Mike Shanahan's return to Denver was not what he intended. (John Leyba/Denver Post via Getty Images)
Through the first seven games of their 2013 season, the Denver Broncos' narrative was pretty simple. Like the 1999 Rams or 2007 Patriots, or one of the many Indianapolis Colts teams guided by Peyton Manning in the last 10 years, this was a team with an offense good enough to overcome its relative liability of a defense. On pace to set all sorts of offensive records, this Broncos team ranked 26th overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics on defense. Admittedly, the disparity between the ratings against the pass (27th) and the run (fifth) spoke to a compensatory truth -- that when you have an offense putting up points at a rate of 42.6 per game, you're going to face a lot of desperate teams looking to throw the ball as much as possible.
Still, there was a sneaking suspicion that this Broncos team might hit the playoffs at the wrong time, against the wrong team, and implode based on its inefficiency on defense, and its inconsistency in the running game. Both fears were magnified in a Week 7 loss to the Colts, when Indy's defense clamped down hard on Manning and his receivers, and beat them with the balanced offensive attack Denver could not muster.
From there, it was on to a week in which it was revealed that Manning had injuries to both ankles -- by his own estimation, the Wednesday practice he missed was the first he'd ever not participated in to any degree. Add in the fact that the Washington Redskins were coming to town with head coach Mike Shanahan in tow, and this had all the trimmings of a revenge/trap game. Shanahan, of course, was fired as Denver's coach following the 2008 season after 14 years, a 138-86 regular-season record and two Super Bowl championships.
Still, when it counted and when Manning played perhaps his worst game as a Bronco, those previously underwhelming aspects of the team stepped up to help Denver beat Washington 45-21, in a game that was not nearly as explosive as the final score might indicate. Manning threw three interceptions, two of them to cornerback DeAngelo Hall, and one of which was returned for a touchdown, and Denver trailed 21-7 early in the third quarter. But Manning was able to turn it around, and his teammates were able to match his effort. The Broncos tied a team record by scoring 38 points in the second half of a game -- the last time they did that was against the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.
In addition, Denver's defense managed two picks against Robert Griffin III, and two more against backup Kirk Cousins when Griffin suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter. Washington was limited to 266 total yards on 70 plays, and 154 passing yards on 39 total attempts.
It wasn't Denver's most compelling win this year, but it may have been the team's most balanced. And on that point, head coach John Fox will take it.
"I think without a doubt that was our best defensive outing," Fox said. "We challenged our guys all week, we had a great week of preparation. The Washington Redskins came in here with the No. 4 offense in the National Football League, so we knew they were explosive both running the ball and some big plays over the top that they’d done earlier in the game review. So I thought [the defense] responded great. They come in bunches, as far as those turnovers. To be honest with you, we left a couple on the table there in the first half. It’s a good starting point."
Shanahan knew that if he didn't close Manning out, he would eventually respond, and that's exactly when Manning did. He threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker in the first quarter, was blanked for the next two quarters, and opened the floodgates in the final 15 minutes, throwing touchdowns to three of his receivers.
As Manning recalled, the impetus really started with the third-quarter drive in which the Broncos traveled 75 yards in 11 plays, and scored on a four-yard run by Montee Ball. Denver's next drive was an even bigger drain to the Redskins defense -- it went 83 yards on 16 plays, and concluded with a one-yard scoring pass to tight end Joel Dreessen. Like a boxer who needs to get hit hard in the face a few times before he really engages, Manning had awakened, and it was all over from there.
"We put our defense in a really tough spot with two turnovers back-to-back," he recalled. "The defense played great the entire game. We gave them [the Redskins] an easy 14 points there. I thought that was critical to answer. I knew we couldn’t get it all in one play, Washington was trying to make us go the distance. We had four possessions in the first half, all of them were 80-plus, some of them even 90-plus yard drives if we had scored. So we knew at halftime we were going to have to go the long haul. And we did. Those first two drives after the first two turnovers and were able to tie the game. That one to make it 21-14 was critical.”
Griffin was game at the start -- he appeared to have his legs about him in ways he hadn't throughout this season. But the Broncos were able to limit him to 15 completions on 30 attempts for 132 yards and just one touchdown. Griffin said after the game that he was fine, and that he could have come back into the game, but it seemed that the Redskins were being preventative and proactive at that point. Griffin threw both of his picks and lost a fumble in the fourth quarter, and including those interceptions, Washington's last four drives ended in picks.
"They say all the time and it is cliché -- in this league your record says who you are, and I just don’t believe we are a 2-5 football team," Griffin said. "We prove it at times when we can get big leads and then play with teams like the Broncos. We just let it get out of hand. It is disappointing, but nobody in that locker room is going to quit. I talk to my guys every time we go on the field. I don’t care what the score it, we have to have the mindset that every time we are on the field we are going to score a touchdown. As a team, we have to make sure we stay focused. Our division is still wide open. We have to dig ourselves out of this hole and that’s all we can do.”
For Shanahan, it was less about his old home and more about looking forward. The Redskins do have reason to hope -- they play in a less-than-stellar division which they won last season with a 10-6 record despite a 3-6 start.
“There’s a lot of missed opportunities, and if you’re going to beat Denver on the road you’re going to have to play one of your better games," the coach concluded. "They have a great offense, great special teams. I know they haven’t done some of the things that they would like to do defensively, but I think we all know they were one of the top defenses in the league last year. And this is not the end of the season. This is not even the midway point. And so, you can judge Denver’s defense at the end of the season.”
Perhaps it's less painful for Shanahan to think about the plays Denver made than the ones his new team didn't. Either way, there's the comfort of the familiar.