Broncos counter-punch to win, huge T.V. ratings

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Peyton Manning led the Denver Broncos to an opening night 31-19 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers by passing for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

Peyton Manning led the Denver Broncos to an opening night 31-19 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers by passing for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

Peyton Manning led the Denver Broncos to an opening night 31-19 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers by passing for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

Peyton Manning led the Denver Broncos to an opening night 31-19 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers by passing for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

DENVER — With its invisible vegetation and precipitation-starved air, Denver may not have duplicated the setting. Other than that, Sunday night’s 31-19 Bronco win appeared to be a revival of the Rumble in the Jungle.

The T.V. ratings certainly seemed to suggest a similarity, with NBC reporting that the game turned in the highest ratings ever for its prime time NFL slot.

The reason for the rating isn’t difficult to discern. With Peyton Manning in tow, the Broncos had all the mystique of Muhammad Ali.

Just like the former champ famously built a band of believers at his sensationalized sparring sessions, none of the record number of Bronco fans who showed up to watch the legendary quarterback loosen up his arm this offseason felt like underdogs.

Too bad. Looming as large and methodical as a young George Foreman, the Pittsburgh Steelers backed the Broncos into a corner.

As if to steal a page from the big bruiser’s book, the Steelers seized the upper hand, keeping their opponents on the ropes all game — Big Ben Roethlisberger even toyed with the home team. Every time the Broncos defense gained confidence on first and second down, Pittsburgh’s heavyweight under center would answer with another stiff jab on third-and-long. He confounded the Broncos with six of those seemingly inconceivable conversions.

The Broncos, meanwhile, appeared to be a flash in the pan.

A touchdown on a 2-play, 80-yard, 36-second drive? Miniscule as their voices may have been at a deafening mile above sea level, you could almost hear Pittsburgh piping up: “Big whoop. Let’s see them do that again.”

But that’s the thing about a former champion. The fact that they’ve done it before often means they can do it again — especially if you give them 651 days to build a cache of motivation and a comeback plan.

It may not have looked like a plan —  “obviously, it was frustrating,” Manning said about watching the Steelers pummel his defense for over 14 minutes during the 15-minute third quarter — but the Broncos counter-punched so beautifully it almost looked like Ali springing free and putting together the four-part combination that knocked Foreman out in the eighth.

Let’s recount all four of those shots, shall we?

Punch: The Steelers had the kind of possession that keeps any team in a game, holding the ball for 35 minutes to the Broncos 25.
Counter-punch: The Broncos came up with the big plays that win games, like a 71-yard touchdown reception by Demaryus Thomas and an interception returned for a touchdown by newcomer Tracy Porter.

Punch: The Steelers were great on third downs, converting 57 percent on the night.
Counter-punch: The Broncos were so productive on first and second down, they didn’t need third down. They faced only nine to Pittsburgh’s 19.

Punch: The Steelers used a no-huddle offense to keep the Broncos defense off-balanced early in the game.
Counter-punch: The Broncos used the no-huddle offense late in the game to seal the win.

Punch: For the vast majority of the game, the Broncos couldn’t get their mitts on Roethlisberger because of his great elusiveness.
Counter-punch: Pittsburgh couldn’t get to Manning either — because of the Broncos great pass protection and the signal caller’s quick thinking.

Like Ali’s left hook, it was the Broncos’ final counter-punch that proved to be the knockout blow. With the game on the line, Roethlisberger was finally pressured into the turnover that sealed the Broncos’ win. Manning completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards, two touchdowns and a Bronco win from the comfort of his pocket.

Now that they’ve proven themselves, there’s a new question for the Broncos and their old champ under center: How many more fights do they have left in them?

Time will tell. But at least one question now appears to be answered: Giving this team five prime time slots in 2012 was a good idea.

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