Well it looks like the Denver Broncos won't be reaching the Super Bowl after all.
My Super Bowl forecast following Peyton Manning's stellar Week 1 performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers came to a disappointing end as the Broncos were upset at home in stunning fashion by the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. Losing 38-35 in a double overtime thriller, the Broncos have no one to blame but themselves, especially considering the amount of mental lapses they committed.
Manning certainly instilled confidence in my early season projection. Starting in Week 6, the Broncos ripped off 11 consecutive victories to close out the regular season. By winning week after week for nearly three solid months, the Broncos earned the number one seed in the AFC, a bye week, and home-field advantage. Obviously, this stretch had me feeling ecstatic about my team's play.
Looking back, maybe it shouldn't have. Here's a list of the teams the Broncos beat in that stretch: the Chargers twice, the Saints, the Bengals, the Panthers, the Chiefs twice, the Buccaneers, the Raiders, the Ravens, and the Browns. Winning 11 in a row is nice, but only two of those teams made the playoffs. I'm not sure what to make of this; 11 consecutive victories is nothing to sneeze at, but that competition certainly wasn't anything near playoff-caliber.
With that streak, my expectations may have turned quixotic, but with Manning at the helm, I truly expected success. Facing the slumping Baltimore Ravens, losers of four out of their last five regular season games, including a 34-17 thrashing at home from the Broncos in Week 15 — and coming off of an unconvincing victory over rookie Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round, 9-24 — I certainly expected to witness a stellar Manning versus Brady matchup in the AFC Championship game. While Brady held up his end of the deal, Broncos' fans were treated to a pins and needles game that never should have been all that close. The Broncos struggled to gain complete control, and instead, they bled out chunk plays that ensured their demise. With the score never more than seven points away for either side, this game was truly up for grabs.
Overall, the game was a classic, but as a Broncos fan, it sure was disappointing — it will go down in Denver lore right next to the '96 upset handed down by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.
Let me run down some positive and negative aspects of the game from my point of view as a Broncos fan.
- Trindon Holliday
- Peyton Manning's control of the offense
- Brandon Stokley and Ronnie Hillman
- Peyton Manning's turnovers
- Broncos' defense
- Coach John Fox's conservative play calling in key situations
On the opening punt, Holliday took advantage of the Ravens' punt coverage team failing to properly fill assigned lanes during the return. As the Ravens stacked his left side, with eight of eleven Ravens pursuing from the left, Holliday was able to hit the middle hard, break one arm tackle from behind him that over pursued, and sprint along the right sideline on the way to paydirt as he outran the punter. This put the Broncos on the board, giving them a 0-7 lead with 12:14 remaining in the first quarter.
Then, to commence the second half, Holliday did it again, this time, on the opening kickoff. Holliday caught the ball deep in the right corner of the end zone. Then, he accelerated from the right corner to the middle of the field, planted his foot at the 10-yard line, and hit the hole hard to break through the teeth of the coverage. Eventually, Holliday made it to the left side of the field after juking the kicker and shaking off a tackle from a trailing Raven at the 30-yard line. With everyone behind him, Holliday outran the rest of the Ravens for the remaining 70 yards, and he put the Broncos ahead 21-28 at the 14:47 mark in the third quarter.
Holliday's contributions were instrumental in the Broncos' chances for winning, however, like much of the Broncos, he wasn't without fault either. In the first overtime period, Holiday fielded a punt at the Broncos' 14-yard line, and he proceeded to lose seven yards as he tried to circle across the field. Holliday's gaffe set the offense up on their own seven-yard line, and Manning would toss the game sealing interception on this drive. Despite Holliday's gaffe, his positives far outweighed this one mistake, and his returns were game changers that nearly led the Broncos to victory.
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Manning's Offensive Execution
The next subject to examine is Manning's control of the offense. Although his three turnovers marred the outcome, Manning led three stellar drives that produced touchdowns. I'll give a quick rundown of the drives to highlight just how brilliant Manning was when given the opportunity to run the show.
