NFL fans had a litany of questions about how the Manning-led Broncos would fare fighting uphill against one of the league’s toughest 2012 schedules. Denver responded with a thorough team effort against a great Steelers squad, and Manning showed that he still has plenty of game left at 36 years old.
What is perhaps more important for Broncos fans is that this Denver organization looks solid from stem to stern after years of turmoil. Everybody is pulling more than their weight, and everybody is on the same page from team management down. The Broncos are very suddenly a model franchise.
Manning silenced his doubters on a few key plays in Denver’s 31-19 win. In the first quarter he absorbed two thumping sacks. In the second he outran two Pittsburgh defenders on a 7-yard first down scramble. By the third quarter Peyton had the Broncos offense firing on all cylinders when he faked a cut-back handoff to Willis McGahee before gunning the ball to Demaryius Thomas on a bubble screen for an eventual 71-yard touchdown.
Meanwhile a young Broncos defense elevated its play after losing a series of 3rd and long battles. Following a Matt Prater field goal that put Denver up 25-19 with 3:00 to play, the Steelers offense went completion, incompletion, interception returned for a touchdown, sack, completion, sack, sack before Manning knelt down twice in victory formation to close out the game.
So ended one of the most anticipated returns to football in NFL history. Manning got a game ball from head coach John Fox after the game, and when implored by teammates to give a speech simply said that it was great playing football with this group of guys.
In both that locker room celebration and in post-game interviews Peyton was quick to point out that this was just one win to kick off a grueling schedule. VP John Elway and Coach Fox couldn’t agree more. And there is another victory to be had in that solidarity we’ve seen since Manning came to town.
The Broncos have gone from the McDaniels Nightmare to Tebow Mania to rock-solid organizational security in just a few seasons. John Elway is in charge here, but John Fox and his staff run the team. Peyton is the on-field general, but even when the Broncos went to a cruelly efficient hurry-up offense in the second quarter on Sunday we saw Manning looking to his coordinators for plays and calling audibles to Willis McGahee and the rest of a very capable Denver run game.
The Broncos’ schedule is wicked-tough, but this team will carry confidence and consistency into every battle thanks to a leadership structure that starts with VP Elway and continues through QB Manning. This is just one game – against one of the toughest opponents in football – but the look and feel of these Broncos is already entirely different from the Tebow-led crapshoot that thrilled Denver last season.
The Manning Era is here. It’s 1-0 for the record. And there is much to look forward to.