They drew a matchup with the Ravens, a team they had blown out earlier in the year. They were expected to win easily, and they ended up losing.
This year, the Broncos are in the same situation. They will play either the Colts, the Kansas City Chiefs or the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Jan. 12, and they are trying to avoid another playoff upset. Denver has played all three teams this year, and two have defeated it.
Unfortunately for the Broncos, all three are capable of defeating them.
But who has the best chance of beating the Broncos? Who do the Broncos want to play?
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Sure, the Broncos bested the Chiefs twice. Sure, the Chiefs went 2-5 in their last seven games.
However, Kansas City would still present a challenge to the Broncos. It can execute a ball-control game plan with the dynamic Jamaal Charles, arguably the NFL's best running back. Alex Smith is known as a game manager, but he has performed fairly well this season.
Smith and Charles lead a decent offense, and Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Eric Berry lead a solid defense. Kansas City's defense didn't allow more than 17 points until Week 11, but it has been a bit shaky lately and would have a plethora of trouble against Denver's high-octane attack.
Could the defense step up and support Smith?
When the Broncos have the ball
The Broncos put up 27 and 35 points in their two games against Kansas City, and Peyton Manning was solid in both games.
In the first game, a 27-17 win, Manning threw for only one touchdown. He still averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and led an efficient offense, though. Additionally, he helped set up two Montee Ball touchdown runs.
Manning was intercepted twice but threw five touchdowns in the second clash. Eric Decker torched Kansas City's secondary for four touchdowns, exposing the weakest part of Kansas City's defense.
The Chiefs would have to contain Decker and Demaryius Thomas, who eclipsed 100 yards in both games, to have a chance. Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper would have to step up, and while all are talented, none can stop Denver's trio of stellar wide receivers.
All three of Kansas City's starters grade in the red in pass coverage. Smith, the highest, ranks just 50th overall.
So, it's safe to say Decker, Thomas and Wes Welker, who have combined for 35 touchdowns, would present a challenge.
Kansas City's pass rush might not present a huge challenge to Denver’s stellar offensive line, though. It didn't sack Manning in either game this year, and it has just 12 sacks in its last nine games. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are talented, but Denver's offensive line is as well.
It allowed just 20 sacks, which led the league. Tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin were superb, and guard Louis Vasquez didn’t allow a sack. The line would keep Manning clean, and he would be able to pick apart Kansas City's secondary.
The Broncos might not be as effective on the ground, though. Kansas City's defensive line is anchored by star nose tackle Dontari Poe, who helped limit Knowshon Moreno to just 95 yards on 42 carries in his two games.
However, Ball was much better.
He ran for 117 yards in the second game and scored twice in the first game. He is more explosive than Moreno, which could be huge in the playoffs. Moreno is a ground-and-pound runner, but Kansas City's strong defensive line can stop him.
Ball, however, hits holes faster and is more likely to break free for big gains (especially against Kansas City). The quick, elusive C.J. Spiller ran for 116 yards on just 12 carries against the Chiefs, and while Ball isn’t as speedy as Spiller, he can still blow through holes and rack up yardage.
If the Broncos could run, Manning would fare extremely well. The Broncos can score on Kansas City, but Kansas City might have trouble scoring on Denver.
When the Chiefs have the ball
Denver's defense allowed just 27 points in its last two games, and it could have pitched a shutout if it didn't rest starters at the end of the Oakland Raiders game.
Its rushing defense is phenomenal; it's tied for seventh in the league. Charles averaged 4.9 yards per carry in both games against Denver, but he was mediocre in the first game. He had one big run and struggled otherwise, but he was more consistent in the second game.
Danny Trevathan would be huge in stopping Charles. Trevathan can fly around the field and make plays in the run game; he finished 11th in tackles. Nate Irving, Von Miller's replacement, can also help against the run. He finished with 41 tackles in 280 snaps, so he's a solid player.
Charles wouldn't be able to carry Kansas City by himself, and Smith might have trouble assisting him. Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris have both been phenomenal this year, and Champ Bailey has plenty left in the tank.
Top target Dwayne Bowe only caught three passes against the Broncos in his last meeting, and in the first game, he couldn't get anything going against Rodgers-Cromartie.
Donnie Avery, Dexter McCluster and A.J. Jenkins aren't reliable, consistent targets, and Anthony Fasano has been banged up and hasn't done much.
