W2W4: Broncos vs. Patriots

November, 1, 2014
Nov 1
7:30
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Two six-win teams that faced each other this past January in the AFC Championship Game. In short, this is as good as it gets in the NFL regular season.

The 6-1 Broncos have the highest-scoring offense in the league to go with the league’s top rushing defense and Manning is tied for the league lead in touchdown passes with 22 in just seven games. Brady is coming off a five-touchdown game in the Patriots’ (6-2) romp over the Chicago Bears, Brady has won his last 41 regular-season home starts against AFC teams and the Broncos haven’t won in New England since 2006.

With that, some things to keep an eye on:

  • Patience is always a virtue against a Bill Belichick team. Through the years Belichick has routinely worked to take away an offense's favorite things in the defensive game plan. Lots of coaches say they want to do that, but Belichick does it better with discipline and players who don’t give you the cheap mistake. If you like crossing routes, he makes you go to something else. You like to get the ball to a specific player on third down? His game plan forces you to go another way. He doesn’t often allow the first-option players to beat him. Other people usually have to break the percentages and make plays. The Broncos' offense has far more options than most and will test that theory. But Belichick has lived on the idea that offenses will eventually take an unnecessary risk or force a play to do what they like to do. The teams that beat him avoid those kinds of mistakes and get quality days from people all over the depth chart.

  • [+] EnlargeHillman
    Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos may need to lean on Ronnie Hillman & Co., as the team that has won the rushing battle has won six of the past eight meetings between the Broncos and Patriots.
    Hang on to the ball. Last November the Broncos took a 24-0 lead over the Patriots into the locker room at halftime. Brady pushed the Patriots through a touchdown drive on the first possession of the third quarter to make it 24-7 and then Montee Ball fumbled on the Broncos’ next possession with the Patriots recovering at the Denver 32-yard line. That was a game-changer. The Patriots scored again and the comeback was officially on. The Patriots are tied for second in the league in fumbles recovered (8) and given that the Broncos' running backs have shown they will put the ball on the deck occasionally, the Patriots' defenders will be ripping away at the ball. In the past three regular-season meetings against the Patriots, the Broncos have a turnover margin of minus-8. The Patriots lead the league in turnover margin at the moment at plus-11.

  • Don’t give Brady second chances. The Broncos have shown plenty of quality work on defense, but they have let opposing offenses off the hook at times this season. The Broncos have allowed teams to convert 20 third-down situations of third-and-5 or longer (four by penalty, 16 by pass). The Chargers converted a third-and-20, the 49ers converted a third-and-17, and the Chiefs converted a third-and-18, a third-and-13 and a third-and-11. The Broncos have overcome all that, but to give Brady that kind of luxury is asking for trouble.

  • Broncos may need a run game rerun. Last year, on a chilly, blustery night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the Broncos turned their offense over to the running backs. Knowshon Moreno had a career-best 224 yards, which fueled a 280-yard rushing night. The plan was sound and powered the Broncos to the huge first-half lead. If not for two second-half turnovers the Patriots turned into two second-half touchdowns the strategy would have worked. With the forecast calling for similarly blustery conditions this time around, the Broncos may need Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson and C.J. Anderson to be all they can be. Teams have found particular success running over the center against the Patriots (4.18 yards per carry) to go with just over five yards carry on runs over the left guard. The Broncos need center Manny Ramirez as well as guards Orlando Franklin and Louis Vasquez to have quality outings. In the last eight meetings between these two, playoffs included, the team that has rushed for the most yardage has won six times.

  • Beating blocks. When the Patriots haven’t liked their matchup against an opposing defense they have tried to cocoon Brady in a two-back, two-tight-end set and Brady has stepped up the tempo often delivering the ball in 1.8 or 1.9 seconds from snap to throw. That means the Broncos are going to have to beat blocks on the initial move to get to him. And if they can’t get there, they need to collapse the pocket and get their hands up into the passing lanes. If the Broncos allow Brady to get into a rhythm, it will be another long night in Foxborough.
On Thursday, Oakland Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano said there is a chance cornerback Carlos Rogers could play Sunday at Seattle if he didn’t practice all week. After missing Friday’s practice, though, it seems unlikely that he'll be in uniform.

