The Denver Broncos returned home to Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Week 14 to take on the Tennessee Titans. They were able to smash the Titans 51-28 on Sunday. They have the best record in the AFC (11-2), and with three games remaining, they control their own playoff destiny. If they win their final three regular-season games, the Broncos will earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
This victory sealed the 20th playoff appearance for the Broncos in their team history. Peyton Manning now has the most seasons (13) leading a team to the playoffs in NFL history. This new mark passes the old record (12) held by Brett Favre.
This game marked the return of head coach John Fox. He missed four games due to the heart surgery he had during the team's bye week. Fox was excited to earn a playoff berth, but his eyes are on a bigger prize: "Our biggest goal is to get to the 'big game' [the Super Bowl] and win the big game."
Entering this season, the Broncos had scored 50 or more points only once (vs. the Chargers 10/6/63) in their history. Sunday’s 51-point outing is the third time they’ve scored 50 or more in 2013. Denver is also the first team since the NFL merger to score at least 50 points in three different games in a season.
The Broncos have now scored 515 points this season. That is more than the previous high (501 points) from their 1998 season. With three games left to go, the Broncos could put this mark over 600 points.
Denver’s offense was sharp, especially in the second half, against the Titans. Their 91 offensive plays were the most in team history for a non-overtime game.
The Broncos also did something on Sunday they had not since playing the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4. The team had zero turnovers, and they won the turnover battle (plus-two) for only the third time in 2013.
Peyton Manning had something to prove on Sunday.
Entering this game, many wondered how Manning would perform in the arctic temperatures that have gripped Denver this week. Manning threw for 397 yards and four touchdowns against the Titans.
The temperature at kickoff was 18 degrees, and Manning became the first player in nine years (2004 Kerry Collins, Raiders) to throw at least four touchdown passes with the temperature below 20 degrees. He was also the first player in five years (2008 Matt Schaub, Texans) to throw for at least 390 yards in sub-20-degree weather.
After the game, tight end Julius Thomas spoke about Manning’s cold-weather critics: "I’m sure he’s tired of hearing it; he’s been playing so great all season, he’s been playing great his entire career and just to hear people nitpicking about something like the cold; for him to be able to come out there and put 50 on the board and put that whole cold thing to bed, I’m sure he’ll be happy to see that behind him tomorrow."
Andy Lindahl, from 850 KOA, tweeted out Manning’s comments from the postgame show hosted by Dave Logan.
Clearly, Manning wanted to make a statement. The rest of the NFL certainly received the message he sent on Sunday.
Manning certainly gets a top grade for his performance, but it was far from a perfect game for the rest of the players on the roster.
Check out the grades for each Broncos player against the Titans.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Peyton Manning: A+
Manning gets the highest grade possible with his performance against the Titans. His four touchdowns pushed his season total to 45, only five shy of the single-season record (50, Tom Brady, 2007). Manning is averaging 3.46 touchdown passes per game. He could certainly break (and shatter) the record before the season is over.
With 397 yards passing against the Titans, Manning is only 478 yards from reaching the 5,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. With three games remaining, the mark is well within his reach.
When Manning tossed a first-quarter touchdown pass to Wes Welker, it set a new NFL record. Welker has caught a career-high 10 touchdowns this season. The Broncos now have a record four players with over 10 touchdowns in a single season.
The Broncos offense was especially sharp in the second half against the Titans. After the game, Manning talked about the differences between the first- and second-half offense:
“We make adjustments, but a lot of times it’s just about executing the plan a little bit better. We had some momentum going into the second half, we scored a touchdown, Prater’s kick set an NFL record. I think that definitely does lift your team up. We got the ball at the beginning of the second half and just had a good mix of—what it seemed like—of run and pass. I can’t remember how we scored on that drive, or who it was. Our guys have done a good job coming out after halftime ready to play and playing fast.”