Facing a 14-7 deficit at the 9:49 mark in the first quarter, Manning came back strong from a pick-six and engineered an 11-play, 74-yard drive that was capped off with a beautiful 15-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley. On the touchdown play, Manning and Stokley took clear advantage of their time together as teammates on the Colts. After watching the replay numerous times, I still can't tell if the play was improvised or not, but either way, it was astounding. On third-and-eight, Stokley ran a five-yard hitch on the outside, completely turning to face Manning, before circling out of the hitch and turning up field to the far right side of the end zone. Manning lobbed the ball over the top, and Stokley hauled it in, tapping both feet and getting a knee down before falling out of bounds.
Out of the 11 plays on the drive, nine came in the shotgun, eight were pass plays, and 69 of the 74 yards on the drive came through the air. Manning controlled the tempo and cut up the defense with solid throws and no-huddles. The window for the touchdown to Stokley was no larger than a foot or so, and Manning fit the ball in perfectly.
On a side note, with the Stokley touchdown, the first quarter finished tied up at 14-14. While that's nothing out of the ordinary, the interesting part is the fact that it entered the record books as the first playoff game in NFL history to feature an offensive, defensive, and special-teams touchdown in the opening quarter.
Later on, following some failed drives from each squad, Manning turned in another impressive drive in the second quarter. Manning engineered an eight-play, 86-yard drive that was capped off with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Knowshon Moreno. The drive featured the Broncos longest play of the game, a 32-yard reception by Eric Decker that moved the ball to the Ravens' 14-yard line. From there, set up in a five-wide formation, Knowshon Moreno ran a cunning stop and go route, and he was able to come down with the ball in the right corner of the end zone. Similar to the Stokley touchdown, Moreno pulled off a double move to beat his man — this double move was definitely a part of the route. Utilizing a formation advantage that had Moreno (a running back) lined up outside on the far right with a linebacker covering him, Manning lobbed the ball over the top and Moreno came down with it.
Out of the eight plays on the drive, three came in the shotgun, five were pass plays, and 72 of the 86 yards on the drive came through the air. Once again, Manning put together a great drive, and he put the Broncos ahead 14-21 at the 7:26 mark in the second quarter.
That drive would conclude the Broncos' offensive output in the first half, however, that was no fault of Manning's. After the defense forced a three-and-out following the Moreno touchdown, Manning led a 14-play, 47-yard drive that gave the kicker, Matt Prater, an opportunity for a 52-yard field goal. Unfortunately, two things went wrong on the series.
First, Moreno injured his knee on the drive, taking away a legitimate pass catching option out of the backfield, as well as a trusted pass protector in the shotgun formation. Second, Prater's field goal attempt was one of the worst kicks I have ever seen. With the ball at the Ravens' 34-yard line, and facing a fourth-and-eight, coach John Fox called for a field goal, a 52-yard attempt. Unfortunately, Prater, a legitimate long distance kicker, especially in Denver, totally blew the kick. Prater's kicking foot made contact with the ground about half a yard before reaching the ball, thus taking away his leg momentum, and causing his kick to come up woefully short as the ball sputtered toward the goal posts. At first viewing, it looked as if the kick had been blocked since it barely rose up into the air, but upon a slow motion replay, it was evident that Prater kicked the ground on his down swing. Lacking the proper depth on the kick, the ball never rose above the height of the cross bar, and it shanked left.
Following three-and-outs from each squad to open the fourth quarter, Manning engineered his final productive drive. Manning led a 10-play, 77-yard drive that was capped off with a Demaryius Thomas 17-yard touchdown reception. Following an audible at the line from Manning, Thomas ran a bubble screen, broke tackles from Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, and scampered into the end zone, giving the Broncos a 28-35 lead with 7:11 remaining in regulation.
Out of the 10 plays on the drive, six came in the shotgun, seven were passes, and 58 of the 68 yards came through the air — 20 yards were tacked on due to penalties on the Ravens, making the drive an 88-yarder. For the third time, Manning engineered a long, impressive drive that culminated with a touchdown. This would mark the end of Manning's prowess as conservative play-calling would take the game out of his hands until it was too late.
Stokley and Hillman
My final positive discussion will focus on the efforts of Brandon Stokley and Ronnie Hillman.