Rogers
The Raiders listed Rogers as doubtful to play at Seattle. The final decision will likely come Sunday. If Rogers can’t play, rookie TJ Carrie will likely start, with DJ Hayden and Neiko Thorpe getting more playing time.

Meanwhile, receiver Kenbrell Thompkins returned to pratice Friday. He missed Thursday’s workout for a personal reason. He is expected to play Sunday.

As expected, tight end David Ausberry (foot), wide receiver Vincent Brown (hamstring), cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (hamstring) and cornerback Keith McGill (groin) have been ruled out for Sunday's game.

Meanwhile, Oakland safety Brandian Ross was fined $22,050 for unnecessary roughness (striking a defenseless receiver in head and neck area) for a hit on Cleveland tight end Jordan Cameron in Week 8. Ross makes an average of just over $35,000 a game. Thus, the starter was docked roughly 63 percent of his pay for the week. Ross was penalized on the play.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman, who had been limited in Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices because of a shoulder injury he suffered in Wednesday’s workout, participated fully in Friday’s practice.

Hillman is formally listed as a probable for Sunday's game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but he is expected to start against the New England Patriots and be available for his usual workload.

Hillman has consistently maintained Wednesday's injury was “not a big deal," and that he would be ready to play against the Patriots. That is key because Montee Ball (right groin) was formally ruled out of the game.

It will be the fourth game Ball has missed since suffering his injury Oct. 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. Ball worked with the Broncos’ strength and conditioning staff during practices this week, but did not participate in any of the team’s workouts.

Guard Louis Vasquez, who was sent home Wednesday because of illness, practiced fully Friday and is expected to start against the Patriots. Tight end Virgil Green (calf) was limited in practice and is listed as questionable.

If Green does not play, the Broncos would have two tight ends in uniform for Sunday’s game -- Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme. Green is often used when the team wants to have a little more of a power look in the run game.

Cornerback Kayvon Webster was excused from practice to attend to what head coach John Fox called “a family issue" and Fox said the plan was for Webster to meet the team Saturday. The Broncos were scheduled to head east Friday afternoon.
SAN DIEGO -- As part of his evolution as a man, Corey Liuget travelled with girlfriend Faven to Ethiopia, Dubai, Costa Rica and the Bahamas during the offseason in an effort to experience new things.

“It was an awesome trip,” Liuget. “All of those places have different cultures, different meanings and the people are great. I never dreamed I would be able to do those things growing up as a kid. And now that I have the finances to do it, why not take the time to do it before my career is over?”

Liuget
 After travelling the globe during the offseason, Liuget returns to his hometown of Miami for a second straight year to face the Dolphins in a continuation of his evolution as a player.

Last year against the Dolphins, Liuget said he did not meet his lofty expectations as a game-changer on the field. A costly personal foul penalty for roughing the passer on a late hit against Ryan Tannehill in the second quarter negated a fumble recovery for the Chargers, extending a Miami drive near the goal line. The play allowed the Dolphins to score a touchdown in a 20-16 win over the Chargers.

“In my head I felt like I cost us that game in Miami,” Liuget said. “So I’m just looking forward to going back and playing these guys, and coming out victorious this time.”

Liuget seeks redemption for that play when his team travels east to face the Dolphins on Sunday. Liuget said he had more than 80 family and friends in attendance at Sun Life Stadium last year. But that number will shrink to 25 this weekend, as he attempts to limit distractions so he can focus on the game.

Selected No. 18 overall in the 2011 draft out of Illinois, Liuget has missed just one game in four seasons. He suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder early in 2013 that required offseason surgery, but played with the injury the entire year.

Liuget’s 16 sacks since 2011 is the most by a San Diego player over that time frame, and one of the reasons the Chargers picked up the fifth-year option of his rookie contract at a nearly $7 million price tag for 2015.

Liuget’s 164 total tackles since 2011 is among the top 10 for interior defensive linemen. He earned AFC defensive-player-of-the-week honors for his effort in a 22-10 win over Buffalo. Liuget finished with six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and four quarterback hits.

Still, the 24-year-old believes he can play more consistent and make more impact plays on a weekly basis.

“I feel I can do some things better,” Liuget said. “I need to definitely work on a little more technique in getting off of blocks and getting to the quarterback more.”

And the game-changing plays?

