ARLINGTON, Texas -- Before the Denver Broncos arrived in Texas, the general consensus was they had lived the life of football luxury over the season’s first month.
Their future Hall of Fame quarterback and the players around him were piling up so many points, the Broncos were inducing yawns on the way to 20-something-point wins. But it did all sort of raise the question, the one about how they would do if somebody really got up in their grill, slapped a touchdown or two on them early, forced a couple turnovers and put them on their heels.
“I guess I would say we would respond. That's what we felt in here," linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “I’d say we would find a way. We always believe that, and, you know, Peyton Manning would do what Peyton Manning does."
It was there Sunday for the Broncos, all kinds of vocational trouble tossed onto their doorstep, waiting to see what they would do with it. And, in the end, the Broncos sorted through the pile, albeit not always in the most appealing of fashions, and Manning did in fact do what he’s done so many times before as the Broncos moved to 5-0 with a 51-48 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Along the way, Manning moved into second all time on the NFL's career passing yards list (61,371), passing Dan Marino.
“I think it was just everybody fighting together, fighting until the end," Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker said. “You always want to have these kinds of games in the regular season to make sure you have that toughness."
Ultimately, the Broncos' toughness and their place in history will be measured by what happens after the new year begins. But Sunday gave them the chance to show they aren’t just another pretty face.
No, the Cowboys, including several players who said this past week they were “sick and tired" of hearing about Manning and the Broncos, were inhospitable hosts with an upset on their mind. They scored touchdowns the first two times they had the ball and built a 17-7 lead after a third scoring drive to start the game. The Cowboys forced a fumble from wide receiver Eric Decker to end the Broncos’ first possession. They made the first interception of a Manning pass this season. The Broncos were missing five defensive starters by game’s end, and the Cowboys were ahead 48-41 with seven minutes, 19 seconds left.
“That’s the best team in football that we played," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “We stepped to that challenge. … We didn’t do enough to win the game. They did, and we have to learn from it."
With suspended linebacker Von Miller and injured cornerback Champ Bailey yet to play this season, the Broncos' weekly flirtations with history seemed at an end as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was on the way to 506 yards passing. Defensively, the Broncos saw Romo find opening after opening as cornerback Chris Harris (concussion), linebacker Wesley Woodyard (neck) and defensive end Robert Ayers (shoulder) went to the sideline with injuries and did not return. But on a get-up-off-the-mat kind of day, it was almost fitting that Trevathan found a way to get the defense off the field and give Manning a chance to erase the bad stuff in the game’s closing minutes.
Manning led a nine-play, 73-yard drive to tie the score at 48, but the Cowboys' offense, which had scored touchdowns on its previous four possessions of the second half, now had the ball with plenty of time -- 2:39 -- and all three timeouts, plus the two-minute warning, to close the deal. On first down, Romo took a sack from the Broncos’ Shaun Phillips. On second-and-16, Romo tried to force the ball to tight end Gavin Escobar, and why not? Led by Jason Witten’s seven catches for 121 yards, the Cowboys tight ends had enjoyed room to work against the Broncos defense for most of the afternoon.
“We had seen some things on tape we thought we could use," Romo said.
But Romo didn’t quite unleash his best fastball -- "I just didn't get as much on it," he said -- and Trevathan cut underneath Escobar to make the interception. The same Trevathan who had been carted off the practice field Wednesday with a knee injury that his teammates, coaches and anyone else who saw the play thought was season ending.
“God works in mysterious ways," Trevathan said. “I felt that pop [Wednesday]. I started seeing baby memories and stuff out there. I thought I was done."
Trevathan’s interception gave the Broncos the ball at the Cowboys' 24-yard line with 1:57 to play, all of their timeouts in their pockets and Manning at quarterback. They moved the ball all of 14 yards, with Manning taking the ball and hitting the deck on the last three plays from scrimmage. And with that, Matt Prater, who has spent much of the season kicking extra points and 50-yard field goals, trotted on and calmly hit the 28-yard game winner as time expired.
“I try to treat every kick the same," Prater said. “My mindset all year has been I kind of go with the flow, and when you have the opportunity to make a kick, you make it -- no matter the score -- when it is in the game or whatever. But it’s always good to kick one with the game on the line and help us come away with a win."
“People say we haven’t been tested or whatever," Broncos safety Rahim Moore said. "And it was kind of ugly; it was bad, good, bad, good, bad, good, bad, good … but it’s how you finish, and we finished on good. That’s what matters."