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5 Takeaways from Denver / Baltimore

1. Peyton is great -- and not for the reasons you suspect
It's easy to look at Manning's stats -- 27/42 for 462 with 7 TDs and 0 INTs and laud him. That's not what made it special. How about his willingness to consistently run on 2nd and long? That then made a 1st down run not a gimme. That set up runs later in the game. That also -- probably most critically, set up the play action pass later in the game. That then gave him an extra 1/4 to 1/2 second in the pocket which Manning has said is critical for him. Take a look at one of the Julius Thomas' TDs which starts out as a drag to the right before he cuts upfield. That play takes time to develop and Manning was hit as he threw. He needed every second on that play and the play action pass -- which was legitimate because of all the earlier runs -- caused the rush to slow just enough to allow him to get that throw off.

But think about Manning's game plan. Baltimore starts off with their best corners on Thomas and Decker. So Manning starts with the run. Then he works underneath -- to Julius Thomas + Welker. They start torching the Baltimore secondary. Baltimore adjusts by moving Lardarius Webb onto Welker. Manning then goes outside to Demaryius Thomas + Decker. He never panicked even when things started off slowly for them. He just worked with what they gave knowing that they simply didn't have enough to cover all of Denver's weapons -- and they didn't. Over time, it was like Baltimore was a boat springing leaks -- they couldn't keep up with all the problems that Manning found.

2. Denver made this look EASY
Final score: 49-27. But think about all the missed opportunities. Decker had an astoundingly bad game with multiple drops. Welker also had multiple drops and fumbled a punt return inside Denver's own 5 resulting in a Baltimore TD. Then there was Trevathan's premature pick-6 celebration -- think about that sequence for a second. Denver is up 42-17. Trevathan picks it off and is untouched going into the end zone -- that should've made it 49-17 and the game is completely out of reach. Instead, he drops the ball roughly 1.5 yards outside of the end zone so he can start celebrating which
a) the ball eventually rolls out the back of the end zone resulting in a touchback. Flacco takes the Ravens 80 yards turning a 49-17 game into a 42-24 game. 
b) Wesley Woodyard, in the resulting scramble for the ball, gets rolled up by a Raven and while he's fine -- was initially feared to maybe have suffered a significant injury.
c) Denver has to keep playing (and scoring) before the game is actually out of reach.

Oh, and Denver's two best defensive players, Von Miller and Champ Bailey both didn't play. They're both top-5 at their position. I think it's too easy to say that some things went well and some things didn't -- but the reality is that a ton of things went badly for Denver and they still annihilated the Ravens. Who are the defending Super Bowl Champs!

3. The value of drafting well -- in all rounds
Julius Thomas -- 5 for 110 with 2 TDs. This was a guy who got drafted 129th (4th round) in 2011. He played like a Pro Bowler last night. Reminded me of Antonio Gates (particularly apropros because Thomas is also a converted basketball player.) He's 6'5", 250 lbs. Tight end is simply not a complicated position. The routes are relatively simple. He has ideal size and can catch the ball. It makes sense to put a safety on a player like that, but Michael Huff was physically overwhelmed by Thomas. He's big, strong, and can run. He's, at best, a mediocre blocker. That's ok -- he'll get better. (and he needs to -- Dumveril got a sack on Manning because of Thomas' mistake.) But there's no doubt that Thomas has Pro Bowl potential. He's still learning the game (he had 1 reception for ALL of 2011 and 2012) -- but to get that level of talent for a mid-round pick? You have to do that in today's NFL. You can't just hope that your 1st and 2nd round picks pan out because they don't always pan out. They wash out at an alarmingly high rate. You have 53 players, you have to draft well everywhere. You have to take chances -- like on a converted basketball player still learning to play football.

4. Flacco's contract hurts -- a lot
Flacco wanted to be paid like an elite player and he's not a $20mm/year player. I like Flacco -- but I think he's a top-15, maybe top-10 QB. Not top-5. That's not bad, but he's clearly not in Peyton's class. The issue though, is when you have a salary cap, you need to get disproportionate value for every player on your roster. It's ok to pay market rate -- it's terrible to pay above market, and I think that's what the Ravens are doing with Flacco. Think about some of the personnel moves the Ravens were forced to make in the off-season. They had to trade away Anquan Boldin, who at $6mm/year, was making too much for them. Last night illustrated the huge problem with this -- without Boldin as their #1 receiver, they're now rolling out Torrey Smith + Jacoby Jones. Both very good players. But imagine Boldin is still there. Boldin is #1 and Torrey Smith is #2. That actually reminds me some of Irvin / Alvin Harper from the glory days of the Cowboys. Boldin, while not as dynamic as Irvin, basically grabs anything in traffic. Torrey Smith is your stretch guy. Jones is a great third option. That's now gone. 

Take Ed Reed. Granted, Ed Reed has been battling injuries and is getting older -- but Julius Thomas torched the Ravens last night. Who was his primary defender? Reed's replacement: Michael Huff -- who couldn't even stay with the Raiders. Reed is bigger, strong, tougher, and smarter than Huff.

Manning is probably worth $40mm/year, so the Broncos are getting disproportionate value. Flacco? He's probably worth $12-15mm/year. That extra $5-8mm is probably Boldin + Reed. It hurts. You need to get value for every dollar of the salary cap in the NFL. 

5. Denver's D is good. Maybe even excellent. Surprise!
Everyone expected Denver's D to regress. Football Outsiders makes a very persuasive case for it. And as I mentioned, no Von Miller, no Champ. Champ is particularly crucial because a big reason Denver had such great pass rush last year was because they could leave Champ out on an island. (which is a big reason they lost to Baltimore last year because they refused to adjust when Torrey Smith starting torching him). But Denver's corners played very well and even though they didn't have both Von Miller and Dumervil, amazingly, Robert Ayres and Shaun Philips combined for 3.5 sacks. That's as much as you can ask for from your ends. That being said, I didn't feel like the rush was fantastic. Flacco often had plenty of time to throw (which is even worse news for Ravens fans because it overall was such an anemic performance from their offense) -- but they generated just enough rush to get the ball turned over. And this is their B+ team. Wait til their A team arrives.

After yesterday's performance, it's hard not to consider Denver the overwhelming Super Bowl favorite from the AFC (presumably, SF or Seattle will still be a monster coming out of the NFC.) The biggest surprises though were that a Denver offense assumed to be excellent was stunningly good and a Denver defense expected to regress was almost as good as it was last year.