The Denver Broncos season opener couldn’t come soon enough. Gary Kubiak was returning to Mile High Stadium to rekindle the glory years in a wave of excitement and elation. That is what was supposed to happen. What really happened was an ugly, at times boring, quiet Broncos game capped off by a heart-pounding defensive stand.
Peyton Manning and the offense entered Sports Authority Field at Mile High to the roars and cheers of 76,798 fans. The energy of the crowd and the opening game of the season were quickly subdued by an uninspired offense. After the team struggled through three quarters and gave the Ravens a 13-9 lead, with :22 left in the third quarter, the defense brought the team and the crowd back to life.
On third down and five yards to go, the stifling Broncos defense finally came up with the big play. Ravens’ quarterback, Joe Flacco was pressured on all sides and threw to his most reliable target, Steve Smith Sr.. To Flacco’s horror, Aqib Talib jumped the route and intercepted the pass. After he weaved through a couple Ravens players, aided by two key blocks, he entered the end zone and recaptured the lead for the Broncos, 16-13.
“Some games, Peyton (Manning) needs a boost, so that’s what we had to do. We had to give him that little boost and then usually everything turns around. That was a great play by Talib and was really a game-changing play.”
It was the play the Broncos sorely needed. After a 15-play, 9:44 drive that gave the Broncos a 3-0 lead in the first quarter the offense couldn’t muster anything resembling a tempo in the first half. Manning was sacked three times in the second quarter and when he wasn’t hit, he seemed off target. Adding to Manning’s problems was the fact that the Ravens were giving nothing up on the ground. The rhythm of the game never materialized for the Broncos’ offense and Kubiak took the blame Sunday night.
“I think that we knew it would be tough to run the ball against them,” Kubiak said after the game. “At one point in the game we really got out of whack as far as heavy run-to-pass.”
The ineffectiveness to move the ball added to the fans’ frustration and in front of a crowd used to high scores, an unsuspecting hero emerged. Brandon McManus was the team’s savior in the first half of the game. He hit field goals of 57, 56 and 47 yards matched only by a Justin Tucker’s 52-yard field goal. The 9-3 lead felt even slimmer than six points entering halftime.
The hushed and seemingly uninterested fans were hoping for some adjustments in the locker room and the Broncos began the third quarter with the ball. However, the moment would not last. Manning, under pressure, sent a pass intended for Jordan Norwood on a short curl-route but cornerback Jimmy Smith had read the play and tipped the pass to himself for an easy catch and stroll into the end zone.
“It was a simple outbreak, outbreak and route. He (Manning) kind of floated it up, so I thought I could probably jump over and see if I could get it. That’s kind of what I did and tipped it to myself,” Smith said of the big play.
The interception was followed by three quick plays from the offense for no gain and a Britton Colquitt punt. Smith Sr. returned it for 22 yards and the drive ended in a 44-yard field goal by Tucker and an increased Ravens lead of 13-9.
Both team’s defensive performances created a back-and-forth battle that is rarely seen in today’s NFL and it impressed longtime NFL coach, Kubiak.
“It might be the best defensive football game I’ve ever been a part of as a coach. On both sides of the ball it was tremendous. It was a battle all day.”
It was after two more failed Broncos offensive drives, to one of the Ravens, when the game finally returned its favor to the Broncos and the fans were awakened. Talib’s interception represented what the defense has been trying to accomplish for two seasons now. The onus had clearly shifted to the Broncos defensive leaders Sunday while Manning struggled and they came through.
“We don’t really pay attention to how the game is going. Every time we go out, we try to make a play, trying to score touchdowns,” Talib said.
Following the interception for a touchdown that gave the Broncos a 13-16 lead, the offense could finally operate in the manner Kubiak had been trying to bring to the team since February. Through three quarters they had only mustered 139 total yards, 112 passing and only 27 rushing, but found some success at the right time.
Several times this offseason Kubiak had stated he simply wants to play balanced football on both sides of the ball and whether pretty or ugly, just win the game. The Broncos last drive of the game epitomized that.
Manning led a drive of 10:56 and 17 plays, 11 runs and six passes, capped off with another McManus field goal. The 19-13 lead and the lengthy drive couldn’t have come at a better time. With 2:55 left the offense finally showed up.
“Of course it couldn’t have happened at a more critical time. That is what we can, I think, build off of as an offense of what we did when we had to have it—backed up at our four, just trying to change field position and keep from punting,” Manning said. “To convert those third downs and go down there and get a field goal was critical. It made a huge impact on the game. Now our defense has to give up a touchdown, as opposed to a field goal, and you’re looking at over time.”
After the Broncos final offensive drive the defense had to make one last stand and Flacco and the Ravens had several opportunities to spoil Kubiak’s homecoming. Flacco led his team 64 yards after converting two third downs, one fourth down and got a critical pass interference call with :52 seconds left. The questionable penalty by David Bruton Jr. gave the Ravens four more opportunities to win the game. The Broncos defense just refused to give in. The defense, that holds several key figures, saw everyone contribute and defensive captain, DeMarcus Ware believes they may have already turned a corner this year.
“I think the defense has really matured. You can think about how many times last year we were out there and we didn’t pull it off,” Ware said. “Talib making the turning point in the game, Bruton forcing the interception, me getting pressure, Von getting pressure at key times was big. You can get pressure throughout the game but to get pressure at key times, that’s when you can see guys really stepping up and filling those shoes.”
Ware was the most consistent pass rusher of the day, compiling five quarterback hurries and one sack. Miller, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan also had big games. The last and final play was made by the newcomer and former Raven, Darian Stewart. With :36 left in the game, on third and ten Flacco threw a pass in the middle of the end zone, intended for tight end Crockett Gilmore. David Bruton Jr. was there and Stewart lunged to the ball and ended the game with an interception.
The game was littered with inept offense and stellar defense by both teams. The Broncos simply made a few more plays than the Ravens but the coaches and players certainly appreciated a hard fought win, regardless of how it looked.
“You better be able to win this way in this league. It’s just too tough a league. You’ve got to have confidence as a football team, when you get one of these games, that you will find a way to win. I don’t think we ever panicked. We kept battling and did that. You’re going to have to win some in this league 42 to 35, too. We know that. But today we got it done and it was a tremendous job defensively and just a gut check as a football team,” Kubiak stated emphatically.
Manning and offense had dominated the headlines for the last three seasons. The game may have been ugly. It may have even been boring at times but it represented a toughness and ability to battle through poor play at times and come out on top. Sunday the defense certainly won the game but as Manning stated in his postgame comments there is only one Broncos team.
“We’re excited about the win. Great win,” he stated plainly. “Like I said, the one thing that no matter how many times you ask it, this is not three different teams we have here. We don’t have a Broncos offensive team, a Broncos defensive team and a Broncos special teams. That’s how you have to ask the question, right? But the Broncos beat the Ravens today
The Broncos compiled eight penalties in the game while the Ravens only suffered three. Despite their offensive struggles the Broncos were successful on third downs going eight for 18. Conversely the Ravens only converted 15% of theirs. The Broncos dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 37:17 of the contest.
Manning finished with a 59.9 passer rating to Flacco’s 38.2. Both teams were held under 100 yards rushing with Justin Forsett gaining 43 for the Ravens and Ronnie Hillman gaining 41. Emmanuel Sanders caught eight passes for 65 yards to lead all receivers in the game.
Trevathan led the Broncos with nine tackles and Smith led the Ravens with eight tackles. C.J. Mosely had two of the Ravens four sacks on the day while Ware and Marshall had one a piece for the Broncos. All-Pro linebacker Terrell Suggs reportedly tore his left Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter of the contest.