By Mark Schiff
The Broncos are still flawless, even if they’re not exactly pretty.
In a tense, sloppy win that Denver was fortunate to pull off, the Broncos staged a fourth quarter comeback and kicked a game-winning field goal in overtime to beat the Browns 26-23 on Sunday in Cleveland, improving to 6-0 on the season. While that script might sound familiar, the particulars were not as the struggles of Peyton Manning were a major reason why the game was so close. Thankfully, Manning is playing alongside the league’s most dominant defense, one that consistently harassed Browns quarterback Josh McCown and again put points on the board.
To the chagrin of a full generation of fans in the Dawg Pound, the Broncos have now won 11-straight games against Cleveland. Here are your Week 6 team grades.
Although his numbers have taken a dramatic, dispiriting downturn this season, what’s perhaps most frustrating about Manning’s play has been his inconsistency. Once again, Peyton missed several throws to open receivers, including his third interception of the game, an atrocious lob to Barkevious Mingo in overtime (a name fans did not want to hear). Yet on many of his sideline routes, especially the gorgeous 75-yard fourth quarter touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, Manning displayed the type of precision touch that’s carved a large part of his legend.
Through most of the season, the ineffective running game hasn’t provided Manning with much relief, but Sunday’s performance against Cleveland was by far Denver’s best of the year (perhaps not coincidentally, it was also the offensive line’s best game). C.J. Anderson made some huge runs in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal, but Ronnie Hillman, who finished with 111 yards on 20 carries, has clearly overtaken him as the team’s star running back.
All told, Denver racked up a respectable 442 yards on offense, but it’s the mistakes and missed plays, such as Demaryius Thomas’ two huge late game drops, that have been keeping the games so close.
Shaquil Barrett had an absolutely monster game in his first career start. Replacing injured outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, Barrett had several tackles for loss, disrupted a pass, had a sack/strip/recovery trifecta and generally flew around the field like an All Pro, not a backup. The secondary also played lights-out. Cornerback Aqib Talib baited McCown and snagged his second pick-6 of the season in the first quarter, while safety T.J. Ward tortured his old team by making plays across the field and David Bruton Jr. collected a fourth quarter interception.
Denver gave up two long touchdown drives in the second half yet always rose to the toughest moments. Cleveland’s game-tying fourth quarter drive may have been aided by Derek Wolfe’s unpardonable personal foul (penalties are defense’s only major, consistent flaw) but they held strong to prevent a touchdown. And with Cleveland on the Denver 39 following Manning’s interception in overtime, the D made three straight plays for a loss to force the Browns out of field goal range. The defense has been strained as a result of the offense’s problems, and they continue to answer the bell.
Special Teams: B-
Despite winning the game in overtime, kicker Brandon McManus and the rest of the special teams unit had their worst game of the season. So even with McManus’ 51-yard field goal miss (his first of the year) and a couple of poor fourth quarter punts by Britton Colquitt that gave Cleveland good field position, the grade above speaks to how well they’re playing overall. It’s both a good and a bad problem when your kicker is consistently outscoring your quarterback.
At what point do you attribute at least part of Denver’s offensive struggles to coaching? The play-calling has been tight and conservative, not at all catering to Manning strengths as a pocket passer running the no-huddle. This is especially true in the red zone, where the Broncos have looked awful this season. Denver’s second possession was emblematic: With first down at the Cleveland 11, Denver called two safe runs off of left guard for a total of two yards, setting up a third-and-long pass that Manning had to throw away in the face of pressure. Although Denver has moved the ball fairly well between the 20s, the team’s inability to finish in the red zone with touchdowns is a big part of why all of their games have been so uncomfortably close.
However, with the bye week looming and a perfect 6-0 record, the Broncos and their fans can at last catch their breath. At least until Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers come to town in two weeks.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.