|WR Demaryius Thomas makes a one-handed grab. He's made some spectacular catches the last two weeks but continues to struggle with open-field ball security. (US Presswire)|
Remember when all the chatter surrounding the Broncos was about Peyton Manning's arm strength?
It's funny how quickly something that seemed so seismic just a few weeks ago has receded into the background. That's because Manning now has an 11-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, has pushed his quarterback rating back on the bright side of 100.0 and hasn't thrown an interception since tossing all three of his 2012 picks in the first quarter at Atlanta on Sept. 17.
Manning was 31 of 44 for 345 yards and three touchdowns in the 31-21 loss at New England on Sunday; put simply, he was vintage. The question now is whether the Broncos around Manning are good enough to meet the standard to which he appears to be returning.
Now that the fretting over Manning has stopped, the worrying over the Broncos' ball security can begin. Manning lost a fumble on a snap, but the Broncos' frustrations were defined by fumbles by WR Demaryius Thomas and RB Willis McGahee in the New England red zone that cost the Broncos two potential touchdown drives. Both also dropped passes, although McGahee's was more damaging. It came on a fourth-quarter fourth down that made the Broncos' climb back from a 24-point deficit appear all the more daunting. The Broncos moved the ball well enough; they didn't have as many yards, but they averaged more than 1 full yard per play more than New England (6.1 to 5.0). Denver also converted seven of 13 third-down opportunities and now ranks third in the league in that category. These indicators are positive, but as long as the Broncos continue to pace the league in fumbles-lost (seven through five games), they will never reach their potential.
Previous game's grade: A.
After holding the Raiders to one third-down conversion in 12 attempts last week, the Broncos allowed the Patriots to convert 11 of 16 before a last-play kneeldown. Denver's defense now ranks fourth from the bottom in third-down conversions, which appears to be more than just a stand-alone problem but a symptom of deeper issues. Even though the Patriots were without TE Aaron Hernandez, the Broncos couldn't contain all of the New England pass-catchers, and when they dropped into a zone, New England countered by running at will. DE/SLB Von Miller had two sacks, a forced fumble and a third-down stop in a goal-to-go situation that saved a touchdown, but he couldn't operate alone, and for too much of the game the defense appeared invisible. First downs were also a problem; New England averaged 5.0 yards per first-down play.
Previous game's grade: A.
Special teams: C.
There were no fatal mistakes, but there was also nothing to write home about. PR Jim Leonhard called for two fair catches, P Britton Colquitt averaged a net of 37.3 yards on three punts and K Matt Prater was perfect on extra points. But KR Omar Bolden opened the game by electing to return a kickoff two yards deep in the end zone and was stopped at the Denver 16-yard line. He did break a 33-yard kickoff return later, but his decision-making remains shaky -- as you'd expect from a rookie.
Previous game's grade: B-minus.
The Broncos adjusted their defense midway through the game, junking the man-to-man looks they emphasized early in favor of more zone coverages, but all that did was open lanes for Patriots RBs Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead, who combined for 142 yards after halftime and increased their combined rushing average from 4.6 to 5.7. Broncos coach John Fox was grilled by reporters after the game about a third-and-4 handoff to RB Lance Ball that was stopped for a 1-yard gain and wiped out the Broncos' chance to gain momentum, but that call often comes from Manning himself at the line of scrimmage after reading the defense.
Previous game's grade: A-minus.