’s why I felt for him last year because my thought was that vision was being taken away from him.

“I said this actually on ESPN, for those that think that he was jealous, if you heard his comment about Peyton upon arrival — “I want Peyton Manning to be the greatest quarterback of all time.” — well, that would mean that he’s better than John.

“So I think it speaks really to what’s important to John right now. And I want people to know this: John has a great love and affection for Pat Bowlen. So I don’t think it’s as much John doing it for John as it is John doing it for Pat.”

I reminded Jackson of Bowlen’s famous line, “This one’s for John,” holding aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl in Elway’s 15th season, and asked if he thought Elway was trying to return the favor.

“This one’s for John,” Jackson said, smiling. “This one’s for Pat.”