Knowshon Moreno: A
Moreno ran with authority against the Titans. He was running tough inside, and he did a good job of keeping his feet after contact.
He led the team in rushing with 78 yards on 14 carries. Moreno also scored a rushing touchdown. The veteran back also was a major contributor as a receiver, finishing the game with six catches for 31 yards.
Montee Ball: A
Ball is running with more determination than he did earlier this season. He received almost a 50 percent split of the running back touches against the Titans. Ball ended the game with 18 touches, compared to 20 touches for Moreno.
Ball responded with 15 carries for 77 yards and one rushing touchdown. He also chipped in with three catches for 10 yards, but he did have one drop on Sunday.
After the game, Ball talked about the team’s mindset entering this cold-weather game: "During practice, we focused on running the football, because all of us in the running back room, we put the ball in the right spots and our offensive line does a great job up front. So we just make sure whenever the ball is in our hands, we make sure to protect it and run hard, then obviously when the ball is in the air, our receivers are going to make some great plays."
C.J. Anderson: n/a
The Broncos made Ronnie Hillman inactive for the game against the Titans. This meant Anderson got the call as the team’s third-string running back. Anderson did not make it into the box score against the Titans.
Demaryius Thomas: A+
Thomas was running short routes near the line of scrimmage, which highlighted his run-after-the-catch ability. He was also targeted on a few deep routes to get the defense backed up.
Thomas was targeted 10 times against the Titans. He caught seven passes for 88 yards and one touchdown.
Wes Welker: B+
There was a plan to get Welker involved early and often. The Titans are vulnerable to jerk routes, and Welker had a productive outing in the first quarter.
He hauled in a touchdown pass in the first quarter. That gave him 10 so far this season. That marks a career high for the veteran receiver.
Welker was knocked from this game with a concussion after a big hit from safety Bernard Pollard. This is Welker’s second concussion this year. The team will certainly be careful with him as he comes back from this injury.
Eric Decker: A
Decker had another strong performance on Sunday. He was able to get open on deep routes against Alterraun Verner.
He led the team in targets with 12 against the Titans. Decker also led the team in catches (eight) and receiving yards (117). He was able to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter, bringing his season total to eight.
Decker recorded his seventh career 100-yard receiving game and topped 1,000 yards on the season for the second consecutive year.
Andre Caldwell: C
Caldwell did get a few more snaps after the injury to Welker. He received only one target, and he was not able to catch it.
He did have a return for a touchdown, but the play was called back due to a penalty for a block in the back. Caldwell finished the game with three kick returns for 82 yards.
Julius Thomas: B+
Thomas was back in the mix for the Broncos this week. He missed the last two games after injuring his knee in the team’s Week 11 game against the Chiefs.
The offense looked good with Thomas on the field. He’s difficult to match up with because of his size/speed combination.
Thomas caught a beautiful end-zone pass, and he was able to get two feet down in order to score the touchdown. He finished the game with five catches for 35 yards.
His touchdown grab gives him a team-record 11 touchdown receptions by a tight end this year. This breaks the mark (10) by former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe.
After the game, Thomas talked about if the team had any doubts after falling behind in the first half. “Oh never. We know what we have the capability and potential to do, if we’re executing. All year we’ve been proving that if we get things going, we can be explosive and put points up on that scoreboard.”
Jacob Tamme: B
When Wes Welker was concussed, we saw more from Tamme. The Broncos started using more 12 personnel (two-tight end) sets after that injury, and that meant more playing time for the veteran tight end.
Tamme was targeted five times against the Titans. He caught four of those targets for 47 yards on Sunday.
Joel Dreessen: C
Dreessen is used primarily as a blocker, and he did a good job of that on Sunday. He caught one pass (on two targets) for a gain of eight yards.
Virgil Green: C
Green didn’t do much on Sunday. He did not make it into the box score. When he did get on the field, his job was to block.
