The Denver Broncos quarterback matched an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in the team's season-opening 49-27 win over Baltimore at Sports Authority Field. On an evening usually reserved for reverberating celebration before a Super Bowl champion's home crowd, it was Manning who helped lead his Broncos to the most points ever scored by a Ravens opponent.
Denver was able start its season on a high note despite a slow start and a lengthy weather delay. The season-opening bonanza was delayed by 34 minutes due to lightning in the area. ESPN Stats & Info noted an eerie coincidence about the delay:
But the story of the night was Manning, who torched the Ravens secondary for 462 yards and those seven scores on 27-of-42 passing. The win was Manning's 10th in his past 11 games against Baltimore, the only exception being that fateful loss in January. The seven touchdowns also set a career high and made him the only quarterback in league history with three outings with six-plus touchdowns. And he did it all without committing a single pick:
In his second season in Denver, Manning is quickly continuing his reputation as a superstar maker. The 37-year-old signal-caller showed a particularly keen interest in tight end Julius Thomas, who was the team's top pass-catcher in the first half before finishing with 110 yards on five catches. Thomas was a handful for a struggling Ravens secondary, using his combination size and speed to break big plays in his first NFL start.
Demaryius Thomas had a massive output as well, breaking out out for a 161-yard, two-touchdown game on only five catches. Included in those scores was a 78-yard scamper that helped Manning tie the all-time record.
Not to be outdone, Wes Welker also made his impression loud and clear in his first game with the Broncos. The former New England Patriot didn't miss a beat with his transition from Tom Brady to Manning, making nine catches for 67 yards out of the slot, including two second-half touchdowns.
Manning hit Welker on successive drives in the third quarter for scores, extending the Broncos' one-score lead all the way to 35-17. The first touchdown to Welker came after a blocked punt by David Bruton, setting Denver up at the Baltimore 10-yard line. It was the first blocked punt against the Ravens since their 2009 season-opener.
The second TD to Welker came on a sustained, nine-play drive after the Ravens offense sputtered to a three-and-out—their second of three consecutive in the third quarter as the game slipped away.
Joe Flacco, who signed a $120.6 million contract this offseason, struggled to show off some of his Super Bowl magic. The 28-year-old QB looked far more like the regular-season version of himself than the world-beater we saw in January and February. He did finish with 362 yards, but it took 34 completions on 62 attempts to get there, and he finished with as many interceptions as touchdowns (two).
Baltimore's only touchdown of the second half came on a possession where the offense turned the ball over twice, only for Denver to gift the ball back both times. Flacco threw what should have been a pick-six to linebacker Danny Trevathan, but he inadvertently let go of the ball at the 1-yard line to give the ball back to Baltimore. Tight end Dallas Clark later fumbled on the possession, which was called back on a facemask.
Flacco's first interception helped set up Denver's first score of the game during a time where Manning and Co. were struggling. The Broncos failed on each of their first three possessions before Manning hit Thomas with a 24-yard score—one predicated on a momentum-shifting defensive play.
This defensive performance has to be comforting to Broncos brass. They came into Thursday night riddled with injuries and other absences. Top cornerback Champ Bailey sat out due to discomfort in his left foot, while top pass-rusher Von Miller is serving a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
But despite playing without their two top defenders, Denver's defense was rock-solid in every facet. Ravens running back Ray Rice had just 36 yards on 12 carries, though he did score a one-yard touchdown following a Wes Welker muffed punt return.
The Ravens also suffered the game's most notable injury. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones left midway through the second quarter and did not return after suffering a right knee sprain, as he was injured trying to make a fair catch on a punt. Teammate Brynden Trawick lost control and barreled into Jones, bending his knee in an awkward position.
Offensive tackle Michael Oher also left the game in the second half with an ankle sprain.
In essence, it was a night where everything that could have gone wrong did for Baltimore. These Ravens join last season's New York Giants to make two consecutive opening-night losses for defending champs, though they're the first in years to not begin the season at home.
For Denver, opening night was little more than a statement game. The Broncos came into the season as the prohibitive favorite to win the AFC and the Super Bowl at some sportsbooks. They very likely could have won last year had it not been for one fateful bomb from Flacco to Jones. Thursday night, they made it quite clear that they'll be doing everything in their power to atone for that mistake.
