For a Broncos’ offense without much going in the air (Peyton Manning’s struggles didn’t magically go away, though the receivers’ drops may have hurt more than anything else), Denver’s longest play from scrimmage was a weird one. Early in the fourth quarter, Manning slid to the turf to avoid perceived pressure—then realized no whistle had blown, so he got to his feet and found a wide-open Emmanuel Sanders for 34 yards.
First things first: the play should have been blown dead. Though Will Allen didn’t make contact with Manning, the QB went down to avoid Allen’s rush. Manning does this all the time, and it’s been a useful bit of self-preservation—if you’re going to lose the yards, why take a hit on top of it? Manning was giving himself up. But the officials on the field didn’t think so, and Mike Tomlin learned, when he was handed back his challenge flag, that that call isn’t reviewable. So it counted.
The play succeeded because Sanders kept running, while William Gay, in coverage, did not. Manning revealed after the game that that was no accident, even if it wasn’t drawn up that way:
“I was stepping up. When you fake that way and kind of get your head around, I felt that guy closing, so I stepped up and kind of leaned forward. My momentum kind of just took me down, I guess. I didn’t think that he had touched me. I told Emmanuel just to kind of be alert in case I fall down, get back up, to be uncovered.”
That’s a telling quote. Not only is Manning aware that he regularly hits the deck, but he also knows the officials won’t always end the play there. It’s a very specific “play to the whistle” counsel for his receivers. A veteran move, and Manning’s desperately going to need a few of those next week.