Defense wins championships.
That hasn't been the Bronco way for a long time, but if Sunday's slugfest at Mile High is any indication of things to come, Broncos Country has a lot of big tackles, timely sacks and game-changing turnovers to look forward to once again.
And given the number of baited questions to imply winning defensively is somehow less of a victory than an offensive blowout, it would seem reporters aren't too sure about this new look.
But head coach Gary Kubiak and his players are having none of it.
"It might be the greatest defensive football game I've ever been a part of as a coach. On both sides of the ball, it was just tremendous. It was a battle all day," said Kubiak, who earned the game ball from GM John Elway for winning his first game as the franchise's head coach.
Though it was an offensive struggle all day to say the least, Kubiak pointed out that while the defense kept the Broncos in it, Peyton Manning and the offense finished strong, taking up nearly the entire fourth quarter with one drive.
"That was a hell of a drive. The good news is, as much as we were struggling offensively, nothing ever got away from us," Kubiak said, also responding that it is definitely OK to win with the defense. "It's nice to know you can win a football game like that. You're going to have to win some in this league 42 to 35, too. We know that. But today we got it done and it was a tremendous job defensively and just a gut check as a football team."
Manning - who had a rough day, going 24 of 40 for 175 yards and no touchdowns, and will be the most scrutinized for the offense's stumbles - had a message for reporters wanting to make the story his erratic play.
"Everybody is looking for these summaries of our offense and our team after Week 1, and I just don't think we're going to be able to do that. It's Week 1. We're a work in progress," Manning said, noting the Broncos aren't three different teams. "We don't have a Broncos offensive team, a Broncos defensive team and a Broncos special teams. The Broncos beat the Ravens today. There's your summary right there."
#Manning: "If you need a catchy headline for your little article or whatever, we're trying to get better every single week." Haha. So there.— L.Lattimore-Volkmann (@docllv) September 14, 2015
Or as Brandon Marshall put it, "In the end, we came out with the ‘W'. To me, that's all that matters."
It certainly should be because that huge end zone interception by Darian Stewart to put the game away marked merely the culmination of solid D the entire game.
"I feel like we definitely, as a defense as a whole, we made plays, whether it's getting to the quarterback, getting to the ball, no matter what it was, we made the plays that we needed to make," said David Bruton Jr., who tag-teamed with Stewart in the end zone to break up what would likely have been a go-ahead Ravens touchdown with less than a minute in the game. "We know that we can go out there and win the game."
It didn't hurt that the offense had kept the ball for almost 11 minutes in the fourth quarter before Brandon McManus nailed his fourth field goal on the day and put the Broncos up 19-13.
Though it wasn't the touchdown Manning and Co. wanted, it ensured that the Ravens had to march all the way to the end zone to win the game.
"It made a huge impact on the game. Now our defense has to give up a touchdown, as opposed to a field goal," Manning said. "That was something we can build on, and I believe that we will. Like I said, it came at a really critical time."
Possibly the most critical play of the game from a momentum standpoint was Aqib Talib's pick six to end the third quarter.
Down 13-9 following a 10-point swing in the Ravens' favor after halftime that included a pick 6 on Manning, Talib put the Broncos back in the lead, but more importantly, back in control of the game.
"To flip field position was critical," Manning noted, giving big props to Talib. "Our defense played outstanding. Talib made a good play, obviously, to kind of negate the turnover that our offense had, so that was huge."
Fellow cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who was his usual menace on the field just by being a threat to any attempted receiver, added that this is how football works - sometimes the offense picks up the defense, and sometimes it's the other way around.
"Some games, Peyton needs a boost, so that's what we had to do. We had to give him that little boost and then usually everything turns around," Harris said, and that was exactly what happened. "That was a great play by Talib and was really a game-changing play."
Talib had his own props to hand out to an offense that got beat up on the field and in the press room.
"If the defense wins it, makes a big play at the end to win it, that's great," Talib said. "But at the same time, after the touchdown, we were up three. Peyton put together a 10-minute drive to put us up six and make them need a touchdown, so that was huge for us by the offense."
