BALTIMORE – Even before the ball hit the ground, you knew the explosion was coming.
When Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning received a shotgun snap on third-and-1 in the first quarter of Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium, he read the Baltimore Ravens' defense and threw a quick pass toward the left sideline, where he expected tight end Joel Dreessen to be. Dreessen, however, had planted his foot and turned upfield, an obvious miscommunication between signal-caller and intended receiver.
Manning, in case you've been ignoring pro football for the past decade-and-a-half, does not suffer route-botchers gladly. Sure enough, when he got to the Broncos' sideline, the NFL's ultimate perfectionist chewed out the offending party.
"I did. I did!" Manning said after the Broncos' ninth consecutive victory, this one by a 34-17 score , was complete. "That one was my fault."
If Manning could laugh at his gaffe, a rare misstep in another clinically clean performance, its significance was downright scary. The play served as a reminder that Manning, in his first season with the Broncos after 13 stellar campaigns (and a maddening, injury-plagued one) with the Indianapolis Colts, isn't close to being in sync with his receiving corps.
And yet, as the exacting quarterback and his new targets muddle their way through these growing pains, the Broncos are looking more and more like a team running a "Go" pattern to the Super Bowl. With Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (10-4) suffering a 41-34 defeat to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night, Denver (11-3) now has a clear path to a first-round bye.
For those of you eyeballing an inevitable showdown between the future Hall of Fame rivals: If the Broncos close out the regular season with victories over also-rans Cleveland and Kansas City, a potential Manning/Brady divisional-round playoff clash would take place at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. With the Ravens (9-5) in free-fall mode and the Houston Texans (12-2) appearing vulnerable after last Monday night's thrashing by the Pats, it's tough not to be a mile high on the AFC West champions.
Then again, some of us saw this coming a month-and-a-half ago, when it became apparent that a record fifth MVP award and a third Super Bowl appearance were well within Manning's reach.
Fourteen games into the 2012 season, Manning's comeback tour must be regarded as a resounding success. At 36, and with four neck surgeries in his immediate past, he may not be what he once was physically. Suffice it to say that no one on the Broncos seems to mind.
"I'll tell you what – whether he has lost any arm strength or whatever, you can't mess with his brain," said Champ Bailey, Denver's perennial All-Pro cornerback. "He is as sharp as they come."
Manning carved up the Ravens with ruthless precision on Sunday, completing 17 of 28 passes for 204 yards, including a sublime 51-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker off a double-move sideline route with 9:53 left in the third quarter. A little more than two minutes later, revived running back Knowshon Moreno (22 carries, 118 yards) scored on a 6-yard run to put Denver up 31-3, and it was raining boos in Baltimore, where 71,317 fans had been forced to come to terms with the home team's fate just before halftime.
Three weeks ago, the Ravens were celebrating an improbable overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers and looking like a potential team of destiny. They have since lost three consecutive games and one offensive coordinator – Cam Cameron was abruptly fired last Monday and replaced by quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who had never called plays on any level.
As debuts go, Caldwell's was right down there with "The Playboy Club," "Living Lohan" and "The Chevy Chase Show."
"You can't blame the coaches," Bailey said. "They were playing a team that had pass rushers in their face and tight man-to-man coverage on their receivers. We've made other quarterbacks look like that before."
By contrast Manning, who spent several minutes after the game talking privately with Caldwell (his head coach in Indy from 2009-11 and his quarterbacks coach from 2002-08), once again looks like one of the best passers ever to wear shoulder pads. His numbers this season (67.9 percent completion percentage, 31 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions, 103.5 passer rating) have been stellar, and it seems like he sets records on a weekly basis. On Sunday he exceeded 4,000 passing yards for the 12th time, an unprecedented accomplishment, and surpassed Brett Favre with his ninth 11-victory season.
Imagine what the man could accomplish if he and his receivers were simpatico. For all the damage Manning once did in Indy with the likes of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, he's struggling to bring Decker, Demaryius Thomas and friends up to speed. Falling short of his pre-existing standard is something Manning may never accept, but at least he's coming to terms with the imperfections.
