Halfway through the season, the Denver Broncos are 7-1 and looking forward to a likely playoff appearance for the third year in a row. There are many fans and analysts who believe the Broncos could win the AFC to make an appearance in the Super Bowl. In order to do that, the Broncos will have to stay healthy and continue to play at a high level.
The Broncos have scored the most points by any team through eight games in NFL history, averaging 42.9 points per game. With only 16 points this week, the Broncos will break the 1950 Rams record for points by a team through nine games. Denver has scored more than twice that in every game this season, with a season low of 33 points against the Colts in Week 7.
The passing game is one of the most dangerous in the game today. Peyton Manning is on pace to break the single-season record for both touchdowns and yardage. He’s already thrown more touchdowns after eight games (29) than Broncos legend John Elway ever through in a season (27). The passing game is clearly the strength of the team.
However, the Broncos have a solid ground game led by veteran Knowshon Moreno. He leads the team in rushing with 456 yards and has eight rushing touchdowns. Rookie Montee Ball saw a larger role in Week 8, and he may be in line for more carries as the season goes on.
Defensively, the Broncos are incredibly strong against the run. They have the league’s third-ranked rushing defense, allowing an average of 81.5 rushing yards per game.
Against the pass, the Broncos have some work to do. They’ve improved over the last two games, but still rank as the league’s 30th pass defense. On average the Broncos average 299.1 yards passing per game.
In order to make a deep postseason run the Broncos must improve on a few things.
First, the team needs to do a better job of protecting Manning. We’ve seen a blueprint to slow down the offense emerge from opponents this year. Defenses are playing single coverage on the outside with deep safety help. They are then blitzing Manning in an effort to make him uncomfortable.
When the Broncos have struggled, it’s usually because they are not providing adequate protection for their quarterback. Going forward the team may employ more two tight end sets (12 personnel) in order to keep extra players in to block for Manning.
Over the last two games, Manning has only completed 58.1 percent of his passes when targeting Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. In the first six games of the year, Manning completed 73.6 such passes.
Protecting Manning will lead to a more efficient passing game.
Second, the Broncos should strive for more effectiveness late in games when running the ball. Moreno is going to continue his role as the lead back, but the Broncos could sure use Ball or Anderson to be their late-game closer.
When running the ball, they need to hold onto the rock. Ball had two lost fumbles earlier this season that put him in the doghouse. He’s regained the confidence of the coaching staff, and running backs coach Eric Studesville has worked with Ball closely on ball security.
Overall, the Broncos have 17 turnovers this season. Only the Cardinals and Giants have more turnovers to this point in 2013. Denver has at least three turnovers in three straight games, their longest streak since 2008.
On Thursday Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase talked about making improvements to the offense, including working to improve ball security.
There are always things you can get better at and when you go throughout the first eight games it’s really easy to say, ‘Here are the areas we need to improve in.’ We’ve done that and there are some things we addressed. Obviously we’ve had 18 fumbles in eight games and that’s massive compared to anybody else in the league and that’s our number one priority to fix. There are a few things that we want to tinker with in the running game and in the passing game. When you got eight games to look at and how we played the last few games we feel like we could play better.
Finally, the Broncos have to continue to make positive strides defensively. The Broncos are allowing 27.3 points per game in 2013, tied for 25th in the NFL. The only team to ever make the postseason allowing that many points per game is the 2000 Rams. They lost in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs after allowing 29.4 points per game during the regular season.
The return of Von Miller has been felt over the last two games. As he continues to get back into game shape the team should be able to reap the rewards.
With Von Miller off the field, the Broncos get pressure (sacks or duress) on only 26 percent of dropbacks. Opposing quarterbacks average a 60.2 percent completion percentage without Miller on the field. They also average a healthy 8.4 yards per attempt when Miller is not in the game.
With Miller on the field, the Broncos get pressure on 34 percent of dropbacks. Opposing quarterbacks see a lower completion percentage, averaging 54.2 percent when Miller is in the lineup. They also have lower yards per attempt, averaging 5.5 yards when facing Miller.
