It looked at halftime like the Denver Broncos were headed toward another tight finish with the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
Denver clung to a 16-14 lead. The Broncos’ defense looked like its scary self, while Trevor Siemian looked adequate. The new quarterback had completed a little more than half his passes, throwing two touchdown completions as well a two attempts that easily could have been picked.
And then something funny happened in the second half.
For 30 minutes, Siemian morphed into Peyton Manning — and not the beaten-up version from last year. Manning in his prime. In his first NFL road start ever, Siemian completed 10 of 11 passes for 168 yards and threw for two more scores in the second half as Denver (3-0) cruised to a 29-17 win over Cincinnati.
When it was over, nine different Broncos’ players had recorded a reception. Two of them — Emmanuel Sanders (nine catches – 117 yards – two TD) and Demaryius Thomas (six catches – 100 yards – one TD) — eclipsed the 100-yard, one-TD mark. Suddenly, an offense that looked like a weakness through two weeks appeared potent, a surprising reversal that means Denver really could make noise in the playoffs again.
After spending this week subtly griping about their lack of touches, Sanders and Thomas went off. Sanders scored Denver’s first touchdown of the day on a 41-yard bomb that made it 10-7.
His work catching short passes in traffic and making defenders miss was perhaps just as important. Sanders’ elusiveness inflated Siemian’s gaudy yardage total. Someone say a prayer for Dre Kirkpatrick’s ankles tonight.
Thomas also impressed. On third-and-11 with 4:23 remaining and the Broncos up five, he beat Bengals corner Chris Lewis-Harris for a 55-yard score. The touchdown all but put the game out of reach.
The big play had been missing from Denver’s offense in the first two weeks of the season. Siemian only attempted one pass in 59 attempts that traveled 20-plus yards in the air in weeks one and two, ESPN found. Airing it out paid dividends Sunday.
Denver hung 29 points even as its running game struggled (52 yards on 23 attempts) and its defense didn’t score. That alone should put fear into the rest of the league. The Broncos’ defense already looks like it could have a top-five finish this season; even without DeMarcus Ware, they slowed Cincinnati’s dangerous passing attack. If you add quarterback play like the Broncos got from Siemian in the second half, those are the ingredients of another team that can advance deep in the playoffs.
The weapons are there for Siemian. And he used them beautifully against Cincinnati.