It’s almost as if the 2012 Denver Broncos’ season has been scripted from the start. Last year the team had a story too, only it was grounded in fantasy and not reality. It was also grounded quite literally because Tim Tebow was the starting quarterback.
Peyton Manning has changed all that and brought the Broncos an AFC West title and a 9-3 record. The Broncos are now playing for a first-round bye while Manning vies for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award.
In Week 13, the Broncos travel to Oakland on a short week to take on the 3-9 Raiders for the second time this season. The Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6 when Oakland came to Denver in Week 4.
Primary Talking Point for Week 14
Are the Broncos pretenders or contenders? The Broncos have yet to win a game against any of the other elite teams in the NFL. That’s doesn’t mean they can’t win; it only means that they haven’t.
The Broncos face the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15 in what could be a playoff primer, but even that game might not give Denver a true test. The Ravens are 9-3, but they might not be much better than the Tampa Buccaneers and there are probably nine other teams in the NFL that are better.
That said, only two teams in the AFC would be a challenge for the Broncos right now—the Patriots and Texans. Both the Patriots and Texans beat the Broncos earlier this season. Perhaps that was before Manning was up to speed with his receivers and things will be different in the playoffs. There’s a very good chance we will find out in January.
Seeding is important because the Broncos don’t want to have to go through both the Texans and Patriots on their way to the Super Bowl so winning the next four is a goal. The Broncos would still need help as the Patriots would need to lose another game for the Broncos to capture the No. 2 seed.
The Broncos remain one of the healthiest teams in football, but they did sustain one injury against the Buccaneers that could be a little concerning and they have one that has carried over from last week. Versatile linebacker Wesley Woodyard sprained his ankle and did not participate in the team’s Tuesday practice and veteran slot receiver Brandon Stokley was limited with a hip injury.
With a playoff spot secured and only an outside shot a top seed, there’s absolutely no reason the Broncos should rush Woodyard or Stokley back. It just doesn’t make sense for the Broncos to put key players at unnecessary risk over the final four games if the players are not 100 percent healthy.
Matt Willis was also limited in practice. It was Willis who took the place of Stokley in the slot. If the Broncos are without either they will simple give more snaps to Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen.
Player on the Rise
Demaryius Thomas has become Manning’s No. 1 option in recent weeks and is reaping the rewards. Thomas had eight catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns in Week 13 which was his first multi-touchdown game this season.
Manning might spread the ball around, but he goes to Thomas frequently and consistently. Thomas is averaging 8.4 targets per game and has legitimate shot at 1,500 yards with good production down the stretch.
Over the final four weeks, Thomas faces three pass defenses that rank in the bottom half of the league. Oakland’s pass defense is one of the worst in the entire NFL and Thomas had five receptions for 103 yards in Week 4 against them; the only reason he didn’t have more was because the Broncos got a big lead.
Thomas is slowly becoming the next in a long line of wide receivers that Manning has turned into stars. Thomas is just a few solid performances away from that level.
Stat Trends – Offense
The Broncos haven’t had much of a running game this season, but it’s been just good enough to keep opponents off balance. A few weeks ago, starting running back Willis McGahee was lost for the rest of the season and ever since it’s been Knowshon Moreno’s job to lose.
Moreno had just 69 yards on 20 carries on Sunday against a stout run defense. The stats reflect the sub-standard performance in Week 13 as the Broncos dropped four spots in two statistics and two in another.
There is good news: Without McGahee, the team’s fumbling issues appear to be a thing of the past. The drop of the running game has been minor and it hasn’t impacted the team’s performance. The Broncos would probably like the running game to be more productive, but right now there’s no reason to be overly concerned about it.
Stat Trends – Defense
Denver’s defense still has a little room to improve, but the unit might have reached its first plateau. The most surprising thing about Denver’s defense continues to be how well it has played without recovering many fumbles.
Not recovering many fumbles has adversely impacted the defense’s turnover and turnover margin statistics and it just doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the statistics. A big part of recovering fumbles is luck, and the Broncos just aren’t getting lucky.
It’s not for lack of skill at forcing fumbles as the Broncos actually rank third in the league with 16. The Broncos could be even more dangerous defensively if some of the fumble luck starts to break their way. Add turnovers to the equation and Denver’s defense would be considered one of the best in the entire NFL.
From the stats perspective, the Broncos actually tumbled a little from last week, but a win against a quality opponent shouldn’t be penalized. The biggest regression came in the running game that has only been used by Manning as a change of pace.
If anything the Broncos are marching toward the playoffs healthy, confident and ready for redemption against those teams that they weren’t able to beat earlier in the season on their way to championship.