Three games later, Denver still hasn’t lost - and that’s all Baltimore has done.
The Broncos come off their bye week looking to extend their best start in 11 years Sunday afternoon at Baltimore, where the Ravens spent their week off reflecting on three close games that got away.
Denver (6-0) spent its offseason in turmoil after firing Mike Shanahan, who was its coach for 14 years and had won Super Bowls following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
The Broncos hired young New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who didn’t endear himself to franchise quarterback Jay Cutler(notes). McDaniels tried to trade for New England starter Matt Cassel(notes), a move that angered Cutler and eventually led to the Pro Bowl passer being dealt to Chicago for Kyle Orton(notes) and two No. 1 draft picks.
So even after a miraculous last-second win at Cincinnati and victories over bottom-feeders Cleveland and Oakland in which Denver allowed 16 total points, few were ready to praise McDaniels. But since Orton has thrown for six touchdowns and completed 70 percent of his passes in victories over Dallas, New England and San Diego, the Broncos are the talk of the AFC.
“Now we are a target,” outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil(notes), who leads the NFL with 10 sacks, told the Broncos’ official Web site. “We are not under the radar. … Everyone is going to give us our best shot, so we’ve got to be prepared for it.”
Denver has been 7-0 once before - when it started 13-0 in 1998 en route to winning the Super Bowl.
Dumervil has led the way for the Broncos’ suffocating defense, which is first in points allowed (11.0 per game) and second in total defense (262.5 yards per game). They’re tied for the AFC lead with 21 sacks and 10 forced fumbles - two by Dumervil.
McDaniels is one of five rookie coaches to start 6-0, though none have won their first seven games. He’ll have that chance Sunday along with Indianapolis’ Jim Caldwell, whose team faces San Francisco while the Broncos visit Baltimore (3-3) for the first time since 2003.
Orton, meanwhile, has a higher passer rating (100.1) than Tom Brady(notes), Philip Rivers(notes) and Donovan McNabb(notes) - among others - and he’s thrown one interception. Cutler averaged one per game in 32 starts over the past two seasons.
To McDaniels, though, only one statistic matters. Orton is 27-12 as a starter.
“A quarterback ultimately gets judged by that and wins and losses,” McDaniels said. “So, Kyle obviously has done a nice job so far.”
Orton will be facing a Ravens defense that’s looked little like the unit that was second in the league in total defense a year ago. This season, Baltimore is 19th in scoring defense (21.7 ppg) and has given up an average of 382.7 yards in consecutive losses to New England, Denver and Minnesota.
All three defeats were by six points or less.
Three of those came in the second half of a 33-31 defeat at Minnesota on Oct. 18. Coach John Harbaugh promised those issues would be addressed during Baltimore’s bye week.
“Big plays are the problem,” Harbaugh said. “If we continue to give up big plays, we’re going to continue to struggle.”
On the bright side, the Ravens offense has taken a big step forward. Second-year quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) has provided stability under center that it’s rarely—if ever—seen, and his career-high 385 yards passing helped generate 21 fourth-quarter points in Minnesota.
Rookie Michael Oher(notes) has helped anchor a solid offensive line, originally beginning at right tackle before being moved to the left side when Jared Gaither(notes) went down with a scary neck injury in a Week 4 loss at New England.
Gaither, however, will play Sunday, while Oher will almost certainly move back to the right side.
“The Broncos are going to test everybody’s pass protection, for sure,” Harbaugh said. “What makes them good is they beat blocks one-on-one. They do a nice job of bull-rushing, and they do a nice job of getting on edges. They’re relentless, they never stop and they’ve got some talented, fast guys.”
Baltimore’s best chance to catch Denver’s speedy defense off guard may be to get the ball to Ray Rice(notes), who’s averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has a team-high 33 receptions. He caught a career-high 10 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown in the loss to the Vikings, and his 766 yards from scrimmage are fourth-most in the NFL.
The Broncos have lost all three meetings with the Ravens in Baltimore, including a 21-3 wild-card playoff loss in 2000.
Denver is an AFC-best 15-5 coming off a bye, while the Ravens have won six of their last seven.