A 33 minute weather delay due to lightning couldn’t stop Peyton Manning’s electric night in the NFL’s regular season opener.
In the second straight NFL game and Ravens game of consequence to have a lengthy weather delay, Denver dominated the AFC Divisional Playoff rematch, 49-27, behind Manning’s 462 passing yards and seven touchdowns through the air. Manning became only the sixth quarterback in NFL history to throw for seven touchdowns in a game, and the first since the Vikings’ Joe Kapp in 1969.
The defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens had seen a lot of changes in the offseason, with key contributors like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin, Matt Birk, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Bernard Pollard and Cary Williams departing, and a preseason hip injury to Flacco’s roommate and safety valve, tight end Dennis Pitta.
However, despite those subtractions and early-game injuries to right tackle Michael Oher (ankle sprain) and the hero of the last matchup between the two teams, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones (knee sprain), the Ravens were able to play well in the first half. They struck first with a Joe Flacco two-yard touchdown pass to fullback Vonta Leach, who returned to the Ravens in the preseason after having been previously released.
Denver answered, as after Flacco was intercepted by cornerback Chris Harris, Manning finding third-year tight end Julius Thomas for a 24-yard touchdown on the next play. Baltimore then got a break on special teams, as Wes Welker fumbled a punt inside the Broncos’ five yard line, which was recovered by the Ravens at the 1.
Ray Rice scored the next play on a run, giving Baltimore a 14-7. But Manning found Thomas for another touchdown on the next possession from 23 yards out.
Thomas stood out in the preseason, but only had one catch in his first two years of NFL action before tonight’s breakout performance of five catches for 110 yards and two scores. Baltimore’s tight ends were not able to perform nearly as well, as Dallas Clark and Ed Dickson were targeted a combined 17 times, but only caught 8 of those passes, while dropping a few others.
The Ravens were able to tally a Justin Tucker field goal at the end of the first half to go into halftime with a 17-14 lead, although Clark did drop a potential touchdown catch on the drive. From there, the Broncos scored 28 unanswered points behind Manning’s arm and a dominant defensive performance in the second half.
The pivotal play may have been a third down catch by Welker that appeared to be a drop on replay, but Baltimore did not challenge the play before Manning took the snap. Manning would find Andre Caldwell for a 28 yard touchdown to take the lead, one that Denver would never relinquish.
After a blocked punt by David Bruton, Manning and Welker connected on their first touchdown from five yards out. Manning would get another touchdown to Welker, who finished with 9 receptions for 67 yards in his Broncos deput, before the end of the third quarter from two yards out, and find Demaryius Thomas for a 26-yard score early in the fourth quarter to make it 42-17.
The second half wasn’t all great for Denver, as linebacker Danny Trevathan appeared to put the game out of reach with an interception returned for a touchdown. However, he dropped the ball in celebration at the two-yard line, and the ball was batted back into the endzone by former Bronco receiver and Manning target Brandon Stokley to force a touchback and give the ball back to Baltimore.
Flacco then found undrafted rookie receiver Marlon Brown for a 13 yard score, and led the Ravens on a field goal drive to make it 42-27. After forcing a third down and eight, Baltimore’s defense let Demaryius Thomas catch a screen pass from Manning and go 78 yards for the game’s clinching score.
The 22 point loss was the largest for a defending Super Bowl Champion. Flacco threw a career-high 62 passes compared to just 12 Ray Rice runs, a bad recipe for an offense that is already missing its two most clutch passing options in Boldin and Pitta, and may have to play without Jacoby Jones, depending on his injury situation.
Defensively, the Ravens appeared to get gassed by a fast-paced Denver offense that ran 68 plays despite far less time in possession (26:12 compared to Baltimore’s 33:48). Despite Pro Bowl cornerback Lardarius Webb return from a season-ending ACL injury, the secondary was overmatched with Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo replacing Reed and Pollard at safety.
For a Broncos offense that has a new offensive coordinator in 35 year-old Adam Gase and worked in new targets like Welker and Julius Thomas, this debut performance was impressive.
On defense, with last year’s top pass-rushers Von Miller (6 game suspension) and Elvis Dumervil (signed with Ravens) not on the field, free-agent addition Shaun Phillips recorded 2.5 sacks, showing the potential to replace at some of the 31 combined sacks the aforementioned pair had for Denver last year. With no Champ Bailey leading the secondary, free-agent addition Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did not allow a catch, while Tony Carter and Chris Harris also played very well.
An interesting thing about this game will be how both teams handle their situations. Will the Broncos read their great press clippings after a dominant performance, and will the Ravens feel like their run of consistent playoff performances is already in jeopardy?
Here are a few pictures from team PPI photographer Uriah West, from the field last night.
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