DENVER --In the Broncos' first two preseason games, the offense moved the ball efficiently, but didn't finish.
The third time around, things were different. Threes turned into sevens.
"Everybody was just happy that we finished some drives off with touchdowns and weren't settling for field goals," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "I think that was a big thing."
The first-team offense was together, as a whole, for just the first quarter of Sunday afternoon's game against the 49ers, but Head Coach John Fox was satisfied enough to give quarterback Peyton Manning the rest of the game off.
"I was pleased with our offense. I thought we were pretty crisp," Fox said. "I'm never really happy losing ever, but I thought our firsts looked pretty sharp and I think we made great strides this week."
Manning's first drive ended with a Matt Prater field goal, but the next two drives showed how far the offense has come in the preseason.
After completing 2-of-4 passes on the opening possession, Manning connected on eight straight passes and finished the next two series with touchdown passes to Eric Decker.
"We executed what we wanted to do and we moved the football," Decker said. "We scored in the red zone, we didn't turn the ball over too much and that is something you have to do consistently."
The first-team offense was in such a rhythm during the 17-point first quarter, the 49ers defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in 2011 realized it was a step behind.
"Manning, he is a player and a coach in itself," 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. "I think he knew what we were going to do before the snap even happened. He kept audible-ing."
The precision that Manning operated with against San Francisco – and the success that came with it – proved to be contagious.
"That gives the defense energy," defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said. "When you're getting three-and-outs and then your offense is going out there and scoring quick, you can't go wrong. Three-and-outs and scoring quick, you can't lose that way."
For two players whose NFL experience differs by more than a decade, Manning and Wolfe saw things quite similarly.
"I thought one thing that was nice is that the defense got a turnover, and then the offense went out there and got a touchdown, as opposed to having to settle for three," Manning said. "That is always big when you can feed off one another, offense and defense."
After jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, Manning gave way to quarterback Caleb Hanie, who played the rest of the first half with the first-team offense. Though he started with an interception, he finished with a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Joel Dreessen in the final minute of the half.
"It was very important," Decker said. "We have to find that consistency. We have to have depth at every position. I think Caleb did a great job stepping in and throwing the football. We bounced back from the interception – we had some miscommunication, but he bounced back and got us a scoring drive and that's what's important."
Although the game ended in a loss after entering halftime with a 24-10 lead, the first-team offense played like a team that's ready to go all four quarters – and not only finish drives, but finish games.
"It's fun," Dreessen said of the way the offense played. "When things are working, when we're running the ball, we're dropping back and throwing it, we're getting first downs, we're converting our third downs, it's just fun. You play off the good plays and you play off feeling confident about things. It's a lot of fun."