Wes and Ryan discuss the Packers' 29-10 loss to the Broncos in Denver on Sunday Night Football. (Nov. 2, 2015) Weston Hodkiewicz and Ryan Wood | Press-Gazette Media
DENVER — Aaron Rodgers got knocked around, Peyton Manning went mostly untouched.
It wasn't the only difference in the Green Bay Packers' 29-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in a big Sunday showdown of unbeatens, but it was a big one.
In the overall arc of the 2015 season, this was one of 16 and might not have much bearing on what happens in January and, perhaps, beyond. It's a road loss in the AFC, so it won't affect playoff tie-breakers.
But the Packers learned several things in this blowout loss, including that their yardage-hemorrhaging performance against San Diego two weeks ago wasn't a fluke. The Manning-led Broncos put up 500 yards against them Sunday night, a game after the Chargers rang up 548 at Lambeau Field.
"You could look at the (44-23) New Orleans loss we had on Sunday night (last year)," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Unfortunately, we haven't had a game like this since I believe that game where we got outplayed. We bounced back really well against Chicago (the next week).
"We're going to need to next week against a very good Carolina team, which obviously plays tomorrow in their house. It's going to be a rough week of work getting back at it, but we have to look in the mirror and assess where we're at."
Among the lessons from Sunday night: If the Packers thought through Week 7 that their No. 2 ranking in the NFL in sacks meant they have a good pass rush, they were wrong. They have an OK rush, but the downside of moving Matthews to inside linebacker is that it costs them their best rusher on a lot of plays, and they don't have enough rushing talent elsewhere to make up for it against a quarterback who gets the ball out on time.
So while playing Matthews inside is the right move, this defense still can be had. In the last two games, Philip Rivers and Manning have scorched coordinator Dom Capers' crew for a combined for 843 yards passing.
Manning accounted for 340 of those, and if he's not same quarterback he was even two years ago, he still didn't have much trouble picking apart a Packers' defense that couldn't move him off his throwing spot. He wasn't sacked on the night, and the only really good shot the Packers landed on him was when Matthews knocked him to the ground after the quarterback handed off the ball and carried out a fake roll-out.
"We didn't break their rhythm on offense," coach Mike McCarthy said. "They ran it well. The explosive gains were clearly lopsided in Denver's favor — I think it was 9-2 halftime; I don't know what it ended up but it was very lopsided again in the second half. I thought that was a big factor."
The Broncos, on the other hand, have two outside rushers, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, who strike fear in an offense. Ware, 33, had a big tone-setting hit on Rodgers on the Packers' first third down of the game and had the strip sack on the safety that put the final points on the board and the game away for good early in the fourth quarter.
At age 33, Ware had a much bigger impact on this game than his elder counterpart on the Packers, 35-year-old Julius Peppers, who was a non-factor.
The only time the Packers put any pressure of note on Manning was when they went to their dime personnel for the Broncos' last drive in the final three minutes of the first half. Matthews is a rusher in the dime, and on back-to-back plays drew holding and hands-to-the-face penalties on guard Max Garcia that ruined the Broncos' drive.
You wondered if Capers would just scrap much of his game plan in the second half and go mostly to the dime to sic Matthews on Manning. And maybe he should have found some way to turn Matthews into more of a rusher, dime or no dime. On the other hand, with the way his run defense was collapsing, Capers really didn't have any good options. Even with Matthews playing mostly inside, the Broncos' two primary running backs, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, gained 160 yards on 33 carries.
Not that the Packers' secondary was much help on this night. It really had no answer for 6-foot-3 and 229-pound Damaryius Thomas, who had eight catches for 168 yards. That included beating cornerback Casey Hayward for catches of 30 yards and 47 yards in the first 16 minutes that set up the Broncos to a 14-0 lead.
Losing cornerback Sam Shields to a shoulder injury in the first quarter didn't help, but nobody in the secondary held up well on this night. Along with Hayward, nickel cornerback Micah Hyde and rookie Damarious Randall took their lumps as Manning completed nearly three-quarters of his passes (21-for-29, 72.4 percent) and a 96.9 rating.
So the shine is off the Packers' 6-0 start, and it's off in a big way. The Packers have one of the game's two best quarterbacks but haven't been playing like anything close to a top offense for several weeks. And defensively they've been scorched by smart, experienced but immobile quarterbacks.
There are nine games left in the regular season for them to reveal whether this was a bump in a road or the exposure of some fatal flaws.
"For us, a very humbling loss," McCarthy said.