DENVER — Long after the East Coast went to bed Thursday night, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning flipped a short throw to his left to Demaryius Thomas, and Thomas sprinted up the left seam 78 yards for the touchdown, leaving six Baltimore Ravens flailing at him. That was it: the seventh touchdown pass on a historic night—another historic night for Manning; how many more of these does a man with four scars on his neck have left?
Seven touchdown passes. The most in his 16-year career, and the most in an NFL game since the AFL-NFL merger. “You’re just sitting there like, ‘That was seven?’ Because he goes so nonchalantly about it,’’ said a man seeing it up close for the first time, Wes Welker. To celebrate, Manning went to the Denver sideline, took a few way-to-gos from happy teammates, then found offensive coordinator Adam Gase next to the Broncos’ bench area.
The pictures. Peyton Manning wanted to see the pictures—what the Baltimore defense had shown on the short series, how his line had blocked it, and what had made the hole for Thomas so big so fast. It was 49-27 very late in the fourth quarter, and Peyton Manning wanted to see the pictures.
When the Broncos dove into the Peyton Manning free agency sweepstakes 18 months ago, could they have really known what they were getting? No one knew how good he’d be, what his physical limitations might be after his long recovery from a series of neck surgeries. But it’s safe to say, now, that the Broncos got all of Peyton Manning. They didn’t get any cheap, try-his-best-in-the-twilight version of a faded star. They got the guy who would make Demaryius Thomas better and who would bond with Welker over 11:30 p.m. text messages during a mini-camp that Manning had invented at Duke last March and who would stay after practice to make sure rookie running back Montee Ball knew the keys to blitz pickup. They got the full Manning.
That, in a sloppy but compelling opener to the NFL’s 2013 season, was driven home over and over as Manning dissected the Super Bowl champions.
This week, someone asked a big football fan, singer John Legend, whom he most admired in the NFL. “Oh, it’s Peyton,’’ Legend said. “No question. I love people who are so passionate about quality, so focused on doing great things every day. There’s something to admire about that.”
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Ten Lessons from Broncos 49, Ravens 27:
1. Some things never change: It’s the little things that win and lose games. The blown replay choice by the Ravens was a huge play in the game. Would it have changed the course of the game? Probably not, but it was the big play in handing Denver a lead it wouldn’t give up. Baltimore led 17-14 early in the third quarter. On a 3rd-and-9 at the Denver 21, Manning threw low to Welker. It was a bang-bang play, but the officials missed a clear trap by Welker; the nose of the ball hit the ground as he caught it. While everyone in the place waited for John Harbaugh to throw his challenge flag, Manning got the Broncos to the line and ran another play. Harbaugh, as most coaches do, relies on the coaches upstairs to tell him when to challenge a call; he blamed NBC for not showing the replay in time. [Fairness alert: I work for NBC, and I was in the NBC production office at the stadium Thursday night watching the game early in the third quarter.] Well, I would challenge the Ravens not seeing the replay in time. In the office watching the game on TV, I saw the replay in plenty of time for the Ravens to make the challenge. In fact, I wasn’t the only one calling out to the TV: “Come on, throw the flag! It’s obvious!” No flag came. Now, instead of punting the ball away, Denver had life. Three plays later, Manning threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell. If I were Harbaugh, I’d convene his coaches today and ask what happened upstairs. Were they not decisive enough? Did they truly not see the play in time? Whatever, that’s a little thing that really hurt Baltimore.
2. Denver’s not overrated. Second-biggest stat of the night for the Broncos: the 2.5 sacks for Shaun Phillips, seen as a declining player when Denver signed him in free-agency. Chris Harris moved from slot corner to the outside to replace the injured Champ Bailey and had a good night of coverage and a spectacular diving interception. And Manny Ramirez, playing center for the first time in his career (and snapping to the most exacting quarterback alive) didn’t have an obvious gaffe all night. Said Phillips of the questions surrounding him in the preseason: “I took it personal that everyone was like, ‘Oh what are we going to do about the pass rush?’ I’ve had like 70 sacks in my career. What am I, some bum?”
3. Tight end, and the intermediate passing game, is a wasteland for Baltimore in the wake of losing Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. The position is an absolute disaster zone for Baltimore (as our Greg A. Bedard foresaw back in August), and it was there for America to see Thursday night. Ed Dickson has a history of the drops, and he had his hands on three balls he should have caught against Denver. Dallas Clark, about all that was left on the scrap heap of free agency once Pitta went down early in camp with a hip injury, cost the Ravens four points just before halftime. He dropped an easy touchdown pass with 10 seconds left in the half, and the Ravens had to kick a chippy field goal. This is going to kill Joe Flacco if the Ravens don’t fix it. And how can they, unless they abandon the mid-range passing game and just go bombs-away 10 times a game? Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell may have no choice.
4. Flacco’s fault? Stop. Just stop. It wasn’t his best night. An early throw across the field into double-coverage was luckily not picked, and he had three or four other brainlock throws. But he had so little help from his receivers that you have to chalk this up as a learning experience. He learned he’s going to rely on two good running backs and his speed downfield.
