It's hard to fathom, what with the Broncos' 6-0 start and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning as their quarterback, but this offense entered Sunday night's game against the 6-0 Packers as the single-worst unit in the league.
Things had gotten so bad that people were calling for Manning to be benched for Brock Osweiler, and idiots like us were comparing him to the 2000 version of Trent Freaking Dilfer, who rode the coattails of that Ravens' defense all the way to a Super Bowl trophy. Manning, through six games, was a glorified game manager who looked incapable of throwing the ball more than 7 or 8 yards down the field.
But on Sunday, against arguably the best team in the NFC, Peyton looked like ... well, Peyton. He was comfortable in the pocket, he got the ball out on time and, perhaps most impressive, he threw deep and accurate, something we hadn't seen this season. It was easily Manning's best game of 2015 and suddenly shakes things up in the "Patriots are running away with the conference" conversation.
If nothing else, it gives our colleague Pete Prisco a chance to needle the doubters (and that included us):
Where is the Peyton-is-done crowd tonight? Anybody?— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) November 2, 2015
1. So what changed for Peyton in Week 8? Here's one theory: Early in the season, Manning was still learning first-year coach Gary Kubiak's offense, one that typically has the quarterback under center and running a fair amount of bootlegs. Manning excels in the shotgun and it's safe to say throwing on the run isn't his forte. The Broncos have featured him more in the shotgun in recent weeks, and just as important, the running game showed up against the Packers.
Heading into the game, the Broncos' ground attack ranked 31st in the league, according to Football Outsiders. On Sunday, the unit racked up a 160 net rushing yards, with C.J. Anderson leading the way, with 101 and Ronnie Hillman adding 60 more. (In case you're wondering: Juwan Thompson had one rush for -1 yards.)
2. So, is this Peyton here to stay? That's the question. He started strong last season and then faded badly down the stretch. And after a poor December performance on Monday Night Football against the Bengals we compared Peyton to his 65-year-old dad, Archie.
But unlike when Manning was in Indianapolis -- and for the first three years in Denver, for that matter -- now he doesn't have to be the best player on this team. The defense has happily taken on that responsibility and have been dominant over the first half of the season.
3. The deep ball is back, y'all. Manning spent the first two months of the season throwing wounded ducks 5-15 yards down the field but everything clicked on Sunday. He didn't throw a touchdown pass but showed great touch on passes downfield and that was encouraging.
These series of tweets from former NFL general manager Charley Casserly sound a lot like everyone who has doubted Manning this season:
That said, Manning came into the game with seven touchdowns against 10 interceptions, and he's only a game removed from a three-pick performance against the Browns. A reminder that he hasn't been himself for pretty much all season:
With that pick, Peyton moves into a tie with Matthew Stafford for the most interceptions in the NFL this year, with 11.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) November 2, 2015
It was a meaningless fourth-quarter pick, but still. Anytime you're mentioned in the same statistical category with Matthew Stafford, it's almost certainly not a good thing.
4. Welcome back, C.J. Anderson. Anderson came out of nowhere a season ago, and finished 2014 with 847 yards and 4.7 yards per carry. Through six games in 2015, Anderson had 180 yards and 2.7 yards per carry. This looked a lot like 2014 Anderson, which is good news for 2015 Manning:
We'll say it again: Manning's sudden resurgence -- which included some effective play action -- along with a solid running game made a big the difference.
5. Don't forget the tight ends. It sounds silly, we know. Manning regularly relied on Dallas Clark when they were together in Indianapolis, and the same can be said when Julius Thomas was in Denver. But this season, with Thomas in Jacksonville and Manning struggling, the tight ends were a non-factor in Denver's offense. In fact, the Broncos ranked 29th in the league when it came to targeting tight ends, averaging 20.3 yards per game. On Sunday, Virgil Green and Owen Daniels combined for six catches and 105 yards.
So was this a good night for Manning and the offense, or a sign of things to come?
6. The Packers were done at halftime when they trailed 17-7. At least according to history:
0-23 when down 9+ points in 2nd half. https://t.co/hK7BHk3yWU— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) November 2, 2015
Good news: as my CBSSports.com colleague Jared Dubin points out, "Rodgers only has 10 other losses besides those 23 games in his 109 starts." Not too shabby.
7. More good news for the Packers: they're in the NFC North. The Vikings won on Sunday to move to 5-2, but the Packers remain the favorites in the division. Not only that, losing one game on the road, against the NFL's most tenacious defense isn't anything to make you re-examine your season.
If anything, the Packers can look back to the 2014 season opener, when they were shellacked in Seattle on national television. A few weeks later, they were 1-2, Rodgers had to remind everyone to "R-E-L-A-X" and Green Bay finished on an 11-2 run.
Yes, the Broncos' D made Rodgers look like Matt Cassel, but they make everyone look like that. It's a testament to just how well Wade Phillips has this group playing. Beyond that, it's another regular-season game, which happens to be the first one the Packers have lost all season.
8. To reiterate: that Broncos' defense is Peyton's best friend. Here's DeMarcus Ware wreaking DeMarcus Ware-type havoc all over Rodgers:
9. Manning continues to set records. Not sure anyone had given much thought to "most team points," but Manning surpassed Brett Favre in that category on Sunday night:
And then there's this:
Peyton Manning: 5th 7-0 start in his career (1st since 2009 with Colts - started 14-0)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 2, 2015
The Colts went 14-2 in 2009, Manning threw for 4,500 yards with 33 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, and the team eventually lost to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
10. Matt Paradis is our new favorite player.
Mark Davis just now: "Get me Matt Paradis!" pic.twitter.com/XAOr452P1D— Chris Sprow (@SprowESPN) November 2, 2015