While his team enjoys an early-December Sunday away from football, knowing it put heat on the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, Manning will probably keep himself up at night thinking about those missed red-zone opportunities.
“None of us are satisfied with tonight,” said the Manning of Denver’s defense, future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey. “But it’s another win ... and we move on and we try to get better.”
While they dominated the struggling Oakland Raiders all game Thursday night, the Denver Broncos were far from perfect, especially offensively, going just 2-for-7 in the red zone against the NFL's worst scoring defense in a 26-13 Denver victory that had all the feel of a 45-10 blowout.
Several Denver players spoke with dissatisfaction about their performance -- and warned that it must get better.
“If we are inconsistent,” Bailey deadpanned, “we’ll go right into the playoffs and right out of the playoffs.”
Overly critical self-analysis from the hottest team in football? Sure. Is it exactly what you want to hear from a playoff-bound team in December? Absolutely.
Truth to be told, Denver should be happy flying home from the West Coast with a victory of any sort at Oakland, Thursday-night style points be damned.
This contest had all the making of a classic trap game.
Running back Knowshon Moreno accounted for 167 total yards (119 rushing) and a TD for Denver.
The Broncos clinched the AFC West title four days earlier. They traveled on a short week. They played an Oakland team that was emotionally charged after the death Tuesday of Grady Allen, the father of Raiders coach Dennis Allen. The Broncos have a huge Week 15 game at Baltimore. The Raiders loathe the Broncos. If ever a team was being step up for a stumble ...
“Yeah, we knew it,” Bailey said. “Anything could have happened. We knew all the factors. But this is a good group. Yes, we left plays on the field as a team, but we did enough when we had to. … Now on to the next step.”
In the first year of the Manning experience in Denver, the Broncos are a focused bunch. They are now 10-3 and riding an eight-game winning roll, the NFL's longest current streak.
Most important, Denver is on target for the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Baltimore and New England are both 9-3. Baltimore plays at red-hot Washington on Sunday and New England hosts 11-1 Houston on Monday. The Ravens and Patriots probably head into the weekend feeling some pressure after watching Denver hit double-digit wins Thursday night.
Regardless of whether Denver gets the edge this weekend, it knows it has a big game against Baltimore. That contest is important for several reasons.
If the Broncos can go on the road and take a game away from a potential playoff opponent, it will serve both as a confidence-builder and a message to the rest of the AFC -- particularly coming from a Denver team that lost to Houston and New England earlier in the season.
That was before the offense jelled with Manning, and before the defense became one of the fiercest in the league.
“We know good things can happen,” veteran receiver Brandon Stokley said. “But we also know we need to get better. That’s all this is about -- getting better. We are glad we won and we are glad we get another game closer to the playoffs with a win, but we know we can do so much better.”
At this point, it is about the nuances of the game for a team that has been dominating on both sides of the ball during much of its winning streak.
Most of the things Denver needs to work on after this game are on the offensive side. Sure, Oakland had a few explosive plays, but, for the most part, the Denver defense continued its underrated run of excellence.
What Manning and company will rue about this one were the red-zone flops. It was un-Manning like. The team eased down the field, but failed way too much near the goal line.
“We will work on it,” said Manning, 36, who admitted he was tired on the short turnaround. “I think we will get it fixed.”
There were plenty of positives for Denver’s offense, though. Running back Knowshon Moreno continued to show he can be a capable replacement for Willis McGahee, who is likely out until the AFC title game if Denver gets there. Moreno, who was inactive for eight consecutive games, had 119 yards rushing and 48 yards receiving. Denver is trusting Moreno more each week.
Receiver Eric Decker, who was not part of the offense much of the past three games, had eight catches for 88 yards. Kicker Matt Prater, who missed four field goals in the previous three games, was a perfect 4-for-4 Thursday.
Considering the short week and the makings of a trap, this was a solid game for a team that has big designs.
“Now, it’s a race to the finish,” Stokley said. “We’re playing with the future in mind.”