The cornerback also highlighted the defensive line and the edge rushers for putting pressure on Joe Flacco all day. Although the Ravens' quarterback only got sacked twice and hit nine times, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were constantly in his face. And when they weren't, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett were coming. And if Flacco got the ball off, the corners were chomping at the bit to make a play while Marshall and Danny Trevathan took care of the bulk of tackles, each adding six solo tackles on the day.
"It's a DB's dream to have that kind of pressure up front," Talib said. "You put that kind of pressure on a quarterback, he's throwing off his heels a lot. Receivers have to get in their route, not a lot of dancing at the line. It's a DB's dream to have pressure like that.
Ware and his fellow edge rushers are equally appreciative of their DBs.
"That's what has really been helping out the pass rush," said Ware, who had an early sack on Flacco and has moved up on the all-time NFL sacks list to No. 13 with 128 career sacks. "In the back end, they're able to make the quarterback hold the ball for us to get pressure and then making the plays that they need to make."
There were no offensive touchdowns by either team, and the first red zone snap of the three-hour contest didn't even come until 3:41 left in the game when Manning and the Broncos were threatening to put the game away.
It was a disappointment to everyone (except perhaps McManus) that the drive couldn't produce a TD, but there were a lot of good things to take away from that drive, including that it happened late in the game after three quarters of the offensive line get absolutely beat by the Ravens defense.
This fact was not lost on Kubiak.
"We're in the best possible protection we can be in and we're getting sacked," Kubiak said. "We as coaches have got to figure out how we can help them play better up front because we've got to protect them."
The offensive line's mismatches with the Ravens' defense were not unexpected and were part of the heavy pass-versus-run ratio most of the game, Kubiak noted. But the coach isn't planning to deviate from the overall goal to incorporate more run into the game plan.
"We knew it would be tough to run the ball against them, but we didn't want to give up on it. At one point in the game, we got really out of whack as far as heavy run-to-pass," the coach said, adding that Talib's touchdown allowed the Broncos to be more patient with the run on the next drive. "Give them credit. They're a great defensive football team. They got after us."
Part of Kubiak's "improvement list" for Thursday's matchup against Kansas City includes better calls for Manning.
"I've got to help him out better. Obviously, we've got to play better than we did offensively," Kubiak said, pointing out that Manning had the offense in the "right situations" at the end and completed "big" third downs. "That's part of this league. [We've] got to keep battling, but we've always got to get better."
Emmanuel Sanders, who was often a lifesaving target for Manning on those key third-down conversions, reminded fans it was a win - and that he's not complaining.
"The good thing is we still won the game. We have an opportunity to go in the lab and just keep getting better," said Sanders, who had 8 catches for 65 yards on offense and three punt returns for 20 yards. "We have guys like myself that haven't played in a preseason game and we're just trying to find our way. The good thing is, as long as we win our games there won't be any complaining from me."
#Broncos fans r-e-l-a-x PM still trying to get on same page w/ best weapon (Sanders) who missed preseason. Overthrew 2 potential TDs to him— Benjamin Allbright (@AllbrightNFL) September 14, 2015
Sanders believes some of his misses were as much his fault as Manning's and thinks the offense just needs time to find its rhythm.
"I should have run faster on some of those deep balls and we wouldn't even be having this conversation, So, that's two touchdowns right there," Sanders said, defending his quarterback as much as the offense in general. "We just have to continuously get better. I think we have the guys in this locker room that are willing to do that."
And as far as fans booing Manning, Sanders has enough perspective to overlook that.
"It is what it is. You know how it is, one day you're getting booed, the next day you're getting cheered," Sanders said, adding it's just life in the NFL. "So, we just have to get back in the lab and create some touchdowns."
Whether you choose to bemoan the lack of offensive dominance or praise the defensive power in the 19-13 win, Marshall has a little more perspective for you.
"It was awesome. It was one of the first games that we won like this, since I've been here at least," said Marshall, who spent the offseason rehabbing back from injury. "It felt great to be able to say that the defense won the game for us. We put our offense in great positions and we put ourselves in great positions. I just think it was a great day, and we won the game."
And keep in mind - defense wins championships.