Kansas City has speed at receiver, which Denver’s secondary lacks. However, it failed to pick apart Denver’s secondary when Rodgers-Cromartie and Bailey were out (each missed one of the Kansas City games). So, when both play in the divisional round, Kansas City wouldn’t be in great shape.
The Colquitt brothers (Dustin for the Chiefs and Britton for the Broncos) are both solid punters, and both kickers are good. Matt Prater missed one kick all year and made the Pro Bowl, while Ryan Succop made 22 and missed six. The Broncos are better off in this department.
However, McCluster is a better return man, and Quintin Demps and Knile Davis (who ran a kickoff back for a touchdown against Denver) are both better kick returners.
Trindon Holliday for Denver is explosive, but he has muffed six kicks in the last 11 games. McCluster definitely is more reliable than Holliday.
What would happen?
The Chiefs would need to take a lead and use a ball-control approach to keep Manning off the field. Smith can't keep up with Manning and can't shred Denver's strong secondary, but Charles could have a nice day.
If Denver could prevent that by jumping ahead early and stopping Charles, it would win fairly easily.
Prediction: Denver 38, Kansas City 24
Peyton Manning against his old team in the playoffs? Yes, please!
Manning and the Broncos fell at the hands of the Colts in Week 7, when Indianapolis bested Denver 39-33. The offense had a horrible offensive stretch in the second and third quarters, and it needed a stellar fourth quarter to boost its point total.
The Broncos amazingly could have won at the end, but a costly fumble by Ronnie Hillman prevented that.
They were extremely sloppy all game and didn’t deserve the win. But would the Broncos perform better in a rematch at home?
When the Broncos have the ball
Indianapolis has never been known for defense, but it quietly has a very solid unit.
Vontae Davis is likely its best player. He did a nice job against Demaryius Thomas in Week 7, holding him to just four catches. However, despite defending 12 passes, he has allowed opponents to post a stellar 98.2 passer rating.
Thomas and Manning could inflate that total with a big day, but Thomas would need to thrive on his quest for revenge. Considering his tremendous performances this year (he caught 14 touchdowns and accumulated 1,430 yards receiving during the regular season) and recently, that's certainly possible.
Decker, however, has a better chance of breaking out. None of the Colts’ other corners have performed too well this season. Darius Butler and Greg Toler, who are likely to take on Wes Welker and Decker, are both mediocre in pass coverage. Toler is banged up as well.
Welker will be returning from a concussion fully healthy, and he should return with a bang. He caught seven passes for 96 yards in Week 7, and he could duplicate that performance. As for Denver's two torrid outside receivers, they have a monstrous edge on paper. They need to use that edge to their advantage.
Julius Thomas also has a chance to do some damage. He caught five passes for 41 yards and a touchdown in the first game, and he could assist Manning in the red zone with his size advantage. It seems that Manning would have an open receiver often with these matchups.
However, last time, things didn't go so well. To win, the Broncos would need to take advantage of Indianapolis' secondary.
They would also have to run better, and to do that, the Broncos might have to turn to Ball.
Why? More explosive runners fare better against the Colts (similar to the Chiefs). For example, Charles ran for 106 yards and a score on just 13 carries. Ball is reliable enough to shoulder the workload, and he could make the Colts pay.
The Colts pass rush, however, could make Manning pay. Sack leader Robert Mathis abused Clark in the last meeting, and the Colts piled up four sacks.
However, it's worth noting that Franklin missed the game and Vasquez had to shift to right tackle. Additionally, Manning was throwing deep a lot because the Broncos were behind.
Mathis has nearly half of the team's sacks, so if the Broncos could slow down Mathis, they could likely conquer the entire pass rush. Denver has stepped up its game on the offensive line, and it should be able to stop a fatigued pass rush.
If the Broncos could build a lead, which is likely, they would likely be able to resort to their more efficient short-passing game. That would definitely help limit Mathis and the pass rush.
If that's the case, Manning should pick apart this mediocre secondary. The key here is stopping Mathis.
When the Colts have the ball
Manning against his former team would be the story, but the Colts offense is nothing to sleep on.