As I mentioned earlier, Stokley came up with a spectacular touchdown in the first quarter that had as much to do with his effort as it did with Manning's. Utilizing great hands, and perfect footwork, Stokley managed to turn a tight space reception into a sure touchdown. An average receiver surely would have come down out of bounds.
Then, in the first overtime period, Stokley put his spectacular hands to work as he completely laid out in order to catch an underthrown pass from Manning on a critical third-and-five. Running a comeback route on the far right, Stokley hustled back to the ball and went completely parallel to the field as Manning's pass came up yards short. Stokley was able to get his hands under the ball, secure it, and give the Broncos a first down with the nine-yard reception. Since the play was so close, the Ravens wisely challenged it, but they ended up losing the challenge. Replays showed that Stokley kept the ball less than an inch off of the field as he secured it with his hands. The Broncos would later stall on the drive, but at the time, his spectacular catch allowed the drive to continue in an effort to score — any sort of score would have won the game. Although Stokley only finished with three receptions for 37 yards and a touchdown, his impact was critical.
Then there was the effort of Hillman.
Thrust into play in the second half due to Moreno's injury, Hillman stepped up with 22 carries for 83 yards and three receptions for 20 yards. The rookie may not have torn it up, but he also didn't serve as a reason for the loss. Hillman was especially exceptional with his ball protection. Understanding his opponent, Hillman kept both hands on the ball any time he touched it in order to make sure that the Ravens' defenders would not succeed with their attempts to knock it out for a fumble. After losing nearly every rep to Moreno following Willis McGahee's midseason injury, credit Hillman for his ability to keep up with all of the offensive audibles and protection changes in a hurry up Manning-run offense. Hillman's longest rush and reception may have been just 11 yards each, but his cerebral impact cannot be overlooked.
Now, it's time for the negatives — there sure were some doozies.
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First off, Manning's turnovers. Manning had three turnovers on the day, two interceptions, and a fumble, and each turnover led to points on the board for the Ravens, 17 points to be exact, with the final three coming in the second overtime to close out the game.
Tied up 7-7 at the 9:58 mark in the first quarter, Manning tossed a pick-six interception on his second throw of the game. Following an incomplete pass that was behind Thomas on a slant route, Manning targeted Decker on a sqaure-in route. The ball was spot on, hitting Decker's left hand and popping up in the air for the easy interception. Corey Graham caught the tip and took it 29 yards to the house. The interception marked the first turnover of the game, and it gave the Ravens a 14-7 lead at the 9:49 mark in the first quarter.
However, the interception truly wasn't Manning's fault. Upon slow motion replay, it is evident that the referees let some early contact slide on this play. The covering cornerback, Chykie Brown, absolutely made contact with Decker's left arm prior to the ball arriving. As Decker cut in and reached up for the ball, Brown swiped down Decker's left arm, thus moving Decker's hands out of position to securely catch the ball, and allowing the ball to bounce off of his left hand and pop up in the air. Brown definitely made contact before the ball got there, but you have to credit the Ravens for their tight defense and for making a play on the tipped ball.
Manning's next turnover came in the third quarter at the 2:51 mark. On the eighth play of a promising drive, Manning took the snap from the shotgun on third-and-eleven from the Broncos' 46-yard line. As the pocket closed in on him, Manning made an ill-advised decision to pump fake rather than just take the sack or release the ball. With four seconds of pass protection, Manning had more than enough time to make a decision. As Manning came down with his throwing arm due to the pump fake, his throwing arm was hit, and the ball squirted out. Somewhere, Jon Gruden is kicking and screaming, because Manning's fumble awfully resembled the infamous "Tuck Rule." Rather than getting lucky like Brady did once upon a time against Gruden's Raiders, the call was ruled a fumble. With solid field position, the Ravens ran the ball five straight plays. On the second run, Ray Rice exploded up the middle for 32-yards, setting up the Ravens on the Broncos' four-yard line. Three runs later, Rice punched in a one-yard touchdown, making the score 28-28 with 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
Manning's final turnover was the dagger. In the first overtime period, needing just a field goal to win the game, Manning made an indefensible rookie mistake. Facing a second-and-six from the Broncos' 38-yard line, Manning took the snap from the shotgun, rolled right as he was flushed out of the pocket, and threw across his body back into the middle of the field toward Stokley. The pass had no zip, and it was easily intercepted by Graham. Manning could have simply thrown the ball away and lived for another third down opportunity, but instead, he made what may go down as the worst throw of his career. With solid field position at the Broncos' 45-yard line, the Ravens gained 16 yards before sending out Justin Tucker for the game winning 47-yard field goal. Manning certainly had his positive moments, but nothing can save him from the scrutiny of this unnecessary interception.
