During the last three Broncos victories (over San Diego, New Orleans and Cincinnati), the focus was on Peyton Manning, and rightfully so. But while Manning put up impressive stats in yesterday's 36-14 dismantling of the Carolina Panthers, the stars of the game were Von Miller and the Broncos defense -- an excellent sign for those of us who'd like to see this winning streak continue to get longer and longer.
Granted, Carolina has had a rough season thus far, thanks in large part to second-year QB phenom Cam Newton's growing pains (and growing proclivity for pouting and blame-casting) and a running game, headlined by Jonathan Stewart, that's not been among the league's most consistent or formidable. But last week, the Panthers got a W against the Washington Redskins and highly touted hurler Robert Griffin III that suggested a corner might have been turned. And given that the Panthers were playing at home, an upset wasn't beyond the realm of possibility.
But despite Carolina taking an early 7-0 lead, the indications of Broncos dominance were plain early on. Indeed, during the first series, Miller, who's said to have been peeved by Newton's arrogance when he predicted a victory over the Broncos during an off-season Q&A, sacked Newton for a six-yard loss, after which he gleefully mimicked the Camster's shirt-ripping Superman routine.
It was a hilarious moment for Broncos fans -- and won that plenty of other players with horses on their helmets would have an opportunity to repeat over the course of the game. Newton wound up on his back or thereabouts a startling seven times during the contest -- a huge total given his mobility. And even when he was able to get rid of the ball before tasting turf, the pressure created by Miller and company consistently made bad things happen from a Panthers perspective. Prime example: Miller was on the cusp of planting Cam again when Newton got off a perfect laser...to the Broncos' Tony Carter, who promptly returned the pick for six.
Carter certainly deserved the glory. Along with Chris Harris, he has gotten increased playing time due to the continuing health issues being experienced by Tracy Porter, and the pair have combined to make the Denver secondary tighter, more efficient and likelier than ever to put points on the board. When Porter gets cleared to play again (which we certainly hope happens soon), he may have a hard time winning back the starting position -- a quintessential good problem to have.
Along with Carter's touchdown, the Broncos also reached the end zone on another exciting return by Trindon Holliday (who may have flipped the ball before crossing the goal line, but let's not fixate on that) -- and the defense contributed another two points via a safety racked up by Mike Adams, who's got to be one of the happiest players in the NFL these days, having landed in Denver after leaving Cleveland.
As a result, members of the offense weren't under pressure to put up a passel of points. Which is a good thing, because they didn't.
Continue for more of our post about the Broncos' win over Carolina, including three videos. Manning still had impressive numbers: 27 completions in 38 attempts for 301 yards and a touchdown to Brandon Stokely on a brilliantly designed misdirection play. But there were also a number of drops, including one by Eric Decker, who badly misplayed what would have been a huge gain, as well as an inopportune Manning fumble that, fortunately, wound up causing no damage; it came shortly before Carter's theft.
Speaking of fumbles, though, Willis McGahee coughed up the ball not once but twice -- and while he recovered the second of these himself, the frequency with which he's losing the handle this season amplifies the legitimate concerns previously voiced about his ability to grip the pigskin. To put it mildly, a ten-year veteran shouldn't have as much trouble retaining possession as does McGahee, and if he keeps up this habit, he's going to wind up on the bench no matter how effective a runner he's been.
It's a sad statement that late in the game, when possession was a must, Coach John Fox, wanting to enjoy his return to Carolina as much as possible, turned to rookie Ronnie Hillman rather than McGahee. Hillman was rewarded by racking up his first NFL touchdown -- and he'll get even more if the man currently occupying the starting position doesn't become a more reliable football caretaker.
In this case, though, McGahee's fumble-itis had little impact on the outcome -- and that's thanks largely to Miller. Commentator Phil Simms noted that he'd never seen Von play a better game, which makes sense, since he keeps getting better and better. The speed with which he moves made one Panthers lineman after another look like he was wearing concrete shoes, and his flair for the dramatic has clearly inspired the entire Broncos defensive unit. He's a very different kind of star than Manning, but one just as important to Denver's hopes of not only making the playoffs but going on the sort of deep run that fans in these parts began envisioning the second Peyton signed on the line that is dotted.
Look below to see a post-game interview with Miller and Wesley Woodyard, courtesy of CBS4, plus footage of Carter's score and an ESPN analysis of the game as a whole.
More from our Sports archive: "Peyton Manning's comeback versus Bengals echoes Tim Tebow? Not exactly."