Luck is certainly a solid quarterback, one who has managed to thrive despite little help. His top target is the streaky T.Y. Hilton, and he has other shaky, inconsistent pass-catchers around him as well. He still threw for 23 touchdowns and was intercepted just nine times.
Hilton has eclipsed 100 yards five times, but he has also totaled 52 yards or fewer 10 times. That's not good enough for a top receiver.
He should be facing Rodgers-Cromartie, who is second in the NFL in opponent completion percentage. Hilton had just two catches in the first game, and he should be limited in this tilt as well.
The sure-handed Reggie Wayne led the team in receiving in the first matchup, but he is out for the season with a torn ACL. Coby Fleener did well in the first game, but he should be limited by Trevathan (who has only surrendered 41 completions this season). Griff Whalen has emerged, but he is inexperienced and isn't a game-changer.
The Colts couldn’t simply rely on their second-year quarterbacks and inconsistent receivers. To give them a chance to win, Donald Brown would need to run the ball effectively. He was tremendous in the regular season, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
However, if Woodyard, Trevathan and others made plays, the Colts would have to rely solely on the passing game. Additionally, if the Broncos got ahead early, the Colts would be forced to pass the ball more. That would put unwanted pressure on the Colts’ second-year quarterback.
Denver can make Luck uncomfortable by shutting down Brown, which is likely. He averaged a minuscule 2.1 yards per carry in the first meeting. Denver doesn't have Miller anymore, but it still has a spectacular run defense.
Luck would challenge the Broncos and likely frustrate them at times, but he would need to perform at an amazingly high level for the Colts to win.
Both kickers are solid. Prater has been fabulous at Sports Authority Field, and he set the record for the longest field goal ever in Denver. Adam Vinatieri missed five field goals and made 35.
As for the punters, Pat McAfee landed 27 punts inside the 20, whereas Colquitt landed 23 inside the 20. Both had averages of just fewer than 40 yards per punt. The returners aren’t as good, however. Holliday fumbled twice against the Colts, and Whalen, Indianapolis’ return man, isn’t the fastest, most dynamic punt returner.
What would happen?
Yes, the Colts did beat the Broncos. However, the Broncos are a better team. If Mathis were controlled, Denver would dominate on offense. On defense, it would do a better job than it did in the last meeting. Denver's secondary would probably have its way, and Luck would likely have a difficult time.
Denver 34, Indianapolis 23
The Denver Broncos are a more talented team than the San Diego Chargers. However, in the last meeting between the two teams, they didn't look like the better team.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense barely reached 300 total yards, and the Chargers controlled the game clock with a perfect game plan. San Diego won 27-20 thanks to a solid running game and ample, perfect throws from Philip Rivers.
San Diego and Denver split the season series, with each team winning away from its home turf. We know each team is capable of a win, and we know that the Broncos wouldn’t be ecstatic if they were to face the Chargers again.
But if they had to face them, how would it go?
When the Broncos have the ball
When you consider that the Broncos scored 606 points this season, it’s amazing that they averaged just 24 points per game against San Diego.
Manning performed well in both games, throwing for six touchdowns and an interception, but he didn’t have many opportunities to shine. San Diego ran Ryan Mathews a lot, and it kept the ball away from Manning by controlling it for nearly two-thirds of the game in Denver.
Because the Chargers built a lead, the Broncos needed to be perfect late in the game to win. The Broncos scored a touchdown and came through with a critical stop, but Manning was intercepted on a subsequent throw.
Denver only picked up 289 yards through the air, as Decker and Demaryius Thomas were limited. Andre Caldwell accrued 59 yards and two touchdowns in his breakout game, but despite playing against inferior competition, Thomas (and Julius Thomas, for that matter), struggled.
In his first game against the Chargers, Thomas caught seven passes for 108 yards and three touchdowns. He would most likely face Shareece Wright in the playoffs, which would be favorable for the Broncos.
However, it’s not just Demaryius who would benefit. San Diego doesn’t have a corner who grades in the top 94, which is absolutely horrible. On the other hand, Denver has three superb receivers in Thomas, Decker and Welker.
San Diego’s horrendous cornerback group makes it so much more puzzling that Demaryius and Decker didn’t dominate in December, but it’s not unlikely that they would if they played in the postseason.
Decker is on fire and more motivated than ever to earn a lucrative contract, and both Demaryius and Julius Thomas should be successful on a quest for revenge.