The next negative aspect to examine is the Broncos defense, or lack thereof. Playmakers such as the feared pass rushing duo of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil were rendered useless as they combined for just one sack in the game — although it was a huge sack in the overtime period. Hall of Fame bound cornerback Champ Bailey was actually picked on as Torrey Smith burned him deep multiple times for multiple touchdowns. And third downs were a problem as the Ravens converted 7-17 third down attempts, with six of those conversions coming in the second half and overtime periods.
First, I'll examine the rush defense.
The Ravens ran the ball 39 times for 155 yards and a touchdown. Ray Rice was especially productive, with 30 carries for 131 yards and a rushing touchdown. With Rice averaging 4.4 yards per carry, he allowed the Ravens to continually face manageable opportunities on second and third down. Rice's longest run of the game was a 32-yard scamper up the middle that led to his one-yard touchdown. Rice's most important run of the game was an 11-yard run up the middle on a second-and-ten from the Broncos' 45-yard line at the end of the first overtime period that moved the Ravens into the necessary field position for a game winning field goal. Overall, the Ravens running game was a much needed balance for their boom or bust passing offense.
Speaking of passing, Joe Flacco tore up the Broncos' pass defense as he competed 18-31 attempts for 331 yards and three touchdowns. 161 of those yards came on touchdown passes, as Flacco threw touchdowns of 59-yards, 32-yards, and a miraculous 70-yarder to force overtime. The Broncos made the mistake of single covering Smith, a burner out wide, with Bailey, and Flacco made them pay with two first half touchdowns. Then, Flacco flung a miracle throw that should have been picked off by any sort of competent safety play, but was instead caught by Jacoby Jones for a 70-yard touchdown with just 31 seconds remaining in the game.
Let me breakdown the touchdown throws.
Trailing 0-7 following Holliday's punt return, Flacco capitalized on a third down pass interference penalty that kept the drive alive and moved the Ravens up to their 33-yard line. Two plays later, Flacco threw the ball deep down the middle and Smith hauled it in for the 59-yard touchdown. Facing single coverage without any safety help over the top, Smith burned Bailey deep with pure speed and went into the end zone untouched to tie the game up. Bailey is a great cornerback, but at this stage of his career, it may have been unwise to have him on an island with a speed demon like Smith.
Then, following Prater's missed field goal in the second quarter, the Ravens began their drive with solid field position, and Flacco capitalized with a beautiful 32-yard touchdown pass to Smith. Starting on their own 42-yard line, Flacco completed three straight passes, an 11-yarder, a 15-yarder, and then the 32-yard touchdown. What looked like a sure interception on the far right sideline soon turned into a marvelous reception by Smith. As Bailey ran with Smith stride for stride, Smith gave Bailey a subtle push on the shoulder, and as Bailey stumbled out of position, Smith elevated, adjusted his body in the air, and fully extended in order to catch the ball and tie the game up at 21-21 with just 36 seconds remaining in the first half. The reception was Randy Moss-esque, and it will surely be replayed for years on end in Smith's highlight package. Once again, Bailey was burned, and once again, he didn't have any safety help.
Flacco's final touchdown will be featured in postseason highlight packages for years on end. Trailing by a touchdown, 28-35, with 77 yards to go, just 75 seconds remaining in regulation, and no timeouts, Flacco came up huge while the Broncos pass defense suffered a backbreaking mistake. On third-and-three from the Ravens' thirty-yard line, Flacco avoided the three man rush, stepped up in the pocket, and launched a bomb down the right sideline. A bomb, mind you, that should have been intercepted. As the ball hung up in the air for just over four seconds, Jones was able to get behind the Cover-2 defense, haul in the reception, and score a sensational 70-yard touchdown.
