The Broncos have one more game left in the regular season with their division rival, the Oakland Raiders, standing in their way of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The goal of this Broncos team has always been to win a Super Bowl. They have been openly talking about winning a championship ever since minicamp started at Dove Valley in May.
Even though the Broncos are dedicated to winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy, they are not going to overlook a weaker opponent in their final regular-season game.
The attitude around Dove Valley this week was one of extreme focus. Even though the team took a little bit of time off to celebrate Christmas on Wednesday, the Broncos have not been sloppy in their preparation.
Head coach John Fox has not even brought up winning home-field advantage to the team this week.
“No," he said, "all our focus is on Oakland and all that other stuff has time later to take care of itself.”
I’m out at Broncos headquarters as much as possible. Here’s what coaches and players have been saying this week.
The Broncos lost linebacker Von Miller for the rest of the year due to the knee injury he suffered in Week 16 against the Texans. The team began the season without Miler, as he served his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Fox was asked if playing those six games without Miller were actually an advantage for the team now, as they are again without their premier pass-rusher.
“I don’t know that I’d call it an advantage," Fox said. "I think you just make adjustments, much like we did with (T) Chris Clark in for Ryan Clady—or any number of positions when guys get hurt. (DE) Malik Jackson and his time spent taking Derek Wolfe’s place. There is a long list. 'Advantage' wouldn’t be the word I’d use.”
Speaking about Wolfe, Fox cleared up any misconceptions about concerns over the defensive end’s weight.
#Broncos John Fox on any concerns about Wolfe's weight "Not really. We have weight limitations for everybody."— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) December 25, 2013
The team is going to play its final regular-season game without wide receiver Wes Welker, who has missed the last couple of games as he continues to recover from his second concussion of the year.
Fox talked about whether or not he feels the team is struggling more on third down without Welker in the lineup.
“I think, overall, I think we’re second in the league," Fox said. "I think the last couple of weeks, maybe not quite so high. Anytime you have a guy like Wes Welker not out there, I think it affects you. But we’ll make due, and it's an area we’ve got to improve on this week against the Raiders.”
Manning was quite jovial on Christmas. He enjoyed the morning with his family, then he was back to work at Dove Valley later in the day. Manning felt good about the team’s performance in practice on Wednesday.
"I think it’s always a challenge for all teams," Manning said. "Thanksgiving, Christmas—there is a fine balance between trying to have a good practice and manage the schedule adjustments and whatnot. I think we have the right kind of guys to do it. But you can’t just talk about it, you’ve got to do it. It really doesn’t get reflected, I think, until game day. But I thought today was a good practice for Christmas Day—Coach (John) Fox gave us a nice gift with full pads. I think we’ve been pretty good, too. So I guess that was our present and I thought guys responded pretty well."
Third-down efficiency has been on Manning’s mind this week, and he had a few thoughts on how the team could improve that going forward.
"Yeah, we’d like to stay on the field more," Manning said. "We did a better job last week on first and second and down; we didn’t have a ton of third downs. But we studied that and that’s something that you always want to improve on—stay on the field. Especially down there in the red zone when you have a chance to ensure possibly a touchdown opportunity as opposed to settling for a field goal. We had a fourth down where we got stopped but we made it tougher on ourselves with some penalties. We had a couple of third downs converted that was blacked out by some penalties. That’s definitely a point of emphasis that we can improve on."
Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase
The Broncos have been proud of the performance of running back Knowshon Moreno this year. He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, and some feel that his attitude has given more heart and soul to this offense.
After being the team’s first-round pick in 2009, Moreno has struggled to stay healthy during his pro career.
Gase talked about the changes made by Moreno to increase his production on the field.
"Probably maturity—you can see how he’s really grown up as a person," Gase said. "He’s carried that over to the football field. I still think he has his moments on the field where he gets a little fired up, and that’s a good thing though. We want to see that out of our guys. We can tell he cares a lot about (football), it means a lot to him. He wants to make sure he does the best he can for his teammates—he’s such a team player. He never says anything about, ‘Hey give me the ball,’ or ‘Can I get more touches?’ He never says anything, and I know there have been a few situations where we probably should have stayed with him or gone to him more. He’s always just done what we’ve asked him to do and that’s really been impressive."
On an offense that is known mostly for being pass-happy, it was the Broncos backfield that Gase talked about the most this week. Gase feels the team has done a good job of balancing the number of carries between its running back corps this season.
