At 11-3, the Denver Broncos are one of the hottest teams in the NFL. They have won nine straight games for the first time since 1998 (a season that ended with John Elway hoisting the Lombardi Trophy).
Currently the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff race, the high-powered Broncos are not flawless, however.
If quarterback Peyton Manning is going to lead this franchise deep into the playoffs, the Broncos will have to address these four concerns.
One of Denver's most experienced linemen, starting offensive guard Chris Kuper, has missed nine games while battled wrist and ankle injuries.
With Kuper in the starting lineup, the Broncos are 5-0 and haven't allowed a sack. Without him, Denver is 6-3 and Manning has been sacked 21 times. Kuper's backup, Manny Ramirez, has allowed 6.5 sacks in his nine starts.
Going into the playoffs, protecting Manning will be key to Denver's success, and Kuper's health will be key to protecting Manning.
For one reason or another, covering tight ends has been a problem for Denver's defense.
Last week in Baltimore, Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta caught seven passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns. In Denver's three losses, opposing starting tight ends have averaged 4.7 catches and have scored twice.
The Broncos have the eighth-ranked pass defense in the NFL, but have allowed tight ends to average 41.8 percent more weekly fantasy points than the league average, according to fftoday.com.
In the real world, allowing those kinds of numbers could prove costly in the playoffs. If Denver faces New England in the playoffs, the Broncos would be up against both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, two of the top tight ends in the NFL.
The Broncos must figure out a way to slow down tight ends.
This season, the Broncos have 23 giveaways (16th in the NFL) and have lost 19 fumbles.
Protecting the football will be key for this team down the stretch. In Week 5, quarterback Peyton Manning lost a fumble for the first time in 2012. The Broncos lost that week, falling 31-21 to New England. Said coach John Fox earlier in the season:
Anytime you turn a ball over, it concerns us. We’ve had our share. Every phase has contributed. That’s something, ideally, you’d like to never turn it over. But the reality is the other team gets paid and practices, too. We’ll continue to work on those things and emphasize that.
Turning the ball over leads to losses. Losing in the playoffs ends season. The Broncos should take note.
The Broncos haven't had a down-to-the-wire game in weeks. Will that affect them in the playoffs? Coach John Fox doesn't think so.
We emphasize getting better every week and diving into the preparation. The old adage that you play like you practice has been the best measuring stick that I know of. At this point in the season, an old track coach told me way back—when I was more svelte and faster—you never look at the finish.
You stay focused and you look straight ahead and you [don’t] look at the finish line. That’ll be our mindset. That’s how our guys have been good about it. They’ve been responsible about that. I don’t expect that to change.
Denver could fall into the trap of becoming overconfident if not for quarterback Peyton Manning and the even-keeled Fox running the show in Denver. Said Fox:
Right now, I know we can control our own destiny, but if we don’t play our best game against Cleveland this week, that will be all for naught. So all our focus will be on the Cleveland Browns, a team that’s won three out of four games, plus-7 in the turnover margin, beat two teams that are in the hunt on the AFC side for the playoffs.
It would be easy to overlook a team like Cleveland expecting to coast into the playoffs. Don't expect Fox to let that happen.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes used in this article were received directly from the Denver Broncos media relations team.