What's truly amazing about the sequence is the play made on the ball by Broncos' safety Rahim Moore. Simply put, Moore looked foolish as he backpedaled, stumbled, and came up a whole two yards short of making a play on the ball. Moore was in position to intercept the ball, but instead he turned into a third grade Pop Warner safety that failed to comprehend basic defensive mechanics. Backpedaling for nearly five yards as the ball neared Jones, Moore flailed his arms, completely whiffed on the ball, and stumbled onto his backside as Jones took the reception the remaining 20-yards untouched.
This defensive lapse will go down as one of the worst mistakes in NFL history. Any sort of understanding of context and situation would have netted at least a bat down. Hell, a competent high school safety could have picked off that pass. After the original cornerback passed Jones off to the safety deep down the sidelines, the ball should have easily been batted down. Unfortunately, Moore turned into a backpedaling fool, and instead of sprinting to find the man and ball, he came up woefully short and allowed the absolute worst scenario to occur. This touchdown tied the game up, forced overtime, and served as the true reason the Broncos lost the game.
John Fox's Conservative Play Calling
The final negative aspect to examine is coach Fox's conservative play calling in key situations. At the end of the first half, and late in the second half, the Broncos stuck with a conservative scheme offensively that limited Manning's ability to take over the game. Coach Fox seemed more interested in not losing, rather than going out and winning. In the end, this plan backfired, as Manning, tired of watching opportunities slip away, forced the action in overtime and threw an unforgivable interception across his body and over the middle. In an attempt to make a play, Manning threw the game away. If coach Fox had given him a playmaking opportunity earlier in the game, this mistake may have never happened.
Example #1: Coach Fox decides to take a knee.
With 36 seconds remaining in the first half, and possessing three timeouts, coach Fox foreshadowed his conservative play calling as the Broncos started from their own 20-yard line. Rather than giving Manning a chance to possibly engineer one last field goal attempt before the half, Fox ordered for a kneel down, and the Broncos entered the half all tied up at 21-21. I can understand the reasoning in this instance, especially since Prater had just missed a long field goal attempt, but it may have been worth a shot with a burner like Demaryius Thomas out wide. Thomas is especially adept at bubble screens, and likely facing a prevent defense, it may have been worth a shot to give him a chance to make a play. This decision didn't bother me, but it did serve as a prognostication for future decisions.
Example #2: Late in the game, coach Fox plays not to lose rather than to win.
After Thomas' 17-yard touchdown on a bubble screen gave the Broncos a 28-35 lead with 7:11 remaining in regulation, the Broncos defense came up huge on the ensuing Ravens' series as they shut down an eight-play drive with the game on the line. Facing a fourth-and-five at the Broncos' 31-yard line with 3:16 left in regulation, Ravens coach John Harbaugh decided to go for the first down. Too close to punt, and uncomfortable with a long field goal attempt that would still leave the Ravens down four points even if successful, Harbaugh gambled. His gamble misfired. Lined up in a four-wide set, Flacco rifled a pass over the middle to tight end Dennis Pitta. Running a slant route, Pitta was jammed at the line by safety Mike Adams, and as the ball arrived just past the first down line, Adams stretched out with a full dive in order to knock the ball away.
Game over, right?
Possessing two timeouts, and the two minute warning to stop the clock, the Ravens still had a slim chance to regain the ball with 3:12 left in regulation. As the Ravens assumed, coach Fox went completely conservative, calling five straight runs, with each out of a base formation with Manning under center — completely abandoning the shotgun formation that the team had primarily run for the entire game. I understand the reasoning for running the ball, but running straight into the heart of the Ravens defense is not wise. I believe that a four-wide shotgun formation with one back, or a three-wide with a tight end and a back, would have opened up some lanes for draw plays while keeping the defense honest in case Manning were to decide to audible to a pass play.
After the first two runs combined to net a first down, the game was one first down away from being over — this sequence may have served as fool's gold. Following a two-yard run by Hillman on first down, and the third straight run of the drive out of a base formation, the Ravens called their final timeout with 2:19 left in regulation.