Denver must play better defensively if they want to avoid another early exit in the postseason.
Where They Stand
The Broncos are second in the AFC West behind the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. If the Chiefs finish the year at the top of the AFC West then the Broncos are looking at a Wild Card berth. They could be a Wild Card team even though they may finish with a 13-3 record.
What Has To Happen
Denver has to catch Kansas City in order to win the division. In addition to winning the AFC West, the Broncos have to get past the Chiefs if they want to win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
That advantage is incredibly important for the Broncos. Winning on the road against teams like the Chiefs, Patriots or Colts could prove to be extremely difficult, even for a team as strong as the Broncos.
The next four games are critical for the Broncos. Facing the Chargers on the road in Week 10 isn’t a must-win situation, but it may be close. Denver has to stay on the winning track and hope the Chiefs lose.
The game at home against the Chiefs in Week 11 has immense playoff implications. The Chiefs will be coming off their bye week, and their defense will try to solve the puzzle of slowing down the high-powered Broncos offense.
It doesn’t get any better for the Broncos in Week 12 as they travel to play the Patriots at Foxboro. Tom Brady and the offense have found their swagger recently. They are always a tough team to beat in the confines of Gillette Stadium.
The Broncos finish off this tough stretch with a game against the Chiefs on the road. Arrowhead Stadium gives the Chiefs one of the best homefield advantages in the NFL. Getting a home-and-home split with the Chiefs may be the most likely outcome for the Broncos.
If Denver can go 3-1 over the next four games it will greatly benefit their standings for the postseason.
Looking over the remaining schedule for the Chiefs it looks like they may go 4-3 in their final seven games. That would give them a 13-3 schedule when the season is done. This could possibly tie them with the Broncos.
If Denver can finish with a better division record, then they would win the AFC West. The Chiefs may split with the two remaining games against the Broncos. They could also lose to the Colts later this year. The games that could determine the division (and playoff seeding) are the pair of games against the Chargers.
The Broncos are poised to make a strong push here in the final half of the season. They will have to do that without head coach John Fox for the near future. Fox is recovering from heart surgery that he had earlier in the week, and there is no timetable for his return.
On Thursday Gase talked about the changes in place with Jack Del Rio as the interim head coach.
It’s very similar to how we were kind of operating before; the only difference is I was able to go to Coach Fox quite a bit because he’d be watching all three phases. I’ve talked to Jack already this week about what our plans were and if he had any questions he was able to kind of run some things by me. Coach Fox and myself and some of the other coaches, we’d always be walking back down from the hall and asking questions and how would you handle this and it was always a great line of communication there between offense and the head coach there.
The defense has gotten a much-needed shot in the arm with the return of Miller. They could get more help on the defensive side of the ball when cornerback Champ Bailey gets healthy after dealing with a foot injury for most of the year.
Del Rio talked about Bailey’s progress in his return on Thursday. “We’re trying to be smart. [Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos] is doing a good job bringing him back with the doctors and everything. He is working back; he is working out now on the side and we’ll increase that. At some point, he’ll rejoin us. You can’t rush that kind of thing. It’s just when he’s ready to go, we’ll utilize him.”
The Broncos are going to rally around coach Fox and carry on with the business of winning.
Denver is in a Super Bowl window. With the clock ticking on the career of Manning they can’t afford to fall short again this year.
They have the offense to score points in bunches, and there’s no deficit they can’t overcome. Even if the team uses more of the ground game in the second half of the season, we should still see them score around 35 points per game.
Defensively, the team needs to continue to improve. Miller’s return has helped their production, but this team needs to get healthy (and stay healthy) defensively for the rest of the year.
If Denver can protect Manning better they’ll have an even more efficient offense. Running the ball effectively will help grind down the clock late in games. This late-game emphasis will also minimize the number of hits Manning takes.
The team needs to protect the ball and cut down on the number of turnovers in the second half of the year. Overall, the team just needs to play with more precision on both sides of the ball .
If Denver cleans up things offensively and defensively, then they could certainly wind up in the Super Bowl.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.