Some teams like to say the fourth quarter is theirs. The Denver Broncos are taking it to a different level.
With Peyton Manning putting a new spin on the art of the comeback almost every week and the Denver defense doing its part to keep him in every game, the Broncos have outscored their opponents 79-6 in the fourth quarter this season.
The 73-point differential is 37 points better than the next best team, the New York Giants, and is the second-highest total through six games in the Super Bowl era. Only the 1980 Detroit Lions, who finished 9-7, had a better differential at this point in the season, according to STATS LLC. The '80 Lions outscored teams 84-10.
Or course, some of Denver's strong finishes have come out of necessity — make that, desperation — because of slow starts that have also become a trademark of this team early in the year. The Broncos have been outscored 98-42 in the first half. The slow starts have caused handwringing, while the fast finishes have kept Denver (3-3) competitive and, at times, triggered huge sighs of relief.
"We're 3-3," said Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil. "If we were sitting at 5-1, it'd be something where we'd say, 'OK, that's great.' But we just know the second half, we've been in situations where we've had to rally and try to come back. For that to happen, we've had to shut some points down. Now, we just have to figure out how to make that happen in the first half."
If they do, watch out.
The defense has allowed only six points, one measly touchdown, in the fourth quarter. That came in the season opener, when Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger connected with Mike Wallace for a 3-yard touchdown pass.
If Denver holds New Orleans (2-4) without a point in the fourth quarter Sunday, it will match the franchise record — six straight games without allowing a fourth-quarter point. The record is held by the 1977 defense — the vaunted "Orange Crush" that took the franchise to its first Super Bowl. Led by Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson and Louis Wright, the '77 Broncos didn't allow a point over their final six regular-season games.
That year's team was built on defense; it allowed more than 14 points only once all season.
This year, the dominance can be explained in different ways, depending on the game.
"Atlanta, they're trying to play keep away at the end and we're forcing three-and-outs and getting the ball back and making a rally," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "Oakland's trying to get production so they can feel good about things. Pittsburgh, Big Ben has the ball in his hands and we had to make stops to close the game. Every game's different. I don't think you can summarize it in one sentence."
One thing that has been constant, Del Rio said: "The heightened awareness in the fourth quarter has been there no matter what."
In their last game, the Broncos outscored San Diego 21-0 in the fourth quarter to cap off a comeback from 24-0 down for a 35-24 win. Chris Harris closed the victory with a 46-yard interception return for a score, meaning Harris himself has actually scored as many fourth-quarter points as the entire defense has allowed this year.
"It's definitely what we're trying to do, trying to eliminate points in crunch time," he said. "We're trying to be our best in the fourth quarter and the same intensity and urgency we bring in the fourth, we need to bring that in the first half."
For the most part, Manning and the offense have been getting the brunt of the blame for the poor first halves.
"Quarterbacks are more fun to talk about. It's sexier," Del Rio explained.
In some games, the offense has committed turnovers to stall drives. In others, it has settled for field goals.
"You have to be careful of over-analyzing it and, then, all of a sudden, changing what you're doing," Manning said. "Because I think we all are close."
Manning's fourth-quarter passer rating is 118.4, best in the AFC. He has thrown for six touchdowns and no interceptions and 503 yards over the final 15 minutes of games. That's helped Denver get close in the three games it has lost and pull away in the three games it has won.
No easy way to explain it? Or maybe there is.
"I think it's just guys with heart," Dumervil said. "Just fighting, not quitting and trying to will it through to the end. We're a team that you know is going to fight hard to the end."
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