The Denver Broncos absolutely stomped the Tennessee Titans in Week 14. The final score was 51-28, and the Broncos sent a message to the rest of the league. Specifically, it was Peyton Manning who wanted to deliver that message.
In temperatures that were well below freezing, Manning threw for almost 400 yards (397) and four touchdowns. This helped quiet the critics that felt Manning struggled when the temperature dipped below 40 degrees.
On Monday, head coach John Fox talked about Manning’s performance, "I think the better he continues to play in the cold, I think the less chatter there will be about that. I was asked about it—before and after. I’m just really glad he’s on our side. I don’t care about the weather."
The backfield is now seeing a near 50/50 split between Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. This combination is working wonders for the Broncos' offense.
Moreno is still the lead back, and he touched the ball 20 times against the Titans on Sunday. He’s the most trusted back on the roster and can produce as a runner or receiver out of the backfield.
Ball has been running stronger in recent weeks. He touched the ball 18 times against the Titans, and this split could continue as the Broncos make a push for the top seed in the AFC over the month of December.
On Wednesday, offensive coordinator Adam Gase commented on the ground game:
We’ve made some strides, probably in the last month more than anything. Confidence is going up probably across the board. I know our line is feeling good about what they have accomplished so far. I think that New England game was big for us, where we really focused on—we wanted to run it. We did a good job of doing it and it has carried over so far.
With Manning having a great performance against the Titans, that meant the wide receivers and tight ends are playing well too.
Demaryius Thomas is continuing to produce each week for Denver. He’s a favorite target of Manning, and Thomas can beat the defense in several different ways. Manning will hit him on long targets if Thomas is single covered. The Broncos also do a great job of mixing in Thomas on short screen passes to attack the defense with his run-after-the-catch ability.
Eric Decker has been coming on strong over the last two weeks. With defenses focused so much on Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker it leaves Decker with single coverage on most every snap. Manning’s favorite target is the open guy, and Decker was able to get open consistently against the Titans.
Welker was concussed for the second time this season during the Titans game. The Broncos are going to be cautious with him as they want him healthy for a playoff run.
Julius Thomas caught another touchdown against the Titans, bringing his season total to 11. This sets a new team record for the most touchdown receptions by a tight end in a single season.
Thomas talked about this feat on Tuesday.
It’s a good feeling for me just mainly because it just speaks to how well you’re able to do out there. It’s not something that before the season I really set out to go do but breaking that record, Hall of Fame guy like Shannon Sharpe and to be able to break one of his records it feels good but most importantly it means I’m doing a lot to help out our team and if that’s scoring touchdowns or blocking or whatever it may be I look to continue to do things to put our team in the best position.
Defensively the Broncos experimented with the lineup against the Titans.
Wesley Woodyard was benched at the middle linebacker position in favor of veteran Paris Lenon. That didn’t go so well for the Broncos as Lenon was consistently out of position and late getting to plays.
On Wednesday, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio explained why Woodyard’s role was reduced.
It’s just a situation where we are doing what we need to do to get ourselves ready to play our best football down the stretch. Part of that is getting different guys ready to play. Part of that is getting different guys rested and healed. And part of that is making sure that we utilize the talent that we have. I think all year—well, the last couple of years—we’ve been a group that understands we do that. As guys play and play well, they play more. That is just how we do it.
They also moved Mike Adams to strong safety and Omar Bolden received more playing time at free safety. This limited the number of snaps for fan favorite Duke Ihenacho.
The Broncos control their own playoff destiny. If they win the rest of their games they will win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They have a divisional game on Thursday night against the San Diego Chargers. The weather is expected to be about 20 degrees warmer than it was Sunday against the Titans.
Most expect this game to be a shootout between two of the league’s most high-powered offenses. The Broncos know they are in a Super Bowl window, and they will do their best to ensure that every team must come to the Mile High City in the postseason.
San Diego Chargers
The Broncos are still on top of the AFC West, and they are looking to win their third division title in three years. They have two divisional games left (Chargers, Raiders) over their final three games of the regular season.
Kansas City had lost three in a row before they took out their frustrations on Washington in Week 14. Their 45-10 victory got the team back on the right track as they make a push for the postseason.
Barring a catastrophic collapse by the Broncos, the Chiefs are likely to begin the playoffs as the fifth seed in the AFC.
Like the Chiefs, the Chargers were also able to get back in the “W” column in Week 14. They beat up on the punching bag that is the New York Giants with a 37-14 victory.
The San Diego offense was sparked by Philip Rivers and the passing game. They also got big contributions from running backs Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.
The Raiders rotated quarterbacks in Week 14 and (not surprisingly) it didn’t work. The team lost in Week 14 to the New York Jets 37-27. The Raiders insist that Matt McGloin is still the starter, but they will continue to rotate in Terrelle Pryor from time to time.
The Raiders need to pick one quarterback and stick with him. They’re a mess right now, and the team will be looking ahead to next year soon enough.