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: A
You have to say this about Peyton Manning: There are times where he makes you think. There are times where his ball has a little less zip on it than it should, and where you quickly Google his age and remind yourself that he probably only has one or two elite years left in the tank.
The 37-year-old signal-caller started out the game looking frustrated, taking harder-than-expected hits and having strange miscommunications with his receivers. The Denver offense slogged along for the first 15 minutes without a point before Manning returned to his glory. There aren't many feats remaining for him to accomplish, but he showed once again just how great he can be.
Manning found a way to torch the Baltimore defense for seven touchdowns through the air. He tied Brett Favre's record with his 23rd such game with four or more touchdowns. He instantly unseated whoever you'd consider best among the other seven-touchdowners. (Sid Luckman, Adrian Burk, George Blanda, YA Tittle and Joe Kapp are the others, in case you were wondering.)
Peyton Manning was Peyton Manning Thursday night. Anyone in Denver still wondering what the Tebow era would have amounted to? Didn't think so.
Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos: A
Talk about a productive outing. In the latest installment of Peyton Manning's running series of turning players who barely had Wikipedia pages into stars, Thomas burst onto the scene with a performance reminiscent of an in-his-prime Dallas Clark.
The 25-year-old set career highs across the board with his five-catch, 110-yard night, becoming the talk of the entire first half.
Thomas earned the starting tight end job in camp after two years of near-obscurity on Denver's roster. He had one reception for five yards and seven targets during the 2011 season, but essentially lost a season-and-a-half due to a high-ankle sprain. Thomas did not appear in a game last season.
Something tells me Thomas won't be so obscure in the eyes of his quarterback or fantasy football owners after this night.
Duke Ihenacho, Denver Broncos: A-
Thursday was apparently breakout night at Sports Authority Field. On a night where Thomas staked an early claim for top waiver priority in fantasy leagues, safety Duke Ihenacho may provide Denver with something more important: stability in the secondary.
The former undrafted free agent got his first career start against Baltimore, and parlayed it into an outstanding performance. Ihenacho finished the game with 12 tackles and three passes defensed.
While a couple of the stops were due to mistakes in coverage—as they tend to be any time a defensive back has high tackle numbers—an overwhelming majority of Ihenacho's praise was deserved. He was instinctual and aggressive with his decision-making, becoming a whirling dervish of made plays in the first half.
Perhaps the only downgrade we can note here is for a dropped interception. Other than that, Ihenacho had one heck of a debut.
Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens: C-
Perhaps we'll call him Joe Lukewarm from now on (*sorry)? Flacco's first performance as the league's highest-paid player was strangely familiar, and not necessarily in a good way. He was back to forcing balls into tight spots, missing open receivers down the field, and making the types of decisions that had some in Baltimore questioning his future before last postseason.
It's only one game, so the hyperbole that you'll read in the coming days is as unfounded as it usually is at this time.
But there has to be some concern that Flacco might not have taken The Leap to superstardom as some thought he did. If Flacco is the guy he was last postseason, then $120.6 million may be a bargain. If he's the same up-and-down guy he's always been? The season might get a little long in Baltimore.
Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens: C
People forget: Blocking plays a massive role in how a running back performs, and Rice didn't get much of that in Denver. He and Bernard Pierce struggled to get anything of note going.
It didn't exactly help matters when Denver went into evisceration mode in the second half, leaving Rice as little but a novelty item in the backfield.
Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens: B-
Much hubbub was made last season when Suggs returned in record time from his Achilles injury. But the dirty secret of that entire situation was T-Sizzle wasn't all that good. He finished the regular season with 22 tackles and two sacks in eight games, though he did pick up his game during the postseason a bit (like almost the entire Ravens roster).
But nearing age 31 and a decade into his excellent pro career, it was fair to wonder whether Suggs would continue at a Pro Bowl level.
Through one game the answer seems to be yes. Suggs finished the game with six tackles and one sack, with a majority of the tackles coming in the first half. But what was impressive was his never-ceasing aggression. He put a fire under Manning multiple times in the contest, hitting him three times to go along with the takedown.
On a night where there were so many negatives for Baltimore, Suggs was a net positive. It's only 60 minutes of football, but it doesn't look like we'll be saying goodbye to Ball So Hard University any time soon.
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