"I think we’ve headed in the right direction," Gase said. "We’ve had quite a few games where we have split it up with he and [RB] Montee (Ball); hopefully we can continue that trend. I like using both those guys and then whatever the third backs up, whether it’s (RB) Ronnie (Hillman) or (RB) C.J. [Anderson], and get them both going so they can take a few carries off both of those guys. That would be great because they do bring a different dimension. Ronnie brings an explosion that we don’t really have with anybody else. I think if we could give him a couple of opportunities a game that would be helpful to this offense."
Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio
The Broncos have suffered many key injuries on the defensive side of the ball. When they lost Kevin Vickerson to a hip injury earlier this year, it created an opportunity for 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams.
It takes some time for a defensive tackle to get used to the speed at the pro level. Williams has looked rough at times, but he’s worked hard to improve his play every week. He’s entering Week 17 coming off back-to-back games with at least one sack and several big plays.
Del Rio likes what he’s seen from Williams. Well, everything except his dance moves after making a sack.
’Sly’ is working on his celebration dance right now (laughing), but a nice sack in the game," Del Rio said. "He’s played well. He’s playing better, he’s gaining confidence. All of the things that we saw all along in terms of being mature and being serious, it meaning a lot for him—I think you still see that. He’s got talent. He’s got size and speed and he gives us a little pass rush presence in there as well. He’s a guy, again, he’s a young player. We need him to continue to grow and develop and play well and play even bigger and better down the stretch here."
The secondary has had several injuries this season as well. Champ Bailey has missed most of the season due to a foot injury he suffered back in August. That has put even more pressure on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The veteran corner came to Denver in free agency earlier this year, and he’s been a key piece to what the team does defensively. Del Rio was complimentary looking back on the impact Rodgers-Cromartie has had.
“He’s a terrific cover corner that’s been a great addition to us," Del Rio said. "He’s been a guy that I think has gotten better throughout the year. He’s got God-given ability and I think the way he’s come in and approached it and been coachable and worked at his trade—I think he’s a better player now than when we started. So I think it’s been a good situation. We’re going to need all of our players to be at their best and certainly he’s playing good football right now for us.”
Del Rio commented on Rodgers-Cromartie playing up to his full potential with the Broncos.
“There are a lot talented people," Del Rio said. "I think it comes down to performing consistently and I think he understands that better now. I think he’s worked at it well and been a good teammate and so I think he’s had a good solid year. I think his best football—I’d like to say—is in front of him. I believe that. I think he’s a guy that continues to be on the rise.”
Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor holds onto the ball longer than any quarterback in the league. He averages 4.82 seconds before attempting to pass. Pryor also has the highest average time in the pocket at 3.44 seconds.
By contrast, Manning ranks third in the league with an average of 2.95 seconds from snap to pass. Manning is fifth in the league with an average time in the pocket of 2.46 seconds.
When Pryor has started for the Raiders this year, he has been a top-10 quarterback in terms of blitzes per dropback. He’s been blitzed 35.6 percent of the time when dropping back this year.
Manning is the lowest-blitzed quarterback in the league. He only sees five or more pass-rushers on 24.1 percent of his dropbacks.
Rashad Jennings is your classic banger between the tackles who can grind down an opponent. He has been featured as the starting running back since Week 9, and has made a big impact during his abbreviated time as a starter.
He has collected 355 rushing yards after contact. He also has 90 receiving yards after contact this season.
By comparison, Moreno has 365 rushing yards after contact in 2013. That’s only 10 yards more than Jennings, even though Moreno has been starting for the Broncos since Week 1. Moreno also has 103 receiving yards after contact, only 13 yards more than Jennings.
The Denver Broncos need a four-game winning streak to win a Super Bowl title. That streak needs to begin this week against the Raiders.
This is a game between two teams headed in opposite directions.
The Broncos may win it all this year. Their team is built to challenge for a championship next year, too. So long as Manning is their quarterback, the Broncos should be considered Super Bowl contenders.
The Raiders, on the other hand, are going to miss the playoffs for the 11th year in a row. They still have to find a real franchise quarterback, and that search will continue in the 2014 NFL draft. The Raiders may also be looking for a new head coach this offseason.
As we get to the postseason, the focus out at Dove Valley should become more intense. As Fox likes to say, “When you expect a lot, you get a lot,” and the Broncos have higher expectations of themselves than anybody else does.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Records and statistical information are provided via email from the Denver Broncos.