DENVER -- It was hard to imagine a better start to a season than the Broncos had in defeating the Ravens 49-27.
No starters were seriously hurt, although Wesley Woodyard, Chris Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were banged up to receive sideline treatment from club medical personnel. The offense was even better than advertised or expected, as Peyton Manning turned in a signature performance in a career already filled with more of them than almost any other quarterback has ever had.
Here's how the five keys to the game turned out.
1. DICTATE THE PACE.
As the possessions and plays piled up, Baltimore's re-structured defense looked more discombobulated. The Ravens were going to rely heavily on situational substitution anyway -- their rotation of Courtney Upshaw and Elvis Dumervil during the preseason offered evidence of this. Four Baltimore defensive starters were new to the team this offseason, and it showed in a defense that frequently was caught out of position and had little time to try and adapt.
"Everything we did went wrong," said Ravens cornerback Corey Graham, and it was hard to quibble. But much of that stemmed from the Broncos opportunistically pouncing upon the Ravens' weaknesses as their defense enters a transition phase from an era defined by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed -- and last year supplemented by Paul Kruger.
Denver slowed it down in the fourth quarter after building a three-score lead, making heavy use of three-tight end formations after playing most of the game in three-wide receiver packages with Julius Thomas as the lone tight end, with the running backs changing depending on the situation.
2. CONTAIN RAY RICE.
This was where the defense made a massive leap from the first quarter to the second. Early in the game, the Broncos' defensive linemen -- particularly on the inside -- were pushed back off the line of scrimmage; as a result, Rice and understudy Bernard Pierce averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Rice was his usual self early, bouncing off blockers and caroming into the open field.
As the game progressed, Denver's defensive line wore down the Ravens' offensive line. It rotated liberally, using the position flexibility of Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson to display myriad looks. But what helped the most was the push that Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton got off the snap; they succeeded at breaking down the Ravens' ground game from the inside out, disrupting carries as they developed.
"That's what we've been doing in camp: trying to get a feel for each other. Then when live action comes, it just naturally flows," Vickerson said.
But the Ravens did their own part to muzzle their bellwether back, completely abandoning the run after halftime. Baltimore ran 16 runs and 31 pass plays in the first half; after halftime, they ran just five times while calling 35 pass plays. Much of that was due to the mounting deficit; Flacco handed off the football on three of Baltimore's first six snaps after halftime, when the deficit was two scores. After Manning's fifth touchdown pass put the Ravens up by three scores, the pass-to-run ratio was 32-2.
3. DON'T LET TORREY SMITH GET A QUICK JUMP OFF THE SNAP.
When he did, the Broncos were in trouble; the Ravens' early offensive momentum was provided in large part by Smith or the threat of him making a play; he grabbed three passes for 58 yards in the first half, including two for 40 on the Ravens' touchdown drive, 11 of which came on a reception where he stiff-armed Tony Carter to get the extra yardage he needed to convert a third-and-10 play.
But the Broncos were able to devote some extra attention to Smith as the Ravens' pass-catchers were battered by injury and ineffectiveness. Jacoby Jones left with a knee injury suffered when teammate Brynden Trawick collided with him on a punt return, and while tight end Dallas Clark had a 31-yard reception, he also dropped a certain touchdown and caught just seven of 12 passes sent in his direction.
Clark's 87-yard tally on seven receptions offered promise that he can effectively replace Dennis Pitta as a downfield target, and rookie Marlon Brown got more confident throughout the game filling in for Jones, catching four passes for 65 yards. There's evidence that the Ravens' passing game will soon hum effectively as it did in January. But by the time other Ravens were able to help out Smith on Thursday, they were down three scores and hopelessly behind.
4. USE THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE.
Before the game, we touched upon the Broncos' relatively bland defensive game plans in the preseason, and how they left latitude for Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio to use some tactics that weren't on film. This proved to be the case, as the Broncos frequently supplemented their front four with blitzes, including some zone-blitz looks that dropped defensive ends like Robert Ayers into coverage. Flacco was hit eight times, including three from linebackers or safeties -- two from Wesley Woodyard and one from David Bruton.
5. DON'T LET OPPORTUNITY SLIP AWAY.
When Chris Harris came up with a diving interception on a Joe Flacco pass to Brandon Stokley, it was hard to ignore the similarity to a play in overtime last January where he came up just short of a pick that could have set up the Broncos for a game-winning field goal.
"They ran the same play that I dropped in the playoffs last year," Harris said. "I just knew that if I got the same play, I had to make a play on it. Luckily it came back, and I made a play on it."
There were a few might-have-beens -- a pair of passes that sailed through Eric Decker's hands, Danny Trevathan's goal-line gaffe to prevent himself from his first career touchdown and a near-interception by Ayers in coverage on Clark as examples. But for the most part, the Broncos maximized the shots they had, and delivered a resounding defeat to the Ravens for the second time in their last three encounters.