The Denver Broncos are 7-3, have the AFC West firmly under their arm and are headed for the checkout. Only a fumble or getting trampled by Black Friday Shoppers could spoil the satisfaction of having that big ticket item in their grasp. The Broncos fought hard for the AFC West and the only thing working against them is time.
The Broncos have busted the door into the playoffs and only need to pick up a few more items over the final six games. Getting a first-round bye and home-field advantage is like having fresh batteries and a Swiss Army Knife after Christmas. You can still reach your goals without them, but it will be a lot easier if you have them at your disposal.
An easy schedule should help the Broncos achieve their goals and only a Week 15 showdown with the Baltimore Ravens is standing in their way. The Broncos are having a season that they imagined they could have while the rest of the other AFC West teams slowly implode.
Primary Talking Point for Week 11
The running game has six games to transition from Willis McGahee to some combination of Ronnie Hillman, Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno and a free agent. McGahee was placed on injured reserve, but he was designated to return and could come back in time for the AFC Championship Game should the Broncos make it that far.
How damaging is McGahee’s injury to the Broncos’ postseason run? That’s a matter of some debate. Hillman is young and could improve drastically with significant playing time. McGahee is a smart and physical runner, but at his age you wonder if he might have worn down over the final six games.
The Broncos seem to be worried about pass protection, but that’s something they only asked McGahee to do a handful of times per game. It would seem prudent for the Broncos to turn the rookie third-round draft pick loose on opposing defense, but a lot depends on Manning’s comfort level.
Outside of McGahee’s injury, the Broncos had three players that were listed as limited participants at practice on Wednesday according to the team’s official website. Omar Bolden was the only player listed as out with an injury. Derek Wolfe, Demaryius Thomas and Virgil Green were limited, but their injuries aren’t expected to be serious.
Tracy Porter has been out for weeks now with an illness and he was a full participant on Wednesday. Chris Harris and Tony Carter have been playing well, but it doesn’t hurt to have many options at cornerback in case a guy gets banged up.
Overall the Broncos are very healthy headed into the final six games and with very little on the line the team can afford to give players extra rest so they are ready for the playoffs.
Player on the Rise
Von Miller is amazing player, but I wouldn’t say that he’s still rising. Miller has been great for weeks. The thinking was that Joe Mays, Wesley Woodyard and Miller were good enough a trio that D.J. Williams would not be needed when he came off his suspensions.
As it turns out, Mays was benched then lost for the year over a month ago. Keith Brooking had to step in and play middle linebacker and that left the Broncos thin on the outside. With Mays and Williams out, Brooking and Danny Trevathan has to step up and the results have been mixed at best.
That’s what makes the return of Williams so fortunate for the Broncos and the team wasted no time getting him snaps in his first week back. Williams performed well while playing in about a quarter of the team’s defensive plays and that number will probably continue to rise.
At one point I said the Broncos should have released Williams, but times change. The Broncos need Williams on the field and that almost always trumps what’s going on off the field in the NFL.
Stat Trends – Offense
The passing game is doing great. Even though Manning struggled at times versus the Chargers he was still able to put the ball in the end zone three times. You’d be hard-pressed to find a passing statistic where the Broncos aren’t in the top five.
The running game improved against a good San Diego run defense despite missing McGahee for half of the game. That’s a good sign for the continued success of the running game that should be powered by Hillman.
The only thing the Broncos are struggling with is fumbles having lost another one in Week 11. Fumbles are the types of things that can come back to bite a team in the playoffs and they need to do a better job securing the ball. McGahee was probably the biggest culprit and without him the Broncos might actually be able to improve in this area over the final six weeks.
Stat Trends – Defense
Defensively the Broncos seem to improve in a different area every week. Denver’s pass rush has been great and the team leads the league in sacks. The defense in Denver is ranked in the top 10 in just about every category, except passing touchdowns and fumble recoveries.
That’s to be expected when opposing teams are forced to pass. Passing means fewer opportunities to force fumbles and more passing touchdowns that typical come when the Broncos have a lead. There’s really not much to be worried about at all in these stats.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the Broncos is their 1-3 record against teams above .500. That’s probably the only statistic that really matters right now.
The Broncos play Oakland, Cleveland and Kansas City twice over the final six weeks. There’s very little reason why they shouldn’t win at least four of the final six games. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are tougher, but the Broncos play them at home which would give them a fifth victory.
The lone test comes in Week 15 against the Ravens in Baltimore. That game will likely factor into playoff seeding in some way and also serve as a barometer that tells the Broncos how much they need to work on over the final two weeks to get ready for the playoffs.
The Broncos are playing great on offense and defense and it will take a lot to change their outlook for the rest of the season.