- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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DENVER -- It was all hypothetical before Thursday night, some kind of on-paper exercise, a good theory, logical and all.
You know, all of those dispatches that flood through in the annual waves of optimism that wash over NFL training camp in every summer. The ones about what Wes Welker would mean in the Denver Broncos’ playbook, how strong Peyton Manning’s arm looked, how fast the Broncos could go on offense if they wanted to and just how tough it would be on an opposing defense inside a stadium that sits almost exactly 5,280 feet above sea level.
Well, hello, world. That sound you heard in the waning minutes of the first seven-touchdown game for any NFL quarterback in the last 44 years was 12 defensive coordinators knocking over the bottle of antacids because Manning is still on their docket.
“Seven touchdowns?” tight end Julius Thomas said as he scanned the room around him. “That’s 'Madden.' That’s 'Madden' football.”
“I mean, he throws seven touchdown passes and he’s almost nonchalant about it,” Welker said. “... And there are going to be a lot of things we can do better, we know that. But seven touchdowns is something special.”
In the end, the 49-27 victory over the Ravens meant Manning was the first since Joe Kapp in 1969 to throw seven scoring passes in a game. The wreckage left behind? The Ravens’ defense surrendered the most points in franchise history. Continue to peel away some of the layers and you’ll find the stuff worry beads are made of for those who follow the Ravens into Denver in the coming weeks and months.
The Broncos ran just 29 plays in the first half Thursday night and didn’t look all that good doing it. By contrast they had run 30 plays in a quarter in a preseason game against St. Louis.
The Broncos got the total to 68 plays by game’s end, and at several points after halftime when the Ravens' defense looked winded -- players with hands on hips, heads tilted back, with no place to go as the Broncos’ no-huddle look left it no way to substitute for fatigued players. And the Broncos still have another gear they didn’t even hit Thursday night.
“It does put a little more pressure on a defense as far as getting lined up and getting things communicated,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “... But then again it’s like a pitcher, you don’t go the same speeds all the time, you don’t get all fastballs.”
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase was the Broncos' full-time playcaller in a regular-season game for the first time against the Ravens. Not bad: team rolls up 49 points on seven touchdown passes and finishes with 510 yards of offense. And Manning or no Manning at quarterback, an offense can only go as fast as the guy with the headset getting the plays in.
And Gase, who said this past week that his biggest adjustment was adapting to the tempo of working warp speed, got the plays in at whatever gear the Broncos happened to be playing in at the time.
“We wanted to play an up-tempo game,” Manning said. “ ... Once we got into a rhythm we weren’t even getting into third down, it was first down, second down, first down. That is tough on a defense when you can keep moving into a good clip.”
Manning’s historic night will provide plenty of camouflage for a running game that is still a work in progress -- 65 yards on just 2.8 yards a carry -- and a defense that was slightly wobbly early on without Von Miller and Champ Bailey in the lineup. But that’s the way the opening week looks at times. A little disjointed here, a little choppy there. New players, new schemes, and given everybody holds the good stuff back in the preseason, it can often take a slice of September to get things rolling in the right direction.
“It’s not like we went out and won the Super Bowl,” cornerback Chris Harris said. “It’s one game, just one game, everybody knows that. A great night, a great way to start off, but just one game.”
It’s why, after his seventh touchdown pass of the night, Manning was standing next to Fox, pictures of the previous series in hand, making a point about something in the image to be found by a trained eye, why a somewhat agitated Manning then called a timeout with 1:16 to play with what turned out to be just two snaps left in the evening.
It was all there Thursday night, for all of football America to see. The Broncos can play in some rarified air and, if they handle their business, defenses just aren’t going to like it all that much.