DENVER -- As risky as it is to draw conclusions from season-opening games, it's hard not to be awed by what the Denver Broncos did to the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night. It wasn't just the 49-27 final score or Peyton Manning's tying an NFL record with seven touchdown passes. It was the ease with which Denver rolled past the Ravens. It's as if the Broncos merely were waiting for the right time to show the world why they are the class of the AFC this season.
You can write it down now: The Broncos will be playing in this year's Super Bowl. That's obvious because they just whipped the Ravens without even having a team that was functioning at its best. Their offense lost its starting center to a season-ending knee injury in training camp. Their defense was missing its two best players -- linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Champ Bailey. The Broncos essentially had several reasons to struggle in their season opener. They played as if they could afford to suffer a few more setbacks before really understanding the sting of adversity.
This startling debut reinforces the same message the Broncos have been preaching since the end of last season: that a championship is the only way this season will be considered a success. "We're really confident in our personnel," said tight end Julius Thomas, who finished with five receptions for 110 yards and two touchdowns. "We know we have a lot of guys who can get the job done, and we showed that tonight."
Most of the Broncos' supreme confidence comes from an apparent sense of urgency. Manning has only so many years left in him. The same is true for Bailey, who has never played in a Super Bowl, and wide receiver Wes Welker, who has two appearances in the big game but has never won a ring. The entire Broncos team also remembers how last season ended bitterly for them. The minute Baltimore upset them in that AFC divisional playoff game, Denver's players had to be yearning to create another great opportunity for themselves.
We now know this team won't just be focused. It will be downright scary, mainly because its quarterback looks like a man who will not be denied his third shot at a Super Bowl. Manning spent a sluggish first half introducing the world to Thomas -- a former college basketball player who has the look of a young Antonio Gates -- and then took his game to an entirely different level in the second. Manning threw five of his seven touchdown passes during the final two quarters and left the Ravens' secondary both baffled and beleaguered.
Manning acknowledged that a 33-minute weather delay affected the Broncos at the start of the game. Once they found their groove, Baltimore simply couldn't keep up. "Our execution was better in the second half," said Manning, who completed 27 of 42 passes for 462 yards. "We had some mistakes early -- things that weren't indicative of some guys -- that were slowing us down, but we improved our execution as the game went on."
"It's incredible," said Broncos coach John Fox. "I thought he was incredible a year ago. I've said it a million times -- to sit out a year, come to a new city, all new teammates, a very unusual type of [neck] injury. I don't know where he finished [last year], but he was up there in every category that quarterbacks look at. And this one was pretty phenomenal."
The major statement the Broncos made with their passing attack was that it will be far more diversified than last season. It was hard enough for teams to match up with wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (five receptions, 161 yards and two touchdowns Thursday) and Eric Decker last season. Now Manning has Welker running wild in the slot. He also has a big, athletic tight end in Julius Thomas. Basically, don't be surprised if this offense is breaking records by season's end.
The Ravens, on the other hand, revealed that they are a long way from being what they were during their magical playoff run last year. Quarterback Joe Flacco needs more help at receiver if he's going to live up that fat contract he signed this offseason. The defense is going to need more plays from Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, two Pro Bowlers who were largely invisible Thursday night. Bottom line: This team will be lucky to win nine games this season.
As for the rest of the AFC, the Patriots have too many problems on offense to think Tom Brady can take them past Denver. The Houston Texans have to prove their late-season decline last year wasn't a sign of more problems to come; and the Cincinnati Bengals, despite their talent, are still too young. After that bunch, it's anybody's guess as to who else is playoff-worthy. This is one of those years in which the AFC clearly is the lesser conference.
The dangerous thing about the Broncos is that they're going to be a lot better in coming weeks. Miller should be unstoppable once he returns from a six-game suspension, primarily because he wanted to take his game to an even higher level this season. Bailey should bring more stability to a secondary that has young talents such as cornerback Chris Harris and safety Rahim Moore. You can also bet the Broncos will find more ways to utilize a running game that generated just 66 yards Thursday. When Denver fell apart in last year's playoff loss, it was the lack of a viable rushing attack that was most notable in that defeat.
If that sounds like nitpicking, then that's all the Broncos left us to do Thursday. They played that well in their season opener, even though Manning was quick to remind people that "last year was last year. This was just one win, and we could see Baltimore again." Still, it's funny to think that only a month ago, the debate raged as to how this team would fare without Miller available to start the season. Now we have the answer. After beating up on the reigning champions, the Denver Broncos will be just fine.