DENVER — DENVER — Eight months after leaving the same stadium on the ultimate high, the Ravens trudged out of Sports Authority Field late Thursday night as a thoroughly beaten team, taken apart by Peyton Manning and exposed by the Denver Broncos in every way.
In a 49-27 defeat in a game that they led at halftime, all the Ravens' preseason concerns rose to the surface, from defensive breakdowns to dropped passes to dubious penalties.
Manning threw seven touchdown passes, the most ever allowed by the Ravens, which tied the NFL record for the most touchdown passes. Manning connected with four receivers and was at his absolute best in a third quarter in which the Broncos turned a three-point deficit into a rout in front of an announced 76,977.
"We're better," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We can play better. We gave them too many things, too many open guys, too many things where we just need to get better at communication [and] things early in the season. Those were issues that we had out there that we need to clean up."
In a blistering six-minute span of that quarter, Manning threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell and 5- and 2-yard scores to Wes Welker. The Ravens, who trailed 35-17 following the third after they entered the quarter leading 17-14, could do little but look around with their hands on their hips.
For good measure, Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a 26-yard score early in the fourth quarter for touchdown No. 6 as the Broncos showed no mercy on the defending champions, who had knocked them out of the playoffs in a double-overtime thriller in January on the same field.
The loss was Harbaugh's first in six career season openers, and it might have come with a far bigger cost. Pro Bowl return man Jacoby Jones (sprained knee) and right tackle Michael Oher (sprained ankle) were both knocked out of the game in the first half, and their status is uncertain. Harbaugh did not have an update on either player after the game.
"It's just one of those nights," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It was a pretty good game for a while and it got away from us. We've all been through it before. If you play in the NFL for a while, you're going to be in these types of games and no matter how good you are or how good you think you are it's going to happen to you. We just got to get ready, regroup and go get the next one."
But the Ravens left Denver with far more questions than just the health of two of their key offensive players. The defense, which was overhauled in the offseason and no longer has Ray Lewis and Ed Reed manning the middle, got sporadic pressure on Manning but was taken apart on the back end. The new safety duo of Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo were beaten repeatedly in the middle of the field, mostly by tight end Julius Thomas (two touchdowns).
Cornerback Corey Graham, who intercepted Manning twice in the Ravens' playoff victory, was overmatched by Welker, while Jimmy Smith was beaten badly on Caldwell's touchdown catch.
The Ravens' offense actually got off to a decent start but couldn't sustain it. Flacco was sacked four times and threw two interceptions. One of them should have been returned for a touchdown, but Broncos weak-side linebacker Danny Trevathan prematurely started celebrating and dropped the ball before reaching the end zone. It went for a touchback, and the Ravens would score on the ensuing drive as Flacco hit rookie Marlon Brown for a 13-yard score.
But all that did was make the score 42-24. Without Oher, the Ravens' offensive line opened up little running room. Tight ends Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark also dropped several passes, adding to the misery.
After all the buildup, from talk about stadium banners to suspensions, the start of the game and the NFL seasons was rather anticlimactic because of a weather delay that began just as the two teams were set to hit the field for pregame warmups.
Lightning was in the area around the stadium, forcing the league to push back the opening kickoff 34 minutes, same as the blackout delay in Super Bowl XLVII.
After sluggish opening drives for both teams, the Ravens got the ball at their own 20 and drove 80 yards on 10 plays for their first score of the season. The drive, jump-started by Bernard Pierce's 14-yard run, featured a little of everything. Torrey Smith (Maryland) made two key third-down catches, one for 29 yards and the other for 11.
The second one set up Flacco's 2-yard touchdown pass to fullback Vonta Leach, giving the Ravens a 7-0 lead.
The Ravens had forced the Broncos to punt on their first three possessions, but they were put in a tough spot when Flacco was intercepted by Chris Harris at the Ravens' 24. Flacco threw behind veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley, and Harris made a good play on the ball. The Ravens' quarterback had made 210 pass attempts in the regular season and playoffs before being intercepted by Harris, who coincidentally had been the last player to pick off Flacco.
"The first [interception] I think Stokley had a step on the guy and he undercut it and he made a great catch," Flacco said. "The second one I think the guy knew what we were doing a little bit and I shouldn't have thrown it."
Manning needed just one play to punish the Ravens for the mistake. Before getting drilled by defensive end Chris Canty, Manning found tight end Julius Thomas alone in the middle of the end zone for the score. Middle linebacker Daryl Smith had passed off Thomas on the play, but safety James Ihedigbo was late to arrive.
The Broncos returned the charity with the game tied at 7 about midway through the second quarter. Wes Welker dropped Sam Koch's punt while inexplicably trying to field it inside the 5-yard line. Chykie Brown recovered it, and this time it was the Ravens who needed just one play to get in the end zone.
Ray Rice's 1-yard touchdown put the Ravens ahead 14-7, but that lead wouldn't last long either. Manning needed just six plays to go 80 yards, with Thomas doing the damage. The big tight end broke from a poor tackling attempt by safety Michael Huff for a 44-yard gain. On the next play, Manning again exploited the middle of the field, hitting Thomas for the game-tying 23-yard touchdown.
A 25-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, after Clark had dropped what should have been an easy touchdown, gave the Ravens the 17-14 lead heading into halftime, but the Ravens were clearly in trouble. Jones and Oher were both not returning to the game, and Manning had found his rhythm.
That reality would hit the defending champs early in the second half. It's a new season, indeed.