BALTIMORE -- The last time the Denver Broncos weren't celebrating in a postgame locker room was in Foxborough, Mass., way back in Week 5.
These focused Broncos aren’t ready to say it yet publicly, but the thought of getting a chance to avenge that loss to the New England Patriots has to be creeping into the back of their heads.
Six days after the Patriots slapped around the AFC's likely top seed, the Houston Texans, the Broncos went to Baltimore and turned one of the toughest NFL venues into their late-season playground. They pulled off a 34-17 win Sunday over the Baltimore Ravens in a game that was a 31-3 frolic going into the fourth quarter. It was Denver’s first win in Baltimore against the Ravens in six tries, and it was Peyton Manning's ninth consecutive win over the Ravens.
“It was a big game for [the Ravens], and it was a big game for us,” Denver tight end Jacob Tamme said. “It was good to get this type of win.”
These Broncos are now elite and capable of beating a playoff team. Despite going into the game with an eight-game win streak, questions lingered about the Broncos because their three losses came against their best competition of the season: Atlanta, Houston and New England. Those three defeats have hung with the Broncos, even though Manning's offense was still developing at that point in the season, and Denver's young defense was still adjusting to new coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Had Denver stumbled in Baltimore, the Broncos would have heard the “they haven’t beaten anybody” dismissals all the way into January. But they avoided that discussion entirely by dismantling Baltimore in all three phases of the game.
The rest of the league tends to take notice of this kind of road performance in December. Denver now has momentum in the form of nine consecutive wins, the longest current streak in the league. It has Manning. It has a dominant defense. It has superb coaching.
A realistic case can be made for six or seven teams to win the Super Bowl. The Broncos have cemented their place in that group.
“You always want a shot,” Tamme said. “We have a shot. We just have to make sure we get there.”
Denver (11-3) has all but wrapped up the AFC's No. 3 seed in the playoffs but is still hoping to earn the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
The Broncos know they're a good team. They know they have staying power. Yet, they have stuck to this mantra: “We just have to get better every week. We know we will be in good shape if we do that,” star cornerback Champ Bailey said.
With the steady John Fox as head coach and the no-nonsense Manning at quarterback, the Broncos don’t allow themselves to look too far ahead. That’s been a theme during this impressive winning streak. In the glow of the visitor’s locker room Sunday, the Broncos were already talking up the importance of their final two games -- at home against also-rans Cleveland and Kansas City.
As much as we might like the Broncos to celebrate the win over the Ravens with some New England-aimed bravado, it didn’t happen.
“It’s all focused on getting better,” Tamme said. “Every team probably says it, but we know that it’s important for us.”
The only time the team’s winning streak is mentioned at any point during the week is after each win in the locker room.
Sunday, Fox led his team with this chant: “What’s better than nine wins in a row? Ten wins in a row.”
That chant started in Week 6 with an incredible comeback in San Diego to even Denver’s record at 3-3.
Now the Broncos and Patriots might be on a collision course for another Manning-Tom Brady AFC playoff matchup.
“We have all three phases working,” said Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas, who took a back seat to fellow receiver Eric Decker as Manning’s favorite target Sunday. “We are playing good, solid football.”
Sunday’s game showed the rest of the NFL that the Broncos can be so much more on a big stage than just Manning. The defense was brilliant as it held the Ravens to 278 yards, much of it in garbage time. The Ravens didn’t earn a first down until their sixth drive of the game.
Denver cornerback Chris Harris ushered in the rout when he picked off a Joe Flacco pass and returned it 98 yards for a score in the final seconds of the first half, giving the Broncos a 17-0 halftime lead.
Denver’s defense has been making big plays like that one all season.
“We knew we had to come up with something big there,” Bailey said. “And Chris did.”
While the Denver defense dictated the game, the Broncos leaned on the run and the revived Knowshon Moreno. After being inactivate for eight straight games at one point, Moreno has become a force for Denver with Willis McGahee injured. Moreno had 118 yards Sunday, and the Broncos ran the ball 45 times compared to 28 Manning pass attempts.
Denver is now a complete team, and the Patriots may have to plan on meeting the Broncos again.
Will that be the night when Fox says in the locker room, “What’s better than winning the AFC Championship Game? Winning the Super Bowl”?
Time will tell. But Sunday’s win over the Ravens showed the NFL that the Broncos have arrived.