Sunday's Broncos–Browns game was prototypical of the modern NFL. There were emotional twists and turns, some heroic plays made by a wide range of players and enough mistakes to keep both fan bases scratching their heads.
Three thoughts on the outcome:
1. Somehow, Denver is 6–0: Scratch that. It's not a mystery. The Broncos’ defense continue to be the single biggest determining factor in this team’s hot start, and that was the case again Sunday.
The Broncos did allow Cleveland’s offense to hang two touchdowns on the board, both coming on passes from Josh McCown to breakout star tight end Gary Barnidge. But they offset those moments with several key stops: Aqib Talib’s pick-six to make it 10–0 early, an interception of McCown to force overtime and then, perhaps most impressive of all, a three-and-out in OT with Cleveland mere yards away from field-goal range.
This defense is not only spectacular at all levels, it is extremely opportunistic. In fact, with Talib’s touchdown, the Denver defense and special teams have now accounted for 75 points on the season.
The Broncos also received a needed boost from their slumping run game Sunday, which took advantage of a cushy matchup against the Browns’ porous front. It was Ronnie Hillman, and not starter C.J. Anderson, who came through with 111 yards on 20 carries. Anderson chipped in 41 yards on 13 attempts.
Because of Peyton Manning’s issues (more on that momentarily), the Broncos absolutely must turn their rushing attack into a potent threat. Their current M.O. of praying for the defense to make a play is not sustainable over 16 games; it's shocking it worked for six. They need something to happen on offense.
2. Manning’s game is not coming around: We’re beyond the point now where anyone could chalk up Manning’s struggles to a brief slump or early-season rust. Week after week, he not only is making poor throws, he’s making terrible decisions—a very un-Manning-like development.
His overtime interception was a perfect example. Cleveland linebacker Barkevious Mingo was standing between Manning and his intended target, Demaryius Thomas. Manning appeared to see Mingo, too, because he tried to float a pass over the linebacker’s head to Thomas, who was covered anyway. It didn’t work, as Mingo leaped to pick off the pass.
Only the aforementioned three-and-out stop by Denver’s defense kept that mistake from being the one that decided the game.
Manning has it in him to deliver a few big plays—see: his 75-yard touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders and a critical third-down completion to Owen Daniels in overtime. More and more, however, he's missing on throws that he used to make. Worse, the errors seem to be getting into his head, leading to uncharacteristic misreads, like on Mingo’s pick or on Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr’s INT a few weeks back.
But what can Denver do? This is a Super Bowl-caliber team, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Turning it over to Brock Osweiler with Manning still available to play would be an incredible gamble by coach Gary Kubiak, yet one that he may have to pull the trigger on at some point.
Heck, the Broncos have to look no further than rival New England to see what can happen when an inexperienced youngster replaces an ailing vet. Remember Tom Brady’s Super Bowl-winning relief of Drew Bledsoe?
Of course, in that case, Bledsoe was unavailable due to injury. Manning is not pulling himself from the lineup anytime soon.
Odds are, then, that the Broncos continue to ride the future Hall of Famer and hope against hope that he somehow salvages his game this season.
3. The loss will hurt for Cleveland, and it should: Moral victories are nice and all, but the Browns should be beyond that at this point. They showed in Weeks 2 through 5 that they are capable of competing every week, and they rallied to put the Broncos on the ropes Sunday.
If this franchise really is about to snap the malaise that’s been hanging over it the past 25 years or so, then it cannot be good enough just to push the league’s best teams to the wire. They have to learn to finish the job.
“It's a huge missed opportunity,” McCown said, via the Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot. “We have to respond.”
Granted, this is still a team that’s at least a year away, possibly more, from being a legit playoff contender. Look no further than the Browns’ inability to stop the run as an explanation. A defense that gets gashed on the ground consistently rarely can be good enough to get to 10 or 11 wins. Cleveland still has to find a fix there.
But McCown, despite his ghastly interception late in regulation, has grabbed a stranglehold on the starting quarterback job. Barnidge has been brilliant alongside him, and a handful of other options, including running back Duke Johnson and wideout Travis Benjamin, are coming along.
The Browns are close, arguably as close as they have been since a 10–6 finish in 2007. The next step comes in figuring out how to finish these games off on a regular basis.