"I think you have to remind yourself that it's not going to be like clockwork," Manning said as he walked down a hallway toward the Broncos' team bus. "I guess I'm used to playing with guys I played with for so many years that it was like clockwork. It took time to get it that way. There are certain things we still need to improve on, but hey, we're still a team that's only been together 15 weeks, as far as real games, and the idea is just to try to keep getting better.
"We're of course very much dealing with 'the now' and trying to get it all done right away, and so it's gotten better each week. But it's probably never going to be what it would be if we played together for five years."
It could certainly be worse. Ask the Ravens (9-5), who host the desperate New York Giants next Sunday before closing the regular season on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals (8-6), a team that could overtake them to win the AFC North. On a positive note Baltimore clinched a playoff spot later Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys, giving this discombobulated, injury-ravaged ensemble a chance to play at least one game in January.
"We clinched?" asked a surprised Terrell Suggs, the team's star pass rusher. Suggs, who was in and out of Sunday's game while attempting to play through a torn biceps, rationalized the Ravens' effort after praising the Broncos, saying, "We have a lot of people either playing hurt or out. We're fighting with one arm – no pun intended."
The Broncos are happy to fight their way into the postseason with Manning's right arm as their guiding force. With a first-round bye now likely, the cost-benefit analysis of a week off can be debated – "It works both ways, I guess," said Manning, who reached his first Super Bowl without the bye but had the first-round break while reaching his second one – and the specter of another classic duel with Brady anticipated.
"Brady-Manning always sounded good on the outside," Bailey said. "Now I'm all up in it. And I like it."
In the wake of his disappointing defeat to the Niners, Brady was taking nothing for granted. Regarding the prospect of meeting Manning in the postseason, Brady said, via email, "I sure hope so!!"
Something tells me he'll get his wish. The Broncos' offense may not be running like clockwork, but the countdown to this clash of timeless quarterbacks has seemingly begun.
1. Back in late October, Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White admitted that in light of their shoddy playoff record in recent years, "we're just regular-season warriors" until proven otherwise. Don't be so quick to dismiss Atlanta (12-2) as a Super Bowl contender, however. In response to last Sunday's lackluster defeat to Carolina, the Falcons rolled to a 34-0 victory over the Giants, essentially reversing the outcome of the two teams' playoff clash last January. In other words, the Regular Season Warriors took a major step. "Lol yea we did," White said via text Sunday evening. "Confidence booster for the whole team."
2. We've all been assuming that the Giants, who own impressive wins over the 49ers and Packers, will be able to shift into get-serious mode when they need to – as with last season – and make an honest run at defending their championship. Technically, it can still happen. After Sunday's debacle at the Georgia Dome, however, we should all strongly consider the possibility that we've been duped. They're just not that good.
3. As for the Packers, it's nice to know that the infamous replacement-ref "Fail Mary" fiasco in Seattle didn't deprive them of a shot at a championship. Green Bay (10-4) clinched the NFC North with a 21-13 road victory over the Bears on Sunday and still has a very legitimate shot at a first-round bye. And the Seahawks can help them Sunday night by defeating the 49ers at CenturyLink Field. Which, of course, is awesome.
[Winners/losers: Packers looking like smart Super Bowl pick]
4. It took the 49ers a little more than a quarter to lose all of a 31-3 lead against the Pats – and yet, by steeling themselves and gutting out a tense game, the Niners may have benefited more in the long run than if they’d completed the blowout. If nothing else, they won’t have to worry about the prospect of coming out flat after a resounding victory against a formidable foe … you know, the way the Patriots did on Sunday.
5. Who wants to face the Seahawks in the playoffs? Anyone? Didn’t think so: In its past 10 quarters (counting overtime against the Bears two weeks ago) Seattle (9-5) has outscored opponents 121-20. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson is getting more comfortable – and better – every week, and the Hawks practically caused an international incident in their 50-17 beatdown of the Bills in Toronto on Sunday. As I've been telling you since the summer, this team is legit.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The horrible events of Sandy Hook; the disproportionate share of school shootings in the United States; and why we can't have some honest discussions about regulating firearms purchases more stringently throughout our nation without pro-gun zealots acting as though the sky is falling. And to those who charge that, in the wake of this cataclysmic tragedy, this is "not the time" to have such discussions, I ask: When is the time?
