DENVER – Eight months after leaving the same stadium on the ultimate high, the Baltimore Ravens trudged out of Sports Authority Field late Thursday night as a thoroughly beaten team, taken apart by Peyton Manning and exposed by the Denver Broncos in every way.
In a 49-27 defeat in a game they actually led at halftime, all the Ravens’ preseason concerns rose to the surface from defensive breakdowns to dropped passes to dubious penalties.
Manning threw seven touchdown passes, the most ever allowed by the Ravens and ties the NFL record for the most touchdown passes. It also was the most points ever allowed by the Ravens.
Manning connected with four different receivers and he was at his absolute best in a third quarter when the Broncos turned a three-point deficit into a rout in front of the announced 76, 977.
In a blistering six-minute span of the third quarter, Manning threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell and five- and two-yard scores to Wes Welker. The Ravens, who trailed 35-17 following the third after they entered the quarter leading 17-14, could do little but look around with their hands on their hips.
For good measure, Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a 26-yard score early in the fourth quarter for touchdown number six as the Broncos showed no mercy on the defending champions, who had knocked them out of the playoffs in a double-overtime thriller in January.
The loss was Coach John Harbaugh’s first in six career season openers and it may have come with a far bigger cost. Pro Bowl return man Jacoby Jones (sprained knee) and right tackle Michael Oher (sprained ankle) were both knocked out of the game in the first half and their status is uncertain going forward.
But the Ravens left Denver with far more questions than just the health of two of their key offensive players. The defense, which was overhauled in the offseason and no longer has Ray Lewis and Ed Reed manning the middle, got some sporadic pressure on Manning but was taken apart on the back end. The new safety duo of Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo were beaten repeatedly in the middle of the field, mostly by tight end Julius Thomas (two touchdowns).
Cornerback Corey Graham, who intercepted Manning twice in the Ravens’ playoff victory, was overmatched by Welker, while Jimmy Smith was beaten badly on Caldwell’s touchdown catch.
The Ravens’ offense actually got off to a decent start, but they couldn’t sustain it. Flacco threw two interceptions. One of them should have been returned for a touchdown but Broncos linebacker weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan prematurely started celebrating and dropped the ball before reaching the end zone. It went for a touchback and the Ravens would score on the ensuing drive as Flacco hit rookie Marlon Brown for a 13-yard score.
But all that did was make the score 42-24. Minus Oher, the Ravens’ offensive line opened up little running room. Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark also dropped several passes, adding to the Ravens’ misery.
After all the build-up, from talk about stadium banners to suspensions, the start of the game and the NFL seasons was rather anticlimactic because of the weather delay that began just as the two teams were set to hit the field for pre-game warmups.
Lightning was in the area around the stadium, forcing the league to push back the opening kickoff 33 minutes, just one minute shorter than the blackout delay in Super Bowl XLVII.
But after sluggish opening drives for both teams, the Ravens got the ball at their own 20 and drove 80 yards on 10 plays for their first score of the season. The drive, jumpstarted by Bernard Pierce’s 14-yard run, featured a little of everything. Torrey Smith made two key third-down catches, one for 29 yards and the other for 11.
The second one set up Flacco’s two-yard touchdown pass to fullback Vonta Leach, giving the Ravens a 7-0 lead.
The Ravens had forced the Broncos to punt on their first three possessions but they were put in a tough spot when Flacco was intercepted by Chris Harris at their 24. Flacco threw behind veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley and Harris made a good play on the ball. The Ravens’ quarterback had made 210 pass attempts in the regular season and playoffs before being intercepted by Harris, who had been the last player to pick off Flacco as well.
Manning needed just one play to punish the Ravens for the mistake. Before getting drilled by defensive end Chris Canty, Manning found Julius Thomas alone in the middle of the end zone for the 24-yard score. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith had passed off Thomas on the play but Ihedigbo was late to arrive.
The Broncos returned the charity with the game tied at seven about midway through the second quarter. Welker dropped Sam Koch’s punt while inexplicably trying to field it inside his 5-yard line. Chykie Brown recovered it and this time, it was the Ravens who needed just one play to get in the end zone.