ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – After hurrying Denver’s quick-strike, high-octane offense through a record-shattering regular season, Peyton Manning has turned the Broncos into a slow-grinding, clock-eating machine in the playoffs.
Denver’s three most time-consuming drives of the season have all come in the last two weeks, helping to render opposing passers short-tempered sideline spectators.
In dispatching the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots, Manning dinked and dunked his way downfield.
“To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing,” Manning said after directing two epic drives in Denver’s 26-16 win in the AFC Championship.
Denver’s downshift, some of it by design, some due to circumstance, has thrown a new wrinkle into an already formidable test that Seattle’s stingy defense will have to prepare for in the Super Bowl.
After averaging seven plays, 65 yards and just over 3 minutes, 10 seconds on their 71 touchdown drives during the season, the Broncos have doubled the time to 6:23 in the postseason and the touchdown drives have averaged 12 plays and 79.4 yards.
With a wealth of receivers in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas and a rejuvenated running back in Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos are the first team in NFL history to sport five players who each caught 60 or more passes. Each member of this quintet also reached the end zone 10 or more times, something that’s never been done before.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase capitalized on all that firepower, Denver’s altitude and Manning’s deciphering of defenses at the line of scrimmage to ramp up the Broncos to breakneck speed with a no-huddle offense that created mismatches in 2013 after taking over from the more conservative Mike McCoy following last year’s playoff upset.
The Broncos scored an NFL-record 606 points. Their 37.9-point average was the highest of the Super Bowl era and second only to the 1950 Los Angeles Rams, who averaged 38.8 points.
The Broncos could have beaten that mark, too, had Manning not sat out the second half at Oakland in Week 17 after guiding Denver to a 31-0 halftime lead.
Taking away the three field goals backup Brock Osweiler led the Broncos to this season and Denver’s five return touchdowns, Manning’s offense accounted for 565 points in just over 453 minutes on the field.
That’s 1.25 points per minute.
Scoring doesn’t come as easily in the playoffs, however.
The most prolific team before this season was the 2007 Patriots, who scored 589 points, an average of 36.8, in the regular season and then averaged just 22 in the postseason, losing the Super Bowl 17-14 to the New York Giants.
While the Broncos have scored on 10 of their 14 drives this postseason, not counting the two possessions that ended in victory formation, half of those have been field goals by Matt Prater after promising drives stalled at their opponents’ 27, 9, 17, 2 and 35.
In the regular season, they had 71 touchdown drives and 25 field goals.
That accounts for a lot of their dip to a 25-point scoring average in the playoffs.
Yet, they’re in greater control and their defense is better than it’s been all season, yielding just 17 and 16 points after allowing 24.93 points per game in the regular season.
Credit Manning for keeping the Broncos on the field for an average of 35 minutes, 35 seconds to his opponents’ 24:25.
Philip Rivers, whose Chargers led the league in time of possession and had controlled the clock for more than 38 minutes in both of their regular-season matchups against Denver, watched helplessly as Manning converted 9 of 13 third downs in their divisional playoff game.
Manning had a tone-setting, 14-play, 86-yard touchdown drive that took 7:01 to start the scoring, then staved off San Diego’s furious fourth-quarter rally by converting two key third down passes to Julius Thomas to chew up the final four minutes.
“If we got it one more time, I believe deep down that we would’ve tied that thing up,” Rivers said after San Diego’s 24-17 loss. “Those are all a bunch of what ifs.”
Against New England, Manning directed drives that lasted 7:01 and 7:08, covering 93 and 80 yards in 15 and 13 plays, respectively.
It was quite a change for the Broncos, who kicked off the NFL season against Baltimore with a 24-yard touchdown that took all of 5 seconds, one of Manning’s record-tying seven that night.
Demaryius Thomas‘ third-quarter TD Sunday capped a drive that took almost as long as those seven TD drives in the opener combined.
“Usually we score fast,” he said. “But we had a 13-play drive and I got to the sideline, that’s all everybody was talking about. I didn’t know. I just knew we scored.”
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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