Third down the only tarnish on golden start

We witnessed the second coming of Peyton Manning. And it was good.

The Denver Broncos earned a hard-fought 31-19 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that, cliché in hand, was much closer than the final score indicated.

All was golden as Manning debuted in his orange jersey. Let’s make that: Most was golden. Work remains if the Broncos are to take that huge step forward and become legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

The task at hand, as we all know too well after watching Ben Roethlisberger last week, would be to contain the opposing offense on third down.

Denver’s defense was masterful against the Steelers against the rush — something we haven’t seen in, well, decades — holding them to less than three yards a rush.

But that third-down thing was brutal. Lowlights while the Steelers had the ball:

• Third-and-nine, 13-yard pass, first down.

• Third-and-two, four-yard pass, first down.

• Third-and-three, six-yard rush, first down.

• Third-and-11, 23-yard pass, first down.

• Third-and-13, 17-yard pass, first down.

And that was just in the first half. Then came the third quarter in which the Steelers controlled the ball for all but 21 seconds, which, if not an all-time NFL record for time of possession in one quarter, has to be darned close:

• Third-and-12, 15-yard pass, first down.

• Third-and-four, seven-yard pass, first down.

• Third-and-10, incomplete pass, but 15-yard penalty, first down.

• Third-and-18, 23-yard pass, first down.

• Third-and-seven, eight-yard pass, first down.

When all of the no-huddling was said and done, an interception return for a touchdown by newcomer Tracy Porter was the key, that pick coming on one of the very few poor passes thrown by Roethlisberger with two minutes remaining and Denver up 25-19.

That pick gave the Broncos a huge win against a quality opponent with many more quality foes on tap in the first half of the season. It’s more prime time for Peyton and his new mates Monday at Atlanta against the Falcons, another team that qualifies as quality.

The Falcons are a returning playoff team and were impressive in dispatching the Chiefs 40-24 in their opener last week at Kansas City.

Like seemingly every other team in existence, the Falcons are relying on the no-huddle offense, with Matt Ryan certainly among the better passers in the game. Ryan, using a trio of standout receivers, wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, threw for 299 yards and three TDs against the Chiefs.

The Falcons so impressed many of those who pay attention to such things that they are now ranked third in the ESPN Power Poll behind San Francisco and New England. Interestingly enough, Denver is ranked ahead of Atlanta in the AP Pro 32 poll at sixth, while Atlanta is ranked seventh.

I tend to agree more with the AP version.

Atlanta is not the third-best team in the league because of its defense. The Falcons gave up nearly 400 yards in offense to the Chiefs, with a close game turning into a romp in the third quarter because the Chiefs missed a field goal, gave up a fumble and threw an interception. Another interception early in the fourth quarter turned a 20-17 halftime score into a 40-17 Falcon lead.

Had Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel made more on-target throws, Atlanta would not have romped.

Manning is not Cassel. He is not going to get picked at key times against the Falcons, a team that lost its best cornerback, Brent Grimes, last week for the season to an Achilles injury and a team that is far inferior defensively to what Denver saw last week.

Think back to when the Broncos were playing against Manning when he was quarterbacking the Colts. Manning didn’t think twice about getting the best of Champ Bailey. He simply stayed away from him. Instead, he mercilessly picked on defensive backs he deemed lacking, fellows like Karl Paymah, Darcel McBath, Dre Bly and Renaldo Hill.

Manning should have a field day against the Falcons, who allowed 393 yards to the Chiefs. The Falcons, not the biggest or most physical of teams to begin with, simply cannot afford to be hurting in the defensive backfield with Manning sure to attack relentlessly.

The Bronco defense, with Bailey and Porter on the corners, also matches up well with the Falcon duo of Jones and White, with Porter actually used to playing twice a year against the Falcons when he was a Saint. Sure, Ryan will hit those two a number of times, but not nearly as often as Manning will hit whoever is being covered by Chris Owens or William Mitchell, second- and third-stringers as recently as last week.

I’ll take my 1-0 record and say Denver makes it two in a row and really starts raising some eyebrows — and the bar.

Broncos 34, Falcons 27.


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