SEATTLE – The chasm looks better, like the Denver Broncos have indeed drawn closer to bridging the distance to the Seattle Seahawks. Surely, Sunday's 26-20 overtime road loss will sting for Denver. But it wasn't anything near the 43-8 championship debacle in February. It wasn't humiliation.
But there's a familiar trapdoor for these Broncos, creaking beneath the feet of quarterback Peyton Manning. It's a franchise frailty that wasn't resolved with the signing of linebacker DeMarcus Ware or the swapping of Emmanuel Sanders for Eric Decker. It's the weakness of time and pressure: a creeping age in Manning's game and his inability to consistently perform when everything falls on his shoulders.
Stop the running game, push Manning's offensive play-calling into one mode. Then hit him. Hurry him. Push him around. That dynamic chopped the Broncos down in the Super Bowl. It rolled them over, and it ultimately tipped Denver again Sunday.
While many will laud the game's final 59 seconds, during which Manning carved an improbable game-tying, 80-yard drive, opponents will create schemes based on the previous 59 minutes. That's when Manning was scrounging for a running game that would never come, then pushing all his chips onto an off-kilter passing game that had him fluttering passes into the ground.
It sounds harsh for a guy who throws for 300 yards and two touchdowns. But without a running game, this version of Peyton Manning can be beaten consistently with numbers like that.
No doubt, Denver is going to win a lot relying on Manning. It's going to secure a high seed in the playoffs. But if this is the Broncos team we can expect, eventually it's going to run into someone in the AFC or maybe the Super Bowl who can fight like Seattle. Someone who can blitz, stunt or outmuscle. Someone who can touch Manning, or at least make him feel like he might be touched. Someone who can brawl just long enough to turn a 400-yard, five-touchdown quarterback into what we saw on Sunday.
That is the trapdoor. Making the Broncos rely on a Manning who will make mistakes, throw errant passes and end up calling a one-dimensional game that was just good enough to lose in overtime. A Manning whose missed opportunities in the first half are just too much to overcome.
An offense that, as head coach John Fox put it bluntly Sunday: "[S]tumbled around in the first half."
Yes, Manning almost won it anyway, seizing on a late coverage error and pushing Denver to this regulation-closing score:
Ultimately, they lost the coin toss and never touched the ball in overtime after Seattle drove for a touchdown.
It was inspiring. The kind of stuff we have come to expect. But this is also chillingly familiar. The defense wore down the Seahawks at the end, scoring a safety and a late turnover to pull Denver back into the game, then bled out in overtime. All while the running game – the one Manning was so excited about in the preseason – was nonexistent.
This sounds familiar to Indianapolis Colts fans. Watching Manning carry a team only so far, then undone by defensive pressure, mistakes and a failing cast. Broncos fans should pay attention. We're three games into the season and the Broncos are still awaiting even a modest breakout from running back Montee Ball, who hasn't broken the 100-yard plateau in a game and is averaging a shade under 3.4 yards per carry. Touted as coming into his own, he has one touchdown this season, and isn't close to what former Bronco Knowshon Moreno was at his best in 2013.
If that continues, Denver is in some one-dimensional trouble. Because that kind of offense doesn't look any better than the sinkholes that swallowed so many other Manning/Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne/Dallas Clark seasons. Lost years undone by such names as Donald Brown, Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes. Manning was younger and stronger when he carried those backs, and yet still failed when teams mounted pressure on him in the postseason.
Look no further than Sunday's game. Manning was hurried eight times and sacked once – not nearly the barrage he suffered in the Super Bowl. But he also shuffled in the pocket often, as he was squeezed or agitated to the point that he released maybe two dozen of his 49 passes either early, late or moving around in the pocket. At 38 years old, that is not how he's best suited.
We know that Manning's neck surgeries have robbed him of the grip needed to put a perfect spin on less-than-ideal passes. We know he needs an ideal setup to maintain his accuracy. This is why you see more wobbling spirals, which have become common on his deep ball and slightly more common on intermediate throws.
The quintessence of this came late in the third quarter, when he was flushed far right outside the pocket with the Broncos facing first-and-15 at their own 42-yard line. Manning squared himself and aimed at an open Demaryius Thomas. But what could have been a laser came out of his hand as a turf-bound gyroscope.
Denver punted and went into the fourth quarter down 17-3. This was Manning as a one-man band, accounting for 296 of Denver's 332 yards. All as he watched Seattle piece together something a little more well-rounded (255 passing, 129 rushing).
"Of course being down two scores we became one-dimensional, which is not what you want against these guys," Manning said. "[Being one-dimensional] wasn't working for us."
That things didn't get worse is part of the upside for Denver. First, the defensive pressure is better than last season. It almost single-handedly dug the Broncos out of their hole in the fourth quarter, seizing a safety and forcing a bad pass and interception from Russell Wilson deep in Seattle territory.
Second, as Manning noted at one point – it's only three games into the season. There is plenty of time to scheme and resolve some of the pressure that flustered him Sunday. Wes Welker is only now returning, Sanders is starting to blossom, and Ball has time to get himself right.
And finally, Denver most certainly found matchup flaws in Seattle's secondary, showing the ability to adjust to one of the best teams in the NFL. Cornerback Richard Sherman blew a crucial double-move by Thomas on the game-tying 2-point conversion, and also relented some completions to smaller, quicker wideouts.
"We obviously fought back better this time than last time," Manning said of losing the Super Bowl rematch. "Last time we got down early in the game and never got anything going. We did get something going here in the second half. … Those are things you take when you get in this situation – 'Hey, we've been here before, we can do it.' I try to build off things like that."
It's the right line for a team that is an overtime from being 3-0. Denver has closed the gap on Seattle and avoided humiliation. But the Broncos didn't win, either. And like Manning said, he has been here before: In singular control of the offense, likely headed toward the playoffs, and still standing squarely on that same old trapdoor.