Close, but no cigar. In the NFL, there is no such thing as a moral victory, many say. But today, I would award such a win to the the Denver Broncos, even though they lost to the Seattle Seahawks in overtime, 26-20. It was a slug-fest of epic proportions.
As opposed to the 35-point blowout in the Super Bowl last February, the Broncos didn't allow today's game to go beyond a 2-score margin. The Broncos offense got out to a very slow start, and played conservative. They kept their cards close to the vest. Nonetheless, they played smart, tough football and put themselves in a position to win the game at the end. It was a heavyweight thriller, all the way down to the wire.
HOW IT WENT DOWN
Everyone remembers the Broncos' first play from scrimmage in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Manuel Ramirez snap sailed over Peyton Manning's head for a safety. Unfortunately, they also turned the ball over on their frist play, when running back, Montee Ball, fumbled on the Broncos' 23-yard line. It was exactly opposite of how the Broncos wanted it to go down. It was unacceptable.
What made it even more egregious was the fact that the Broncos defense held Russell Wilson and the Seahawks to a 3-and-out on their opening possession. It was a great opportunity to establish momentum. However, following Ball's fumble, the Broncos defense stepped up big time, holding the Seahawks to only a field goal.
When the Broncos got the ball back, Manning executed a phenomenal 75-yard drive. Alas, on the Seahawks 5-yard line, Manning missed a wide open Julius Thomas for a touchdown on 3rd down. The Broncos had to settle for a field goal.
It should be noted that on that drive, and throughout the game, Manning was unafraid to throw in Richard Sherman's direction. It looks as if NFL teams are bent on testing the mettle of the self-proclaimed "best cornerback in football". More on that later.
The Broncos played well in the first half, up until halfway through the 2nd quarter. Russell Wilson led back-to-back touchdown drives to end the half. Going into halftime, the Broncos were down, 17-3. Manning and the offense did the defense no favors in that span, managing only 1 first down, following their 75-yard drive.
Coming out of halftime, all of the momentum was with the Seahawks. For many in Broncos Country, it was beginning to feel like a cold day last February, especially when Manning and company, who got the ball to start the 2nd half, went 3-and-out on their opening possession. But Von Miller, and the Broncos defense, weren't going to let the Seahawks blow this game wide open.
Notwithstanding a missed Steven Hauschka field goal, the Broncos held Seattle to no points in the 3rd quarter. Despite this, Manning and company simply could not get an effectual drive going.
When the 4th quarter began, the Broncos punted to the Seahawks. From their own 8-yard line, the Seahawks couldn't get out of dangerous territory. DeMarcus Ware notched his 3rd sack of the season, on the goal line, and although it looked like he forced a fumble, the officials blew it dead. On the next play, from the half-yard line, Wilson handed off to Marshawn Lynch, who was swarmed by the Broncos defense for a safety. It was just what the doctor ordered. And even though Manning and company ended up punting on the ensuing possession, it put some pep, and some swagger, back in the Broncos step.
Aqib Talib, even though he got beat in the 2nd quarter for a long touchdown in single coverage, made an excellent play on the Seahawks next possession, when he tipped a Wilson-thrown ball into the hands of Chris Harris, Jr. The Broncos ended up getting the ball on the Seahawks 19-yard line, and Manning drove them down for a touchdown. He hit Julius Thomas on a shuffle pass up the gut for the score. 17-12, Seattle. The Broncos were closing the gap.
The Broncos defense continued to play lights out, holding the Seahawks to a punt on their next possession. Down 5 points, Manning had the ball and the opportunity to drive the Broncos down for the go-ahead score, with just over 6 minutes to play. And for a short time, it looked as if he was going to do just that, after he drove the Broncos down to the Seattle 24 yard-line. However, he tried to float a ball down the right seam to Wes Welker and Seahawks strong safety, Kam Chancellor, used his long arms to reach up and pluck the ball out of the air and then proceeded to return the interception down to the Broncos 35-yard line.
With under 3 minutes left to go, and only 2 timeouts, the Broncos defense held again, although it cost them all of their remaining timeouts. The Seahawks kicked a field goal. This time, Hauschka was true. 20-12, Seattle, with 59 seconds to go.
Following the kickoff, Manning would get the ball again, down one score. But he was faced with an extremely tall task. Drive 80 yards, against a defense who had kept them in check all game long, with no timeouts. And even if you do, and score a touchdown, they'd still have to convert a 2-point conversion, just to tie the game.
But that's why the Broncos pay Peyton Manning $20M per year. With surgical precision, Manning did just that. He drove the Broncos down the field on a 80-yard drive, capped off by a beautiful 26-yard touchdown to Jacob Tamme. It was clutch. Those who doubted Manning, following his interception on the previous drive, had their faith restored in the veteran gunslinger. 20-18, Seattle.
However, the Broncos still had to convert the 2-point conversion. The Seahawks were reeling. And Manning took advantage of it, with a laser to Demaryius Thomas, who carried Richard Sherman on his back, for the unlikely conversion. It was a beautiful throw and catch. 20-20, with 18 seconds left.
The Seahawks would kneel on the ball and live to fight in overtime. It must be said that although Broncos Country had witnessed some miraculous comebacks from Tim Tebow, this one was particularly special. It left everyone watching absolutely speechless.
In overtime, the Seahawks won the toss, and elected to receive. Of course. The Broncos 4th quarter comeback would be all for not, if the Broncos defense couldn't stop Wilson and company from getting a touchdown. Unfortunately, they were gassed. Wilson drove the Seahawks down the field on an 80-yard drive that culminated in a Marshawn Lynch touchdown. Thus ended the Broncos' comeback hopes. Wilson was deadly, as he rushed for 21 yards, and converted two 3rd downs with his legs. 26-20. Game over.
Defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, is going to take some heat for not putting a spy on Wilson, after he gashed the Broncos on that first 3rd down conversion. There's no doubt that following a 60-minute slug-fest, the Broncos were running on empty, which favors the offense. But Del Rio saved the worst of his play calling for overtime.
Again, moral victories don't show up in the win column in the NFL. But the Broncos did prove that this team is very different than their 2013 counterparts. They were tough, they were patient, and they went toe-to-toe with the league champions, in the belly of the beast.
There were many things the Broncos could have done better. Not turning the ball over would have been key. But the Seahawks defense plays with such violence and tenacity that any team would be hard pressed to not turn the ball over. Manning and the offense could have done a better job of taking shots down the field early in the game, like they did successfully in the 4th quarter.
Richard Sherman was not exposed, by any means, but in back-to-back weeks, 2 AFC West teams have not shied away from throwing in his direction. Emmanuel Sanders was particularly instrumental in the Broncos moving the ball down the field, throughout the game. On the night, he had 11 receptions for 149 yards. He's on pace for a huge season, although he's yet to score his first touchdown of the year. Julius Thomas keeps hogging all the redzone love.
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware each notched a sack. Miller, in particular, played out of his mind. Until overtime, the Broncos defense played extremely well and they kept an out of rhythm Broncos offense in the game. There's a lot to like about today's performance. Alas, the Broncos couldn't get it done when all of the chips were down. They now go into their week 4 bye at 2-1 and first place in the AFC West. But today's performance, even though it was in a losing effort, has to be a confidence booster for a team whose sole focus is to win the Super Bowl.