SEATTLE — For much of this game, Seattle unabashedly intimidated Denver. It was the Super Bowl all over again.
Many of Manning's incompletions were followed by the Seahawks getting in his face. They'd jaw him. Bump him a little. Condescendingly pat him on the bottom. They were toying with Manning, knowing he was unnerved by them, and he was. He was.
They smelled blood as Denver's offense constricted into short passes and screens, a sort of nervous system response to the aggressive Seahawk pathology. There's no question about this: The Denver offense, for almost all of the afternoon, played scared.
For almost the entire game Sunday afternoon, eventually won by the Seahawks in overtime, 26-20, it was the same ol' Broncos.
All of the retooling. All of the talk of a tougher team. Of a braver team. Of a team ready to take on the Seahawks and redeem the humiliating Super Bowl loss. All of that looked like just talk. It looked like the same ol' Broncos.
Then something happened. Instead of another Manning choke, another moment of the Broncos being intimidated by Seattle, a dramatic shift occurred. A Denver team that looked scared and scarred, spending most of the game in an offensive shell, suddenly blossomed, riding the toughness of its defense.
The Broncos stayed in the game…stayed…stayed…hung around, and slowly it was Seattle's sphincter that started to tighten. Either out of desperation, newfound courage or a Broncos coaching staff that sometimes sees a punt as its best weapon despite having Manning changing its philosophy, Denver started to loosen up the playbook.
A 17-3 Seattle lead became 17-5. Then it was 17-12. The Seahawk chirping stopped. No more patting Manning on the backside. The Seattle sideline became a sea of blank stares; the most intimidating place in football sounded like a library. Then Manning tossed a gorgeous pass to Jacob Tamme, and the team that had looked scared and shy and overwhelmed sent the contest into overtime with the score tied at 20.
A game that was a beatdown had become a battle. One thing of note: Seahawks players said the Broncos, on their game-tying drive, were using plays the Seahawks hadn't seen on film before.
The lessons here are twofold. First, the Broncos' retooling, in which they added defensive pieces and more offensive firepower, has worked in spite of their loss.
Second, the Seahawks, while showing weaknesses in their secondary they rarely did last year, are still the team to beat in the NFL. One of the reasons why is a man who continues to be underestimated and under-respected by many in and covering the NFL: Russell Wilson.
The drive Wilson had against Denver's defense to win the game was the kind of drive that had Brady or Brees or Manning or Rodgers done it—all players Wilson has beat, going 7-0 against them—there would be odes about it written by the media. In those games against the best quarterbacks, by the way, Wilson has 14 touchdowns to just one interception.
Broncos players raved about Wilson—a number of them, not just one or two. "Keep talking up Andrew Luck," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. "Russell Wilson is better than Luck. No question."
That will be debated, but it is a debate. It is close, and Wilson deserves the edge. Go ahead and hate.
Wilson said winning big games is what some of the heroes who he watched, like Derek Jeter, did during their peak. "They always found ways to win," Wilson said. "They played to the end and founds ways to win."
The Seattle quarterback used a spicy mix of great throws and backbreaking scrambles to lead the Seahawks on a 13-play, 80-yard drive to win in overtime. It was breathtaking to watch, particularly since he did it against a highly capable defense.
"He was fantastic today," coach Pete Carroll said. "Just incredible effort."
Again, it's time to think of Wilson as a top-three quarterback. Not top 10 or five but top three. He has become that good.
But the Broncos should still have won this game, and if the coaching staff had loosened the reins earlier, they would have. Manning was just 11-of-16 for 82 yards in the first half, which is inexcusable for a player of his caliber. Those numbers are a product of Seattle's defense, but they are also a product of Denver being gun-shy.
It's smart to give Seattle's defense respect, but it's chicken-bleep to decide not to attack the Seahawks out of fear. That's what Denver was doing. The Broncos have maybe the deepest, most talented offense in all of football, yet out of fear, they consistently failed to challenge the Seahawks down the field.
How much respect is too much? The Broncos have a Hall of Fame quarterback, a stat machine in Wes Welker, two of the best tight ends in football and a good offensive line. All of that talent and the Broncos still went into a shell—just like in the Super Bowl. At one point in the third quarter, Denver was averaging 3.9 yards a play, almost a yard worse than in the Super Bowl.
Last week, the Chargers destroyed the Seahawks, and I don't want to hear it was because the temperatures were blistering or San Diego figured out some fancy new way to attack Seattle. The Chargers won because they were uber-aggressive. Philip Rivers and Co. said, "Seattle who?"
The Seahawks bleed. They can be beat. They're not made of some unbreakable polymer. But if you cower in their presence, then of course they will win.
It was difficult not to juxtapose the Broncos' talk of toughness with Seattle's actual hard chin. Late in the game, when Marshawn Lynch was running near the sideline, a Broncos player reached high to tackle him, and accidentally (at least I think accidentally) pulled out at least one of Lynch's dreads. The hair lay on the turf and Lynch calmly walked over, picked it up off the ground and walked back to the huddle.
Dude gets his hair ripped out and acts like it was a massage.
Later, as the Seahawks were trying to close out Denver, Lynch was getting bashed and pounded by the Broncos, hit so violently on one play his helmet popped off.
Denver's defense played differently than the offense. It demonstrated mettle all day, getting a safety and knocking Wilson around pretty good. Lynch had some good runs, but he didn't steal the Broncos' milkshake the way he has taken other teams'.
Both locker rooms had similar reactions. A hard-fought game. A game that lived up to its billing. Two different courses altered in different ways, both positive.
No team likes moral victories, but the Broncos did prove something. They proved that, when they want to, they can play with a team that scorched them in front of the world.
The Seahawks proved something as well. They proved they're still the best.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.