DENVER -- When they trudged off the field in the ugly aftermath of their 38-35 double overtime divisional-playoff loss to Baltimore last January, making it a stunning one-and-done postseason in Denver, the Broncos had to be thinking about this game, the rematch to come against the Ravens.
Denver didn't know when it might meet up again with Baltimore after that frigid Saturday night, but it knew the Ravens were returning to Sports Authority Field at some point in the 2013 regular season. And the Broncos knew something else, too: To get where they want to go in this season filled with urgency -- with the clock ticking on the unique opportunity that is the team's Peyton Manning era -- Denver would have to go through big, bad Baltimore and put its painful late-game playoff meltdown firmly in the past.
Mission accomplished. Resoundingly.
Call it redemption, call it revenge, call it the need to expunge a bitter taste from their mouth, Manning and the Broncos in Thursday night's slightly-delayed NFL season-opener had Week 1 motivation level far above average. They started sluggishly, but then poured it on the defending Super Bowl champions in the second half, handing the Ravens a 49-27 beatdown that signaled Denver has shook off its dispiriting offseason and is right back in the business of chasing a ring.
"I just remember getting beat in our own home, [and leaving the field] with my head down, sad, thinking we were going to win it, but then in the end, they made a great play and took it from us,'' said Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas of the January dismissal from the playoffs. "I told myself I would remember this day, and tonight, we came back and took care of business.''
No Von Miller, no Elvis Dumervil, no Champ Bailey on Denver's defense? Yes, but still there is Manning on offense, and that was plenty to eventually overwhelm Baltimore. Manning became the sixth NFL quarterback in history -- and the first in 44 years -- to throw seven touchdown passes, establishing his career high and becoming the first QB to accomplish it since the 1970 merger. Minnesota's Joe Kapp was the last passer to roll a lucky seven in the touchdown category and that was in the Vikings' first Super Bowl season of 1969.
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Starting slowly like the rest of the Broncos, Manning heated up with a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter, and then he tossed three touchdowns in a span of just over eight minutes in the third quarter, turning a 17-14 Ravens halftime lead into a 35-17 Denver advantage that was never truly threatened.
Manning found fresh and untested targets like tight end Julius Thomas (5 catches for 110 yards and two scores) and receiver Andre Caldwell for his first three touchdowns, and then turned to more proven playmakers, like his new security blanket receiver, Wes Welker, and Demaryius Thomas (two touchdowns each) for his final four. All told, Manning's 27-of-42 night, for 462 yards and those seven scores without an interception, buried the ghost that was Baltimore for these Broncos, who scored more points against the Ravens than anybody ever has.
"I think it added motivation,'' Denver head coach John Fox said of last year's playoff loss, which Baltimore won in large part thanks to a Jacoby Jones' game-tying 70-yard touchdown bomb late in regulation. "I mean, we've had to talk about that game forever. I think we were just looking forward to playing again. Unfortunately it wasn't the next week of last year. We had to wait eight months. Really at the end of the day, it was a fire in your belly, a pain, a scar -- I don't know. But it is a motivator.''
The Broncos had to wait a little longer than expected to get even with the Ravens. The start of the game was delayed by 34 minutes due to a lightning storm that was in the Denver metro area -- coincidentally the same amount of time the Ravens had to wait during the infamous Super Bowl blackout -- and Manning conceded that it made for an offensive malaise early on in the affair.
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"We got into a good rhythm and things started clicking, but it took us a while,'' he said. "I don't make excuses, but I do think the lightning delay did slow us down. You guys have seen teams break it down. We did it three different times tonight. We went back and sat down for another 10 minutes. So it took us a little while to get started.''
But once they did get rolling, the Broncos were near unstoppable, scoring touchdowns on six of their nine meaningful drives in a span that comprised most of the second and third quarters. One of those scores came on a one-play drive after a spectacular Chris Harris interception deep in Ravens territory, and another took just two plays, after the Broncos blocked a Baltimore punt and got the ball at the Ravens 10.
"We were executing great,'' Demaryius Thomas said. "The main thing with us is, I feel like if we take care of the ball, we can do a lot of things, and be really explosive. If we take care of the ball and start fast, I feel like we put a lot of points on the board.''
Manning and the Broncos' uber-productive no-huddle offense was the story of the game, but don't overlook a Denver defense that got better as the night wore on, and swarmed the Ravens playmakers for most of the second half. Once the Broncos got a lead, the pass rush started reaching its target, tacklers started flying to the ball with abandon, and the pass coverage tightened to shutdown standards.
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Denver's Miller-less defense played aggressively and with confidence in the second half, limiting the Ravens offense to just 10 points in what was mostly the garbage time of the fourth quarter. The Broncos sacked Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco four times overall, picked him off twice -- his first interceptions since mid-December of 2012 -- and limited him to a 69.4 passer rating on a 34-of-62, 362-yard showing.
About the only real downer of the game for Denver on defense was linebacker Danny Trevathan's inexplicable brain cramp after a fourth-quarter interception of Flacco. Eager to celebrate a sure-fire pick-six, Trevathan dropped the ball about a half-yard before he crossed the goal line, in order to start styling and posing in his end-zone celebration. Baltimore scored the game's next 10 points after that to cut it to 42-27, but Manning found Demaryius Thomas on a game-clinching 78-yard bubble screen touchdown with 4:30 remaining, and the rout was complete.
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"It's incredible,'' Fox said of his 37-year-old quarterback's historic seven-touchdown night. "I mean, I thought he was incredible a year ago. I've said it a million times -- to sit out a year, come to a new city, all new teammates, a very unusual type of injury. I don't know where he finished [last year] but he was up there in every category that quarterbacks look at. And then this one was pretty phenomenal -- seven touchdown passes, and ties an NFL record.''
Manning knows there's no time to waste in Denver. He's the same age now that John Elway was in the 1997 season, when he won his first Super Bowl as a Bronco. He has the passing game weapons to work with in Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas, and a three-headed backfield to rely on in surprise Thursday-night starter Knowshon Moreno, rookie Montee Ball and veteran Ronnie Hillman.
This is now his team, his time and Denver is most certainly his town. Exorcising the demons of the playoff loss to Baltimore gets Manning's second season as a Bronco off to the best possible beginning.
"You never know what's going to happen in a game,'' said Manning, who had thrown six touchdowns in a game twice before, both with the Colts. "I felt like we had to keep scoring. Baltimore is an explosive offense and our defense never relaxed. They kept bringing the heat. I felt like they did a good job playing and answering the bell without some of our top players -- without Champ [Bailey], without [the suspended] Von Miller.''
The entire Broncos team answered the bell Thursday night, but nobody more so than Manning, who willed his team to a win that could set the tone for the season. The Ravens no doubt wanted to win their opener, but the Broncos had to have this game. Last year is gone, but until the Broncos went through the Ravens, a part of the playoff pain would continue to linger.
In Denver, starting the new season meant burying how last year's ended, once and for all.