Welker isn’t looking for revenge on the Chargers because he didn’t play in the second game. He’s still motivated to win his first ring, though. He should make a difference and help give the other receivers more opportunities by drawing attention.
San Diego doesn’t have a premier pass-rusher, and the Broncos could definitely stop its pass rush. The Chargers had just 35 sacks in the regular season, which ranked 23rd.
To rattle Manning, San Diego would need to blitz, and that could be troublesome with its secondary woes and Denver’s array of talented pass-catchers.
Manning has a good chance to shred San Diego’s defense, but if the regular-season games were any indication, the run game might have a tougher time. Moreno and Ball ran 11 times for 18 yards in the second game, which was a huge reason why the Broncos didn’t win.
However, Denver questionably abandoned the run, which it won’t do in the cold playoffs (no matter whom they play). Against San Diego, it should have run well with ease; only three teams allowed more yards per carry than the Chargers.
In a rematch, Denver’s two vindictive running backs could perfectly complement Manning with solid performances.
But to allow the running backs to step up, Denver would need to jump out early and force San Diego to throw. The Chargers are much more comfortable when playing ahead, and they were in their comfort zone when they beat Denver. However, the Broncos can prevent that.
And if they do, it would significantly change things.
When the Chargers have the ball
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. Or an offense that doesn’t give up the ball.
New Chargers coach Mike McCoy molded Rivers into less of a risk-taker and a more conservative, efficient quarterback. The result has been tremendous, as Rivers posted a superb 105.5 passer rating. His stats weren’t gaudy against the Broncos, but he didn’t turn the ball over and wasn’t bad at all.
Forcing a turnover against Rivers would be a challenge, but one player could make it much easier. Bailey’s absence was felt most against San Diego, when Webster, his replacement, was burned repeatedly for nearly 100 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Keenan Allen went off for two touchdowns, but with Denver’s now injury-free cornerback trio, he might struggle.
Rodgers-Cromartie has been tremendous, and while he blew the coverage on one of Allen’s scores (he thought the call was a zone and didn’t run with Allen), he could certainly conquer the rookie.
Allen isn’t extremely athletic and would have to work hard to gain separation against a physical specimen in Rodgers-Cromartie.
If he were contained, San Diego would struggle. Former Bronco Eddie Royal is decent, but he averaged just 2.5 catches per game against Denver (in the regular season) and can be limited by Bailey (or Harris).
Antonio Gates is a talented pass-catcher, but he’s older and isn’t likely to separate himself from Trevathan and a healthy Woodyard enough to change the game. Vincent Brown made some nice catches against the Broncos in Week 15 (when San Diego won), but he isn’t fast enough or consistent enough to make a game-changing impact against Harris.
Danny Woodhead has transformed San Diego’s passing attack by catching passes out of the backfield, but the Broncos should be able to stop him. He accumulated just 30 receiving yards in the two games (in total), which is far worse than what he’s done in other games.
San Diego might not have its way passing on Denver, but if the teams’ last meeting is any indication, it would be able to run the ball at will. Mathews averaged 4.3 yards per carry against the Broncos and helped San Diego control the ball.
Still, the Broncos can stop him. After all, it limited the more explosive Charles.
Denver can keep him from being a big factor by jumping on top early, but even if the game were close, the Broncos could stop Mathews. They would need Woodyard, who played sparingly in the second game, and Trevathan to step up, but they could stop him.
And they could definitely halt San Diego’s offensive attack.
Nick Novak is a good kicker, but he’s not on Prater’s level; he missed three field goals (including a chip shot in the first meeting against Denver). As for Chargers punter Mike Scifres, he’s arguably the best punter in football. He pinned more than half of his punts inside the 20-yard line.
Trindon Holliday nearly fumbled away the first game against San Diego, and he is unreliable. Keenan Allen is more trustworthy, but he isn’t explosive. Veteran running back Ronnie Brown, however, is. He has returned kicks lately for San Diego.
What would happen?
Denver came out flat in the last meeting, but it would be hungry for revenge in the postseason. It has many favorable matchups on offense, and if it jumps out early, it would push San Diego out of its comfort zone. The Chargers were able to beat the Broncos in a fluky game earlier, but the Broncos are too good to lose to San Diego twice in one year.
Prediction: Denver 31, San Diego 21