The Denver Broncos were an offensive juggernaut during the first 6 games of the season defeating reigning Super Bowl champions, Baltimore Ravens, on the opening night of the season and then winning 51-48 in Cowboys Stadium in one of the great NFL regular season games.
Yet oddly signs of failing started to appear during the sixth consecutive victory of the season over the worst team in football, Jacksonsville Jaguars in a 35-19 victory at home, in a game that they were favoured to win by 28 points, a spread that initially dropped to 26.5 points.
This is the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team so bad that even Tim Tebow cannot get into the squad. The Broncos decided to play their worst game of the season against the worst team. It happens in team sports, a sure fire winner is prone to drop to their opponents weaker level. This is a mental issue in terms of complacency and treating it like a practice or pre-season encounter.
However, would-be MVP Peyton Manning threw for his 2nd interception of the season and was at fault for one of the two fumbles the team suffered on the day. The other was due to the running back core of Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno. On the day Moreno had 3 rushing touchdowns off 42 total yards and 15 carries. In the second half, Manning threw for no touchdown and threw for 295 yards. Chad Henne out-gunned Manning by eight yards in the game including 190 yards to newly reinstated Justin Blackmon, whose ability earmarked the future problems for the Broncos secondary.
After the Cowboys and Jaguars victories, the stat that started doing the rounds was that the Broncos secondary and defence overall was allowing a huge amount of passing yards and after Sunday's defeat in Indianapolis they rank 32nd and last with 319.9 passing yards per game.
Initially, the stat was inflated because opponents being two touchdowns or more down in the game would be required to throw more frequently to score more quickly, hence the 500 plus yards afforded to Tony Romo in Dallas. Yet any Super Bowl contending team to be considered a contender over a pretender needs to make plays on defence - they have 9 interceptions but none for touchdowns; three forced fumbles two recovered for no touchdowns.
Unlike say the Kansas City Chiefs who have had 10 interceptions for three return TDs and seven forced fumbles for one touchdown; the Chiefs' limited offence is getting overshadowed by a high scoring defence - does that remind you of the Baltimore Ravens first Super Bowl winning team with Trent Dilfer at quarterback.
Then we come back to the main man, Peyton Manning, a man who is on an agenda to win one more Super Bowl title before his eventual retirement. Manning chose Denver over Miami due to the receiving core and the decent defence, however that defence lost Elvis Dumervil due to fax issues. They lost Von Miller for the first six games of the season due to misconduct suspension, Champ Bailey to a foot injury that made him miss the first four games of the season and lost Ryan Clady to a season-ending injury. This means Manning protection on the offensive line is not great and his old body is having to pick itself up off the turf more often; yet also he is having to throw more to keep the team ahead due to the defence not getting many stops or turnovers.
Yet Manning when he is under centre is starting to show some weakness in his arm. The flight of the ball is going very high and appears to have less zip on the ball; the Colts defence played brilliantly in wrapping up his downfield options with Demaryius Thomas having an awful day and Julius Thomas having his first non-existent game of his career. Only when the Broncos were down 21 points in the fourth quarter did Manning start throwing to the ever-reliable Wes Welker who made some astounding reaction catches to keep drives alive on third downs. Manning also showed a lack of composure and was visibly shaken by the blind side hit by Robert Mathis which led to a safety, prompting him to throw quicker to avoid being hit and asking his receivers to get separation swifter.
Yet Manning was then let down by some odd play calling. Manning was throwing it all over the place and a tiring Colts defence did not have many answers to him in that form in a hurry up offense. They had 1st and Goal at the Colts two yard line to make it a one point game if they convert a two-point conversion, yet they handed it off to Ronnie 'Fumble' Hillman who promptly fumbled handing the ball back to the Colts with 2:38 left in the fourth quarter. The unfortunate part was that the Broncos had three timeouts before Hillman's blunder, the fumble meant they had to burn those timeouts either side of the two minute warning. Matt Prater converted a field goal with 10 seconds remaining, prompting an onside kick that the Colts recovered leaving Andrew Luck to take a knee and the win.
This week the Broncos host the Washington Native Americans at Mile High, a game on paper they should win, yet the Redskins showed they are getting back to some sort of form from last season beating Chicago 48-44 at home. RG3 looks back to his old self, leading by example and is being helped by rookie tight end Jordan Reed who had nine catches and 134 yards. This is indicative of the Broncos woes versus opposing tight ends allowing 43 catches for 568 yards but only two touchdowns. That is 13.2 yards per catch, although they might not allow red zone scores for tight ends, Coby Fleener did have one last week and the field position will open up the read option play calling for Washington who got three rushing touchdowns off of Roy Helu last week.
After the Washington game there comes a much needed bye week for the Broncos and Manning to rest his arm. They come back in Week 10 at San Diego, then comes the key two match-ups versus the Kansas City Chiefs sandwiching a trip to New England. You could not ask for a tougher four game stretch. The Chiefs who are being helped out by a weak schedule (they play Cleveland and Buffalo) before they face the Broncos, meaning they could be 9-0 when they face the Broncos for the first time; they also face Denver off a bye which is a huge advantage.
If Kansas split the series with Denver and are the No.1 seeds in the AFC then Kansas will have a huge advantage due to the loud Arrowhead crowd. Denver require home field due to the altitude of Mile High, of course that did not come to fruition due to the Ravens' play off bandwagon. Manning has a history of not winning huge road play-off games (did he ever win at New England in the postseason?) and there is a theory that Manning plays better when ahead in the game when he can maintain his coolness and dictate the tempo, however, when he is behind in the game he struggles and panics which goes against his better nature.
Denver's remaining schedule is v Washington, v Kansas, @ New England, @ Kansas, v Tennessee, v San Diego, @ Houston and @ Oakland. Conceivably they could finish that stretch with a 6-2 record meaning a 13-3 record. That is usually good enough for #1 seed in the AFC.
However, the Chiefs still have v Cleveland, @ Buffalo, @Denver, v San Diego, v Denver, @ Washington, @ Oakland, v Indianapolis, @ San Diego. For the Chiefs they could finish 7-2 which would mean a 14-2 record for them, although the two series against Denver and San Diego will dictate the path their postseason goes to, and San Diego could sneak a wild card due to the fallowness of the AFC this year.
The Broncos so touted as the AFC Super Bowl favourite may have the offensive weapons to compete with anyone, yet they have questions of their defence to answer and Manning's health needs to be monitored. The Chiefs and Chargers will have a say in the course of the AFC West let alone the AFC representative in New York at the Super Bowl.
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