Look how far the Denver Broncos have come in just 14 weeks of football. It was just a few months ago that everyone was wondering how healthy Peyton Manning was and how effective he could be after missing a year. Manning is now having one of the best years of his career, and Denver’s defense has taken the next step.
Just about everything has gone right for the Broncos this season, and that’s why they are 10-3. Denver’s late-season schedule hasn’t been particularly tough, and that means the playoffs are going to present a new challenge for this team.
The Broncos get a test this week against the 9-4 Baltimore Ravens. It’s probably unlikely that the Broncos will be able to get a first-round bye even with a win, but a win would be proof that the Broncos can beat playoff-caliber teams.
Primary Talking Point for Week 15
Playoff seeding likely comes down to the No. 3 or No. 4 seed for the Broncos. It’s unlikely that the New England Patriots are going to lose again, and the Houston Texans would have to lose twice for the Broncos to get one of the top two seeds and a first-round bye.
The Patriots do face the San Francisco 49ers this week, so the No. 2 seed does remain a possibility if the Broncos win all of their remaining games. However, in that scenario the Patriots would likely have to come to Denver if they make it to the second round of the playoffs. It's better than travelling to New England, but the Broncos would probably try to avoid playing Brady altogether.
A win this week would almost assure the Broncos of at least the No. 3 seed if they also win the final two games. That means the Broncos would play the lesser of the two wild-card teams which is currently the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that could change over the course of the next few weeks.
The AFC North would be a three-way competition if the Ravens lose and the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals win in Week 15. The Steelers play the Bengals in Week 16 and the Ravens play the Bengals in Week 17. If the Broncos win, they open the door for the Steelers and Bengals to win that division.
A loss this week would bump the Broncos down to the No. 4 seed and could pit Manning against his old team in Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs. A loss would also make it possible for the Broncos to face the Texans and not the Patriots in the second round provided they get that far. If it weren't for the question a loss would present, this might actually be the preferred route.
Head spinning yet?
Wesley Woodyard and Chris Kuper returned to practice on Wednesday and were limited, according to the official injury report. Woodyard sat out last Thursday’s game against the Oakland Raiders, but he is expected to play on Sunday. Kuper was also limited in practice, and his status seems a little more in doubt for Sunday’s game, but he’ll likely push himself to be ready for one of the biggest games of the season.
The Broncos had three other players listed as full participants, but overall they are the healthiest team in the entire league with only five total players on the injury report.
Player on the Rise
Knowshon Moreno has steadily gotten better since he became the starter three weeks ago. Last week, Moreno had his best game in over two years with 167 total yards.
Moreno has been running well enough to be a good change of pace to the passing game, and that's all the Broncos need him to be. Moreno is also another option in the passing game for Manning, and he has 12 receptions over the past three weeks.
The other thing Moreno has done well is pass protect, which gives the Broncos the ability to have the tight end run a route instead of stay in to block on every play. This makes Denver’s offense a little more versatile and harder to stop as if they weren’t hard enough to stop already.
Stat Trends: Offense
With Willis McGahee out, the Broncos are no longer having issues with fumbles. The Broncos were 27th in the NFL in turnovers in Week 11 and have improved all the way to 19th, although they remain 28th in fumbles lost.
Denver’s offense has stayed on track with no other stats shifting significantly up or down. Denver’s running game has steadily improved thanks to a renewed commitment to running the ball. The Broncos aren’t averaging a lot of yards per carry, but the running game is doing the thing that it needs to do to help Manning win games.
Stat Trends: Defense
Denver’s points allowed seemed particularly high for a team that had been doing such a good job stopping the run and pass, but that ranking corrected itself after the Broncos allowed just 14 points to the Raiders last week.
The Broncos lost a spot here and there because the Raiders picked up yardage late in the game, but nothing that is concerning. The only blemish is fumble recoveries, but a lot of that is simply luck, as the Broncos are doing a decent job forcing fumbles.
The defense seems to be ready for the playoffs, where they will face some of the best offenses in the entire league.
The Broncos are a very good football team, but they aren’t going to get much better than they are right now. The Broncos have a big game this week, and then the final two weeks are just preparation for the playoffs and everyone knows it.
Either the Broncos will beat the Ravens and be talked about as one of the elite teams in the NFL for the next two weeks or they will lose to the Ravens and spend the final two weeks of the year trying to correct the cracks that the Ravens expose.
On the surface, the Broncos appear to have few weaknesses that the Ravens can exploit. One notable one was the ability to cover tight ends, but that particular issue has not been a problem in recent weeks. In either case, Sunday’s game will be watched very closely by Denver’s playoff opponents.