Knowing that one more first down would win the game no matter what happened, this is where I would have liked to have seen coach Fox give Manning an opportunity to win the game. I understand the desire to run down the clock, but the risk/reward of going for a first down on second-and-eight, and then again on third down, should have outweighed the importance of clock management, especially considering that the Ravens still had the two minute warning to stop the clock.
In this situation, the worst possibility would have allowed the Ravens to regain possession with the two minute warning still on their side, and, in a worst case scenario, tie up the game with a touchdown. On the other hand, a best case scenario would feature a first down, and then taking a knee to run out the clock. Unfortunately, coach Fox called another run, and Hillman picked up one yard, making the situation third-and-seven following the two minute warning. Following that, Hillman crashed into the line for no gain on third down, forcing a punt, and giving the Ravens the ball with 1:15 left in regulation.
Coach's Fox strategy successfully ate away the clock, but it also ensured that the Ravens would get one last chance. If I had Manning as my quarterback, I think I would tell him to go win the game with a first down. Anyone think Brady would have been handing the ball off in that situation?
Example #3: Conservative mindset to end regulation.
Following this sequence, coach Fox stuck with the conservative game plan after Flacco's 70-yard touchdown pass. With two timeouts, and 31 seconds remaining in regulation, Manning took a knee on the 20-yard line to close out regulation. The Broncos' fans in attendance at Sports Authority Field at Mile High rained down the boos after this conservative decision. While I understand the reasoning, I have seen Prater hit a 59-yarder before. Following Prater's earlier mistake, I understand, but I would have liked to have seen Manning get a chance to lead a game-winning drive. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, shouldn't he have been given a chance to put his team into position for the win?
I know it was a different circumstance, since the Atlanta Falcons were losing, but we all saw what Matt Ryan did in order to set up Matt Bryant up for the game-winning field goal against the Seattle Seahawks. With 31 seconds left in regulation, and possessing just two timeouts, Ryan completed a 22-yard pass, called timeout, and then completed a 19-yard pass before calling timeout and sending Bryant out for opportunity to kick the game-winner. Bryant nailed the 49-yard kick for the win. While the situation was different, the possibility of success could have been the same.
Example #4: Coach Fox continues to take the game out of Manning's hands.
Once in overtime, coach Fox continued with the not to lose game plan. After the Broncos came up with a key stop to shut down the Ravens' opening drive, the offense needed just a field goal to win the game. Starting on their own 16-yard line, coach Fox continued calling conservative runs. After Manning converted a third-and-five to Stokley from the shotgun, Fox called three straight runs out of base formations. While the first run from Hillman netted a second-and-two opportunity, coach Fox avoided the endless options of such a desirable down and distance, and instead went with another Hillman run. This left the Broncos with a third-and-one situation. Coach Fox inserted a bigger back, Jacob Hester, and he dialed up a run up the middle. Hester didn't gain a single yard, and the Broncos were forced to punt the ball away from their 39-yard line. The Ravens wouldn't score on the next possession, but this conservative play calling took away an opportunity for the Broncos to put the game away.
On the Broncos very next possession, coach Fox would face the same exact situation, with a first down run netting a second-and-one, and a run for no gain netting a third-and-one. This time, the run on third down was converted, but it speaks volumes that coach Fox wouldn't try to catch the Ravens' defense creeping up to the line on advantageous offensive situations such as second-and-one and third-and-one. Two plays later, Manning would throw the final nail in the coffin interception.
Maybe coach Fox saw something in his quarterback, or maybe Manning saw something in his head coach.
Overall, Manning and the Broncos turned in a solid year. Although the team had Super Bowl or bust aspirations, it sure is a welcome feeling considering how long it has been since the Broncos were considered worthy of championship hype. Obviously, the season didn't turn out as planned, but there's hope for next year, and with a few lucky breaks here and there, along with maturation from the coaches and players, the Broncos may come out on top next year. With Manning at the helm, talented receivers out wide, and a blossoming star in Von Miller leading the defense, this team is going places. Chalk this season up to a success. It may have ended earlier than expected, but it certainly doesn't feel like the end.
And on the other side of the equation, if anyone deserved to knock out the Broncos, it would be Ray Lewis in his swan song postseason. The all-time great recorded 17 tackles against the Broncos, hopefully he can take down Brady and the Patriots as well.
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