5. Dumbest play of the night (and there was some good competition for this): Denver’s Danny Trevathan stupidly dropped the ball, I guess, in some form of celebration before he reached the end zone. I was standing with Rod Smith, the former Broncos receiver, on the sideline late in the game when Trevathan intercepted Flacco and returned it for a touchdown—or so it seemed. He actually dropped the ball at about the one-yard line, and it rattled around the end zone and went out of the end zone as players scrambled for it, resulting in a touchback. Smith, from the moment it happened, was not only all over Trevathan for his idiotic irresponsibility (my words, not his) but quickly pointed out that rising star middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard came out of the play gimpy with what appeared to be a knee injury of some sort. Imagine if Woodyard was lost for any period of time not because of a play that happened in the open field—but because some immature player didn’t know how to carry a ball untouched into the end zone. Mind-numbing.
6. Wes Welker shouldn’t be known as one of the league’s surest-handed players anymore. Hey, a great debut for Welker, all in all … nine catches, 67 yards, two touchdowns. But he dropped a punt at his four-yard line (why he’s fielding it there, who knows), leading to a simple Ravens touchdown in the first half. No cause for alarm, but as important as he is to Manning and to this offense, John Fox shouldn’t have him returning punts. Add this muff to the fact that Welker, via Pro Football Focus, led all NFL wideouts with 15 drops last year, and you start to wonder if that miss from Tom Brady in the most recent Patriot Super Bowl was really any sort of fluke.
7. As if Manning needed it, he found another weapon: tight end Julius Thomas. The former Portland State basketball forward, 6-5 and 250, is an offensive force who vaulted over Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen on the tight end depth chart. His blocking is deficient, but he made a great catch, spin and run that changed the momentum of the game in the first half. Said Manning: “He definitely will make teams have a conversation, and that is what you want. You want guys that make teams have a discussion and say, ‘How are we going to handle this guy?’ ‘’
8. The game is changing I: Last year, the league set a record with an average of 128.4 plays per game. Last night, the two teams—both of which like the no-huddle—combined for 155 plays. With 104 passes.
9. The game is changing II. Fourteen kickoffs in this game. Zero returns.
10. It’s only one game. The Ravens shouldn’t throw hands in the air. They’re a smart team, and Harbaugh’s one of the smartest coaches in football—and one who knows which buttons to press too. Remember these results from Week 1 last year: The Jets scored 48 points. Indianapolis lost by 20. Russell Wilson was poor in a 20-16 loss at Arizona. It’s a long year.
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Rod Smith watched Manning drive the Broncos to their sixth touchdown early in the fourth quarter. “What I see,’’ he said, “is he’s more confident in his arm. When you’re confident in your arm, you’re more sure of yourself and the throws you can make. And we’ve needed a quarterback who could lead the team. We’ve had no leadership there over the past five years. The beauty of a quarterback who everyone looks up to is he not only leads your offense, he leads your entire team. That’s Peyton right now.”
Smith’s on to something. I remember the weak throw Manning made in overtime of the playoff loss to the Ravens—rolling right, across his body, for Brandon Stokley, a soft pillow of a throw intercepted by Corey Graham. The long 2012 season took its toll (including that game, which ended in minus-six wind chill), and Manning was spent. I still don’t think his arm’s what it was—Tony Dungy agrees—but you saw it last night: The arm’s plenty good to dominate any team in football.
“Peyton never doubted he’d be back to playing at a high level,” Dungy said after the game. “I remember asking him, ‘Are you sure you want to keep playing?’ He said, ‘They have assured me I’m going to be fine.’ I thought the second year with all these guys, Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas and now with Welker, he’d be better. He understands where the weaknesses of the defense are. I still don’t think he’s throwing the ball like he did five years ago, but the accuracy is there, and the intelligence, and he’s just got a lot of weaponry.
“And with Peyton, you know him. He’s never going to be satisfied with good. He’ll never be satisfied with anything less than perfection, and that is what he is driven by. If you’re not ready for that as a teammate, if you’re not ready for that as a coach, you’re going to be stunned. Like Brandon Stokley said to Demaryius Thomas last year, ‘Either you’re going to get better, or you’re not going to get the ball.‘ ”
Manning came within a superhuman effort by Adrian Peterson of winning the MVP last year. As it was, Peterson, who rushed for 2,097 yards a year after major knee reconstruction, edged him 30-20; that’s how good Manning’s season was. This year he’s off to the best Week 1 start by a quarterback in history, and an unprecedented fifth MVP (he shared the award with Steve McNair in 2003) is certainly possible. But that’s not what Manning wants. He knows that greatness at his position is judged by Super Bowls won, not MVP awards. And he’s got one Super Bowl ring. In his world, and in the world that judges all-time greatness, he can’t retire with one and be the best ever.
But that’s for another month—February, not September. For now, enjoy one of the best players any of us has seen in any sport. Enjoy the quirks, and the demands, and his drive to be perfect. There’s something great, as John Legend says, about watching someone strive to be perfect the way Manning does.