Chris Clark: A
Clark has done a better job protecting the quarterback in recent weeks. Over five games, the team has only allowed four sacks.
Zane Beadles: A
Beadles continues to be a force in the middle of the offensive line. His game is all about strength, leverage and attitude. He’s a tremendous player with a chip on his shoulder.
Manny Ramirez: A
Ramirez has done a fantastic job this year. He regularly mauls his opponent and does a good job blasting open holes for the running backs.
He also does a good job changing the line calls to the correct protection after Peyton Manning calls an audible before the snap.
Louis Vasquez: A
Vasquez continues to perform at an incredibly high level. The Broncos ground game has been rejuvenated in recent weeks, largely due to the blocking of the interior line. Vasquez is a devastating run-blocker, and he didn’t allow any sacks against the Titans.
Orlando Franklin: A
Franklin looked like a road-grader as a run-blocker. As a pass-blocker, he didn't allow any sacks, but he did have to leave briefly to get checked out for a leg injury.
Winston Justice: C
The veteran offensive tackle was called into the game after Franklin went down briefly with an injury. Justice looked rusty during his limited playing time. He was even penalized for a false start.
Shaun Phillips: C
Phillips doesn’t show up in the box score. However, there were several plays when he put Ryan Fitzpatrick under duress. Phillips forced Fitzpatrick to get rid of the football quicker than he would have liked on a few throws.
Robert Ayers: C+
Ayers continues to get a little bit of pressure on the edge. He was credited with one quarterback hit against the Titans. Ayers also does a fine job of keeping contain as a run defender.
Malik Jackson: A
Jackson led the Broncos with three tackles for a loss. He was constantly around the football, and he made several impact plays against the Titans.
He told me his favorite player growing up was Julius Peppers, and Jackson played a bit like his idol on Sunday. Jackson had four tackles, one sack and two quarterback hits.
Terrance Knighton: B+
“Pot Roast” was able to pick off a tipped pass. The former all-state high school wide receiver showed good hands and concentration as the ball fell into his grasp.
After the game, Knighton talked about his hands: “I was an all-state wide receiver in high school. Hands are something you don’t lose. I might have lost the route running and the speed and all that stuff, but the hands, I still got those.”
Knighton continues to be a force in the middle of the defensive line. He regularly takes up two blockers, and he redirects traffic to other players around him.
Sylvester Williams: C-
The rookie received the first start of his NFL career on Sunday. Williams has been largely a disappointment this season, but he impressed enough during the week of practice to get the starting nod.
Williams did not make it into the box score, but he did show better hustle when a play went away from him.
Mitch Unrein: B+
Unrein keeps playing well as a reserve player for the Broncos. He turned Chris Johnson back inside (toward Von Miller) on a play where the veteran back lost the handle on the football. That play doesn’t happen without Unrein beating his man and forcing the change of direction after the screen pass.
Sione Fua: C
The Broncos signed Fua after they placed Kevin Vickerson on Injured Reserve with a hip injury. Fua played as a reserve player, and he finished the game with one tackle.
Von Miller: A+
Miller makes the players around him better. He was a dominant force against the Titans on Sunday. Miller finished the game with three tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one pass defended.
The forced fumble turned into a Broncos touchdown. The tipped pass was intercepted by defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. That turnover also led to a touchdown by the Broncos.
After the game, Miller talked about the defensive performance.:“It was great—[a] good team effort. We had guys swarming to the ball, had guys all around them and just a great team effort. [It was a] great defensive effort. I wish we could have started off a little bit faster, but that’s all part of the journey of becoming the defense that we want to be. I know if we can get back in that lab and keep working that we will continue to improve.”
Wesley Woodyard: C
Woodyard hasn’t been the same since suffering a neck stinger against the Cowboys in Week 5. He was replaced as a starter by Paris Lenon. He didn’t make much of an impact, and he finished the game with two tackles.
