This was supposed to be the game the Broncos' offense finally looked like a Broncos offense - or at least one that could score multiple touchdowns.
Sure the offensive line is still beat up with injuries, and sure it is still figuring itself out, but this is Peyton Manning + superstar receivers against a suspect pass defense and strong running backs against practically the worst of the NFL's run defenses. How could this not possibly be the game?
Alas...it was still not meant to be, and it was the Broncos defense again making the biggest plays of the day to keep the team at 6-0 and comfortably atop the AFC West. It was another exhilarating - but oh-so-frustrating - win.
I don't like complaining about wins, so I won't. But I've heard that writing letters you never intend to send can have a cathartic effect. So here goes:
Dear Orange Crush/Orange Surge/Mile High No Fly/No Fly Zone-
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. A million times, thank you.
You are amazing. You are life-saving. You are going to cause me to have a heart attack.
But still, from the bottom of my orange-and-blue heart, thank you.
Dear Offensive Line-
No sacks - yay! They weren't kidding when they said "work in progress." But you're progressing, and that's working. Keep it up. And nobody get hurt any more, please.
Dear Emmanuel Sanders -
I don't know how you do it (or maybe I do, He-manuel?) but ice that shoulder and get some rest. It is clear - all too clear - you are absolutely crucial to this offense moving the chains. And ask No. 88 to come hit the jugs machine with you after practice every day, ok?
Dear Coach Kubiak -
I like you. You defend your players, you take responsibility and you try to always improve. Good job sticking with that run game Sunday. It paid off - especially by overtime when the Browns defense was tired - and it will pay off down the stretch. So keep sticking with it; it will get better (but on that note - please, please stop calling for a pass to the end zone on 3rd and 2 from the 15. Let the running backs punch it in...that's what they're supposed to do.)
But also sit down with your quarterback and hammer out a plan for this offense. Teach Peyton Manning how to wait just a smidge longer for a better read, or throw the ball away rather than force a bad one too soon. (hey, he made that bootleg work at least twice yesterday, and he hit Sanders in stride for the prettiest TD of the year, so you can build on this).
Dear Peyton -
Please stop sucking. My admiration for you is unmatched, and my willingness to give you the benefit of the doubt is probably beyond reasonable, but I'm still hanging in there with you. My patience for you to "figure out this new offense" is being severely tested, however...and I don't like having my patience tested.
I still believe you can do this, especially with the defense we have. And I see those good throws, the big drives when needed most, the dropped passes that aren't all your fault.
And although I also see the INTs, the passes in the dirt and the "smh" decisions, I see how many of those things can be corrected - even at age 39, even after four neck surgeries, even with all the new elements in this offense.
But you still have to stop sucking. I'm not sure what it is you need most - more film room, more time with receivers, or just a good old-fashioned gut check - but you're a smart guy and I'm confident you can keep this offense on the field long enough to give your defense a break (and you're going to need to do that if they're going to keep saving your ass).
You and Kubiak are some of the greatest offensive minds in the game (and you have a third just down the hall), so make this work because I'm getting tired of being one of the few left to believe in you.
Rest assured, I still believe in you. But also...stop sucking.
OK, I feel better. The good news, of course, is that the Broncos are 6-0 heading to a much-needed bye week and have escaped a tough four-game road schedule with grinding, kicking-and-screaming (plus heart-attack inducing) victories.
While the execution is lacking on offense and miracles are in abundant supply for the defense, there is no doubt that this entire team will fight.
As oldcoachB noted in a post-game thread, these nail-biters are a lot easier to watch than the playoff game last January. And while we may be frustrated, Kubiak has a reframe.
"I'm challenged. I'm not frustrated," Kubiak said after the game, noting there's a big adjustment going on with this football team with injuries and new scheme, etc., so he's choosing to have some perspective. "I've been doing this for a long time ... and there's some things going on right now that we all have to adjust to, but we're going to do that. I am not frustrated. I am very challenged, and this is what I do for a living, so I'll meet the challenge."
Don't think he doesn't know where to start - a disappointed, but not frustrated, Peyton Manning.
