It was the Denver defense that flipped—and later clinched—the Broncos' 19–13 win over the Ravens. It was their run game that helped seal the victory.
This is the new norm.
Peyton Manning was long at the forefront of the NFL's shift toward a more pass-happy, offensive-minded game. Now, in the twilight of his playing years, Manning will have to rely on a more old-school mentality if he is to make another trip to the Super Bowl.
The transition is not all that new, nor is it unexpected. Over the second half of last season, as Manning struggled and his arm strength seemed to fade, the Broncos started leaning on their deep roster of running backs. Despite his teammates' claims this off-season that Manning's arm was rejuvenated (“He has a lot more zip,” Aqib Talib told The MMQB in training camp), the time of 5,000-yard seasons and 450-yard games likely has passed.
Manning may still have a huge statistical game here or there, but he does not appear a threat to do it on a weekly basis, at least not against a stout defense like the Baltimore one he saw Sunday.
On his 40 passes in the victory, Manning averaged 4.4 yards per attempt and 7.3 per completion—both numbers well below the league-worst marks in those categories last season (held by Raiders rookie Derek Carr at 5.5 and 9.4, respectively).
When Manning did throw, the Broncos mostly relegated him to manageable screens or quick-hit targets. There may be occasion to try for more, but Sunday was not it. Even when Manning tried to stretch the field laterally, he often struggled. To wit: a fluttering pick-six from one hash mark to the far sideline, a play on which Manning could not step into his throw because of pressure. Multiple times earlier in the game, Manning had the distance but was inaccurate on deep balls to an open Emmanuel Sanders.
Those mistakes seemed like they might do in the Broncos, too. Jimmy Smith's defensive touchdown made it 10–9 Baltimore, and it was 13–9 when the Ravens picked up a first down near midfield late in the third quarter.
But then the Broncos' defense grabbed control back. Cornerback Aqib Talib jumped an awful pass from Baltimore's Joe Flacco and took it back to the house. Then in the waning seconds, just after Ravens receiver Steve Smith let a pass slip through his fingers at the goal line, ex-Raven Darian Stewart made an athletic interception in the end zone to end the festivities.
In between, Denver revealed the best look yet at what its 2015 offense could be. Taking possession with 13:51 left in the fourth quarter and protecting a 16–13 lead, the Broncos proceeded to march 81 yards over 17 plays before kicking a field goal. The drive lasted more than 10 minutes, leaving the Ravens up against the clock—and the scoreboard—when they got the ball back.
Of the 17 plays by the Broncos, 11 were runs. Manning completed all five of his pass attempts for a combined 38 yards; a sixth, his only throw at all downfield during the drive, was an incompletion wiped out by a defensive holding call.
The sequence was stolen from a different era of football, or possibly from a team not snapping the ball to an all-time great quarterback. If a team can't throw deep, it does whatever it can to move the chains and control the clock.
How else can you win without scoring a touchdown?
New Denver coach Gary Kubiak is quite familiar with the approach. His Houston teams were among the league's best on the ground, and his arrival in Denver without question signaled a shift in mentality.
“What I can say, late in my career, that was my best friend, the running game,” Broncos GM John Elway said back in July, via NFL.com. “And I think that running game will be Peyton's best friend, also.”
Think of it like when a fireballing pitcher starts to lose some juice on his fastball. The options are to keep gunning away or to adjust the approach. The pitchers who manage to hang on in baseball for decades usually take the latter path.
Manning never had a go-to fastball in the first place. His game always has been about precision more than arm strength. Now that he has lost even more heat, the Broncos have to find a way around his increasing weaknesses, some strategy to let him play as best he can at age 39, as his physical gifts drain.
The Broncos' simplest strategy is to turn back the clock, not for Manning but for the game plan. Run the ball. Dominate time of possession. Make plays on defense.
On the season's opening weekend, it worked. Barely.