2. That there's talk of Josh McDaniels getting another shot as an NFL head coach – with the Chicago Bears. When CBS' Jason La Canfora reported Sunday that McDaniels could be a candidate to replace Lovie Smith if the Bears make a coaching change after the season, it was hard not to scoff, given that: a) McDaniels' reign of error as the Broncos' coach included a cheating scandal, a slew of atrocious personnel moves and 17 defeats in his final 22 games and b) Chicago's two most important offensive players, Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, were the very two men that McDaniels ran out of Denver, provoking the latter to tell me in August that the decision to trade Cutler was "a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very bad move." The same words would apply to a McDaniels hire – but I'd be very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very excited to cover it. Did I say "very"?
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE THE DAWN
With the Giants' defeat in Atlanta – and wins by the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys – creating a three-way tie atop the NFC East with two games remaining, it's now quite possible that the 'Skins will make the playoffs at the defending champs' expense. And if that happens, a lot of people at Redskins Park will be convinced that karma exists. Back in the spring, when the Redskins were docked $36 million in cap space over the next two years for their accounting practices during the uncapped 2010 season, Giants owner John Mara played the heavy, telling espn.com, "I thought the penalties imposed were proper. What they did was in violation of the spirit of the salary cap. They attempted to take advantage of a one-year loophole, and quite frankly, I think they're lucky they didn't lose draft picks. … They attempted to take advantage of it knowing full well there would be consequences." To which rational human beings replied: "You cannot be serious!" After all, in a truly uncapped year, there were by definition no rules to violate, in spirit or otherwise. And when the NFL Players Association saw these comments by Mara (and similar ones by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell) and discovered an email from one team employee referring to a secret, $123 million cap for 2010, the union filed a collusion case, one which U.S. District Court Judge David Doty will soon either throw out or allow to proceed.
There are many reasons the Redskins have a right to feel shafted by the penalty (as do the Cowboys, who were docked $10 million in a similar ruling), including the fact that all of the 2010 transactions in question were approved by the league office, and that they didn't learn of the impending cap hit until 24 hours before the start of the 2012 league year. And they have a right to be bitter about the quotes from Mara, who had obvious competitive reasons for championing the penalties. As one member of the Redskins' brass pointed out earlier this month, the $36 million hit roughly equates to the combined cap numbers of six Giants players: quarterback Eli Manning, halfback Ahmad Bradshaw, safety Antrel Rolle and defensive ends Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul. No biggie, right? "You could argue that we'd be less harmed by having our head coach suspended for a year than by losing the $36 million," one team official said last week. In May, the Redskins and Cowboys lost their appeal of the penalties to Special Master Stephen Burbank, but there is one "Hail Mary" at Washington owner Daniel Snyder's disposal: Join the collusion suit. By filing a brief in support of the NFLPA, Snyder could bolster the union's case significantly and set himself up for a potential judicial remedy that addresses the damage to his franchise. I can see why Snyder wouldn't want to do this – it would alienate his business partners beyond belief, making for some highly uncomfortable moments at owner meetings (awkward), and he would essentially be marginalized like late Raiders owner Al Davis was after suing for the right to move to Los Angeles three decades ago. Yet I'll also be disappointed if he chooses the careful course. Come on, Dan – the truth shall set you free. File the brief! If you do, I'll send you an autographed WTF T-shirt.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Can't believe it"
– Text Sunday evening from injured Packers defensive back Charles Woodson, on the fact that Green Bay had some key calls go its way in the over the Bears. (Who knew?)
"It's embarrassing dude"
– Text Sunday night from Bills defensive end Shawne Merriman.
"Man thanks. I knew I needed to make a play for my team. Did a good job studying film this week so I kinda knew it was coming. LMAO"
– Text Sunday night from Jaguars safety Chris Harris, jokingly accepting congratulations for his namesake's 98-yard interception return for touchdown against the Ravens.
Related NFL video from Yahoo! Sports:
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Victor Cruz will remain connected to Sandy Hook victim's family
• Tony Dungy playbook: Will Adrian Peterson make NFL history?
• Texans help Army officer surprise family on his return home
• Y! News: President Obama says he has 'bigger fish to fry' than pot users