"I don't sense frustration," Kubiak said of his quarterback who threw for just 290 yards with a 53 percent completion rate, three interceptions but one rather fantastic TD. "He made the plays that got us in position to win the game, and obviously, he has plays that he wants back."
But Kubiak believes he needs to continue working with Manning to get him comfortable in this offense, which will go a long way in eradicating the miscues and bad throws.
"I know he's very capable of getting rid of those mistakes and hanging onto the great plays that he's made ... he's our leader and he'll keep battling."
Manning certainly isn't happy with the way he is playing, but as usual, he doesn't take the "W" for granted.
"We're struggling. We're not playing as well as we'd like, but we're playing enough to win," he said after the game. "We're doing some things right at critical times, whether it's the last drive of the game or in overtime. We have to continue to work and try to improve in the red zone on third down."
Demaryius Thomas, who ended the day with some nice stats (10 catches for 111 yards, the longest being 20 yards), was equally disappointed in the Broncos' offensive performance.
"We are moving the ball and putting up a lot of yards, but can't put points up like we want to," said Thomas who had a pair of key drops in the game. "I have to figure something out. I'm not playing my best right now. I take the blame for that. It happens but they were too easy of passes to drop. I have to be better."
While Kubiak isn't pointing fingers at individual players, he admits to a rather long list of things to work on.
"As a coach, I'm concerned about a lot of the things we have to improve upon," he said. "I think we're a good football team that can be a great football team if we could correct a lot of our faults and mistakes."
The bye week couldn't be better timing for doing some "self-scouting," as Manning calls it.
"It has by no means been easy, but Coach Kubiak and I continue to talk and we are committed to trying to get on the same page and get where he and I have a good feel for each other," Manning said. "We are both committed to the cause. I think this bye week comes at a good time where we can study some things we have done in the first six weeks and see what has worked and maybe what is not working as well."
What is definitely working well - better than well - is that defense.
Oh, that beautiful, beautiful defense.
Four sacks (including two very timely ones in overtime to knock the Browns out of field goal range), two interceptions (one a pick six from Aqib Talib and one a game-saving INT by David Bruton with less than a minute to go in a tie game), one forced fumble and fumble recovery, eight hits on the quarterback and six tackles for a loss. Also, the Broncos held the Browns to 6-of-15 on third-down conversions.
"We were going to be aggressive," said Talib, who snagged his second pick six of the season to start off the second quarter and put the Broncos up 10-0. This makes it Talib's fourth pick-six as a Bronco, the most in Broncos' history, as well as the eighth of his career, tying him for first among NFL players since 2008.
But more importantly, Talib's play just added fuel to a fired-up defense.
"We were going to blitz, play man, make aggressive calls. We knew we couldn't give up anything," Talib added. "That is one we are going to hang our hat on."
The defense is likely also going to take a collective sigh of relief. Safety T.J. Ward - who was playing against the team that drafted him - said he had never been involved in a game with so much back-and-forth.
"I've never played in a game like this. This was probably the closest, back and forth, bogus play game I've ever been a part of," Ward said, adding he had to ask Talib and Chris Harris Jr. to calm him down a few times. "You really have to tell yourself to calm down, have your teammates calm you down."
If you're still searching for an answer as to how this defense can keep coming up with a big play at just the right time, Ward highlights the confidence they all have in each other.
"When we are in situations like that, we help each other out. It's not just X's and O's with us, it's all aspects of the game," said the Pro-Bowl safety. "That is why we are such great teammates."
And lest we leave out one of the most important positives of the Broncos game, Brandon McManus once again set himself up for Special Teams Player of the Month consideration with his game-winning field goal in overtime.
Kicking in a very windy First Energy Stadium, McManus had missed a 51-yarder earlier in the game.
He made up for that one.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," McManus said, adding that he thought he'd get a chance to win it with a long field goal to end regulation.
That didn't happen as a long strike to Sanders was ruled an incomplete pass, forcing the Broncos to punt and wait for overtime.
Because there was no scoring on the first drive of OT, the game kicked in to sudden death mode and Broncos took advantage of their possession to drive all the way down and kick a 29-yard field goal.
"Unbelievable job by the defense to keep us in," McManus said, "and a great drive by the offense at the end to get the win."