Danny Trevathan: B
The second-year linebacker did a better job in coverage today. He worked well within the zone and sometimes had to cover Kendall Wright on drag routes.
Trevathan finished second on the team in tackles. He had six tackles (four solo), one tackle for a loss and one pass defended.
Nate Irving: C
Irving left the game to be examined for a possible concussion. He returned later in the game and had a huge hit on a special teams return. Irving had two tackles on Sunday.
Paris Lenon: C-
Lenon received more playing time as the team benched Woodyard. The veteran did not respond with a strong performance.
He was late to the football on several key runs up the middle. Lenon was also pushed out of the way on a first-quarter touchdown by Shonn Greene. He had three tackles against the Titans.
Chris Harris: B+
Harris bounced back with a good performance on Sunday against the Titans. He helped shut down veteran Nate Washington on some routes. Harris was also asked to cover Mike Preston. Those two receivers accounted for three catches on Sunday.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: A
Rodgers-Cromartie was back on the field this week and did a fine job. He was not targeted that much for a reason, and he finished with only one tackle.
He did a good job shutting down the Titans’ best receiver, as second-year wideout Kendall Wright had only two catches for 17 yards.
Kayvon Webster: D
It was evident starting in the first quarter that the Titans were targeting Webster. He lost several battles to fellow rookie, wide receiver Justin Hunter.
Webster was also burned by Nate Washington on an inside route. In addition to being out of position, Webster also was flagged for a block in the back on a return Andre Caldwell had scored a touchdown on. The penalty negated the touchdown.
The rookie corner also missed Chris Johnson on a big run late in the second half. This was arguably the worst game of his pro career.
Quentin Jammer: C-
Jammer didn’t make it into the box score against the Titans. He did make it into my game notebook, as he was burned by Hunter on his third-quarter 41-yard touchdown catch.
Duke Ihenacho: C-
Ihenacho started on Sunday for the Broncos. However, the team decided to give Omar Bolden more playing time than him.
Ihenacho did get onto the field in sub-packages and played primarily when the Broncos used the nickel against the Titans.
He made a few big hits against the Titans, and he finished the game with two tackles.
Mike Adams: B-
Adams is still starting as the team continues to play without Rahim Moore. He finished this game as the team’s leading tackler.
Adams had six tackles, five of them solo tackles. He was rarely out of position and did a good job of cleaning up the mistakes of others in the secondary.
The veteran flew to the ball quickly, and he was a sure tackler on Sunday. Adams even had a touchdown-saving tackle of Leon Washington on a kick return. He recovered a fumble by Chris Johnson late in the game.
Adams was pushed out of the way by fullback Quinn Johnson on a 28-yard touchdown run by Shonn Greene.
David Bruton: C
Bruton’s biggest contribution came on special teams. He did finish with two tackles in this game.
Omar Bolden: C-
Bolden received the most playing time he has all season long. In the first quarter, he was late getting over to Justin Hunter on a 57-yard catch. Bolden was able to run Hunter down and push him out of bounds before he went into the end zone.
He was late again on Greene’s 28-yard touchdown run. Bolden was out of position many times in this game, and those mistakes led to big plays from the Titans.
Without Trindon Holliday (inactive, shoulder) the Broncos used Bolden as a return man as well.
Matt Prater: A+
Sunday was a great day for Prater. He kicked a 64-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to represent the longest field goal in NFL history. It’s an amazing feat to begin with, but it becomes even better when you consider to the weather conditions.
After the game, Prater talked about his record-setting kick: “It was so cold, I knew I hit it pretty good, but I wasn’t sure with the cold and everything it was going to get there. I saw the ref’s hands go up and I can’t even explain what I felt after.”
Prater scored 15 points on Sunday. He made all three of his field-goal attempts and also knocked in each of his six extra-point attempts.
Britton Colquitt: A
Colquitt had two punts for 65 yards. Both punts landed inside the Titans' 20-yard line, and his longest punt of the day went for 36 yards.