A huge injury for the Broncos is the loss of wide receiver Wes Welker. He was concussed for the second time this season in the game against the Titans.
Welker will not play in Week 15 against the Chargers according to Jay Glazer from Fox Sports.
Btw, I didn't know there was still a question if Wes Welker would play Thursday, he will not.—Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) December 11, 2013
The offense is going to have a different look without Welker on the field. In fact, the offense will essentially look like it did last year.
The Broncos will start using "12 personnel" as their base formation. This set includes one running back and two tight ends (always assume five skill position players). That means we’ll see more from veteran tight end Jacob Tamme. It will be Tamme playing the Welker role.
On Wednesday, Tamme talked about the differences between playing in-line tight end and in the slot.
Really it just depends on what the defense is playing. A lot of times they play their nickel defense so you’re really playing more of a wide receiver role and obviously when I line up in there at tight end, you’re playing more of a tight end role. So it’s something we’ve said from the beginning—we feel like we have a lot of flexible guys at tight end. I feel like I can do a lot of different things, play in a lot of different spots and hopefully we can help move the ball and get it down the field.
Champ Bailey was limited in practice on Wednesday after being a full participant on Monday and Tuesday. Fox talked about Bailey’s status after practice on Wednesday: "I think, being real honest, we may have rushed him a little bit. I don’t know if he’s completely ready. He’s missed a lot of time this year. We just want to make sure—down the stretch we are going to need him and we just want to make sure he’s completely ready when we put him out there."
If Bailey doesn’t play then we’ll see more playing time for rookie Kayvon Webster as the team’s nickel corner. Webster had a target on his back against the Titans, and he could struggle mightily against Rivers and the Chargers' explosive passing game.
The team will continue to play without Derek Wolfe as well. His mysterious illness has kept him out of practice, but he’s back in the building and working to return to the field. Fox addressed Wolfe’s status on Tuesday, saying, “He hasn’t practiced yet, but he’s done things with the trainers and those types of things, yes."
Without Wolfe the team will continue to lean on Malik Jackson. He was a monster against the Titans, finishing with one sack, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hits.
Jackson has told me his favorite player growing up was Julius Peppers. He’s been doing his best Peppers impression in recent weeks.
What Must Improve
The Broncos have cleaned up quite a few of their problem areas from earlier this year. They’ve cut down on mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they are playing perfect football.
The offensive line has done a better job of protecting Manning in recent weeks. Over the last five games, Manning has been sacked only four times. Not only is the line blocking better, but Ball has improved his pass protection from earlier this season.
Ball has also taken better care of the football. For only the second time this season the Broncos had zero turnovers in Week 14. The Broncos won the turnover battle (plus-two) for only the third time in 2013.
The penalty problems they’ve had off and on this year are getting under control as well. This means the team is playing with more discipline than earlier this season. The Broncos need to continue making progress on improving upon their weaknesses.
One thing that needs work is their get off. The Broncos have gotten off to a slow start in almost every game, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Del Rio talked about why the second-half defense seems to perform better.
I’d like to say it’s all the coaching adjustments that we’ve made after those starts [laughing]. But that is not the case. We just have settled down and played better ball. Our guys want it bad, we work hard, we feel like we’ve got good design and good players. And when we do what we’re supposed to, we play it pretty well. The idea is to continue to grow, learn from the experiences and get better. Clearly, starting fast is a good thing for us. We’d like to have that. But finishing strong is the most important part. Making sure that you win the game. And we have done that very successfully throughout this year. And we’re just looking for more consistency now.
The defense also needs to improve coverage in subpackages. This means better play from guys like Kayvon Webster and Danny Trevathan.
Both are athletic, but they can struggle when asked to cover in the open field. Webster is a big hitter, but he will get out of position looking for the "kill shot." He also gives a shoulder too often instead of wrapping up the receiver or ball-carrier. Webster has good straight-line speed but continues to struggle in transition.
Trevathan can get his hands on the football. He has made a few plays in coverage, but he needs to improve his play recognition. Trevathan will be tested by tight ends or running backs catching passes out of the backfield.
Playing a team like the Chargers means guys like Antonio Gates, Ladarius Green and Danny Woodhead could have big days if the Broncos continue to struggle in coverage.
Del Rio talked about Woodhead on Wednesday:
He’s just a good player. He really is. He may not be appreciated by others, but we look at him and see a really dynamic player. He’s a playmaker. He can run it, he can catch it. He’ll block a little bit—that is not his strongpoint—but he’s a good football player.
The Broncos know what is at stake over the last three games of the season. Getting home-field advantage is their top priority.
Denver is primed to make a Super Bowl run in 2013. They have to get off to a hotter start on both sides of the ball. Starting out slow against a playoff team could spell disaster.
The Broncos also need to improve in coverage as opponents know exactly which players to exploit. This means improved play from the linebackers and subpackage players.
This is the final home game of the regular season, and the Broncos want to finish strong in 2013.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.