BALTIMORE - The Denver Broncos no longer can be considered a notch below the best in the AFC, nor can they be viewed as a team that can succeed only when Peyton Manning puts up dazzling numbers.
Their 34-17 rout of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday showed just how good these Broncos can be.
Chris Harris returned an interception 98 yards for a momentum-turning touchdown, and Denver cruised to its ninth straight victory in surprisingly easy fashion.
"You come to the Ravens' house and beat them handily, it's definitely a statement game," Harris said. "We definitely wanted to show to everybody that we're an elite team."
Manning threw for 204 yards and a score in his ninth consecutive win against Baltimore, the first with the Broncos (11-3).
But he was merely a role player in this one, because Denver's defence dominated the Ravens, who sputtered in their first game with Jim Caldwell as offensive co-ordinator.
This was supposed to be a test for Denver, which was 0-5 in Baltimore and was eager to face a quality opponent on the road.
"Pat Bowlen has owned the team for 29 years and has averaged 10 wins a season, but it's the first time he's won in this building," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I was proud to see that for him."
Down 10-0 late in the first half, the Ravens had a first-and-goal at the Denver 4 when Harris stepped in front of Anquan Boldin, picked off a pass by Joe Flacco and sprinted down the right sideline with Flacco in pursuit. The quarterback tripped up Harris, who tumbled into the end zone, leaving Flacco flat on his stomach and with a cut lip.
"He just ran the out route and I was waiting to see when he was going to look back at the quarterback," Harris said. "As soon as he looked back, I looked back and the ball was there. I just made a play on the ball."
It was the longest regular-season interception return in Broncos history, and it turned a close game into a rout.
"I made a mistake. No other way to say it," Flacco said.
"Baltimore had some momentum there on the drive and looks like they're probably going to get the touchdown — plus they get the ball the first series of the second half," Manning said.
"So just a huge play. The turnover is good, the fact that he took it all the way to the house for a touchdown was even bigger. Big play, big swing in the game, in the momentum. I thought it kind of jump-started everything in the second half for us."
The Ravens (9-5) were playing their first game under Caldwell, who replaced the fired Cam Cameron. Baltimore's offence sputtered in the first half, gaining only 119 yards and committing two turnovers that led to 10 Denver points.
It was 31-3 in the fourth quarter before Flacco threw touchdown passes of 31 and 61 yards to tight end Dennis Pitta.
"We couldn't get anything going until late," coach John Harbaugh said.
Baltimore has lost three straight — including two in a row at home for the first time since December 2007.
Despite the defeat, the Ravens qualified for the playoffs for a fifth straight season when Pittsburgh lost to Dallas on Sunday night. That gave the Ravens a wild-card berth, but they hope to enter the post-season as division champions.
Baltimore still leads the AFC North, but its lead has shrunk to one game with two to play.
"We're a 9-5 football team and we feel like we're 0-14 right now," Flacco said.
Caldwell's debut was a resounding flop. Flacco went 20 for 40 for 254 yards, lost a fumble and threw an interception. Ray Rice ran for 38 yards on 12 carries and the Ravens produced a meagre 56 yards rushing.
Baltimore's previous two defeats were by three points apiece. This one wasn't even close, and the stadium was near empty in the middle of the fourth quarter.
"As a player, I am embarrassed for our city," safety Ed Reed said.
Denver, on the other hand, appears poised to reach the post-season with confidence and momentum. The AFC West champions haven't lost since Oct. 7, at New England. The Broncos, who can still capture the top seed in the conference, finish with home games against Cleveland and Kansas City.
Baltimore's first offensive series under Caldwell lasted three plays and ended badly. Flacco fumbled on a third-and-1 plunge and the Broncos recovered at the Denver 47, which led to a 27-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
In the first quarter, Baltimore totalled 21 yards on 12 plays, punted three times and lost a fumble.
Denver went up 10-0 when Jacob Hester ran in from the 1 to cap an 11-play, 78-yard drive. Baltimore answered with three more unproductive plays before punting. On their fifth drive, the Ravens finally got their initial first down — on a 14-yard run by Bernard Pierce with eight minutes left in the half.
Pierce eventually left the game with a concussion, as did wide receiver Torrey Smith, who hit his head after attempting to make a leaping catch near the sideline in the third quarter.
Denver pulled away with two third-quarter touchdowns. Manning threw a 51-yard scoring pass to Eric Decker, and after the Ravens went three-and-out, Knowshon Moreno ended a 39-yard drive with a 6-yard run to make it 31-3.
Decker caught eight passes for 133 yards and Moreno finished with 118 yards rushing on 22 carries.
NOTES: Rice passed 1,000 yards rushing for a fourth straight season. ... Terrell Suggs returned for Baltimore after missing one game with a torn biceps and made one tackle. ... Hester's score was the second rushing touchdown of his career and the first since his rookie season in 2008. ... Pitta had seven catches for 125 yards.
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