Manning wasn’t up to his usual five-touchdown antics that we’ve come to expect this season; he was simply an efficient playmaker with a 69.4 completion percentage.
Moreno, despite amassing a pedestrian 82 yards on 23 carries, came through in key moments to help preserve the 24-17 victory over San Diego.
Denver entered the postseason as the odds on favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season. With New England coming to town next weekend, Manning will need another solid effort from the running back position to finally make good on those expectations.
Here are five takeaways from Moreno’s performance against San Diego that should have Broncos fans thinking about New York…
He Can Find the End Zone
Moreno continues to show a nose for the end zone this season that he never seemed to have before. His 13 total touchdowns in the regular season far exceeded his previous career high of nine, set his rookie season.
With 1st-and-goal at the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter, coach John Fox and Manning showed how much confidence they have in Moreno’s red-zone abilities. Moreno needed just two plays to get a touchdown and make it a three-possession game with eight minutes to play.
That score proved to be the difference as the Chargers scrambled to come within a touchdown before Denver ran out the clock.
He Gets Timely First Downs
Moreno provided the Broncos with a career-high 82 first downs in the regular season and added six to that total in the divisional round.
This was key because although Manning finished the day with a 91.1 QBR—his sixth best this year—this was not a typical Manning outing. He threw two touchdowns for only the fourth time all year and compiled his second-lowest passing yardage of the season.
Moreno helped Denver move the chains throughout a low-scoring affair, including two on a second-quarter drive that ended with a Wes Welker touchdown catch.
The way Manning runs the offense, Moreno isn’t asked to put in Marshawn Lynch-type workloads. But keeping the ball in Manning’s hands is the most important part of a Denver running back’s job.
He Plays Turnover-Free Football
Two things nearly derailed Moreno’s career: injury and fumbling. While the former is unpredictable and largely out of one’s control, the latter is purely up to the player.
Moreno fumbled four times as a rookie, and added three more his sophomore season.
He has fumbled just once in 325 touches so far this year—and he recovered it himself. Players in the locker room are noticing the difference:
Eric Decker on Knowshon Moreno: "The guy deserves the season he's having...it just shows that he's resilient."— Gray Caldwell (@GrayCaldwell) January 13, 2014
This is a revelation for Fox, whose backup running backs have combined to fumble six times—losing four of them—in just 214 touches.
Moreno absorbed contact from multiple Chargers defenders on 15 of his 24 touches and never came close to giving away a precious turnover. Only three teams had more fumble takeaways than the Patriots this season, so holding onto the ball will be extremely important.
He Is a Factor in Clock Management
Most teams spent the seasons trying to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands for as long as possible.
Based on how Keenan Allen torched the Broncos secondary after Chris Harris left with an injury, keeping possession of the football may be just as important for Denver.
Much of Manning’s passing functions like a running game with short, quick routes. But the two-headed attack of Moreno and Montee Ball will need to eat up the clock like they did with 33 carries in the divisional round.
His Value in the Passing Game Is Huge
With so many downfield weapons opening up the defense, Moreno often catches a screen pass with several yards of daylight ahead of him. Nearly half of his receptions went for first downs.
Though Manning only called his number through the air once against San Diego, the play went for 12 yards. It was indicative of the success the Manning-Moreno connection has had all year. And it will be important against a New England defense that allowed 4.7 receptions per game by a running back.
Tom Brady has had Manning's number over the years, going 10-4 overall and 2-1 in the playoffs against the Broncos quarterback. But, as Manning told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, there will be dozens of other players on the field this weekend:
"I know there will be some individual matchups that will get headlines. But it will be a battle between two good teams, teams that have been through a lot, that have overcome a lot to get to this point, and that's where my focus will be — trying to help the Broncos get a win over the Patriots."
Perhaps its best for Moreno that Manning get all the Patriots' focus and he stay under the radar. Given his status as a 1,000-yard rusher that prospect remains unlikely, but Moreno's chances to affect the outcome of the game won't.