“I had a couple of opportunities to make them,” he said. “I missed a couple, but I made some too. But I want to make more now. It’s time to start making more.”

Chargers defensive line coach Don Johnson believes Liuget doesn’t receive enough notoriety for being one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league. Johnson compares Liuget to some of the best athletes every to play defensive tackle, including Warren Sapp, Bryant Young and Tommie Harris.

“He’s a pretty unique individual in terms of his skill set,” Johnson said. “Corey is Corey. He’s a big body that can run fast. For me, what we require of our defensive linemen is to be productive and disruptive. And I think he’s both. If you go back to 2012, I think his production is comparable to some of the upper echelon in the league.”

For evidence of Liuget’s unique athleticism you only have to look back to his high school tape. At 6-3 and 220 pounds, Liuget was a mobile, strong-armed quarterback at Hialeah High School in Miami. He ran a 4.6, 40-yard dash and was recruited by some colleges as a tight end. One of Liuget’s favorite players growing up was future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.

It’s the type of athleticism even guys at the top of their game like Dwight Freeney marvel at.

“He’s a rare find as far as his size and speed,” Freeney said. “You don’t see guys that big that are that fast.”

But in order to be in the same conversation as the elite interior defensive linemen in the NFL like J.J. Watt and Ndamukong Suh, Liuget has to consistently play at that level every week.

“The expectations are high for him,” Johnson said. “But he’s really working hard to achieve the goals we’ve set for him.”
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AFC West

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the last three seasons, the Denver Broncos have faced their longtime AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs six times. Simple NFL math, really: Division foe, usually two matchups a season. In 2013, the Broncos faced the San Diego Chargers three times, with the two AFC West meetings in the regular season to go with last January’s divisional round playoff game.

Denver Broncos players and coaches say playing the New England Patriots offers the same we-know-them, they-know-us headaches an AFC West team would bring.

And that's because, through winning, schedule rotation and the postseason, the Broncos have faced New England almost as much as they've faced their own AFC West brethren. In the previous three seasons, the Broncos have faced the Patriots five times – three times in the regular season, twice in the playoffs -- and Sunday's game with be the sixth time in the last four seasons.

[+] EnlargeBrady/Manning
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsTom Brady and Peyton Manning meet every year on the field because they're always finishing in first place.
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I’m old enough to go back to the AFC East or if it’s bad thing," said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. “It means I’m old because we played them twice a few years before Tom [Brady] was playing back then. But even once we changed divisions when I was Indianapolis, we were playing them every year, and twice [in] three of those years, and of course played them twice last year. It’s a credit to the Patriots for being in the mix every single season and their consistency in their head coach with Coach [Bill] Belichick and their coordinators and their consistency with Tom Brady at quarterback. They’re always in the hunt, they’re always there and they’re playing really well right now."

Because it’s far more difficult to toss a new wrinkle at a divisional foe that knows you the best, it has been difficult for the Patriots and the Broncos to outright fool each other. Things usually come down to the old-school football maxims of whistle-to-whistle discipline and turnovers.

“We’ve played these guys so much, it’s like a division opponent, really," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “We’ve played them quite a bit. I think they’re pretty familiar with us as well."

By the time each team’s offensive and defensive assistants have broken down the personnel groupings and personnel tendencies for each team before each meeting, before each team’s coaching staff has then made game plans for each of those games, even the football intel a former player can offer is even muted a bit.

Del Rio said he’s talked to cornerback Aqib Talib, who played for the Patriots for a season-and-a-half following a 2012 trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Broncos essentially had all of the information already.

"There are some things that he confirmed," Del Rio said. “Certainly little tips on individual players, things like that. But there is plenty of work to do without spending your whole time trying to pick his brain."

So, with Sunday’s meeting and another possible postseason meeting in January to go with another regular-season meeting in 2015 if both teams finish in first place again, it’s going to be a while before the Patriots don’t feel like a divisional opponent.

“It’s a great matchup of two of the better teams in the league," Del Rio said. “We’ve earned this because we’ve ended up in first place. It’s a first-place schedule that we both play. So two good teams that are going at it. So we look forward to the challenge.”

It's a good problem to have, Manning said.

“Somebody was asking me if I ever see the schedule come out and say, ‘Boy, I wish we didn’t have to play them again,’ but in reality they’re always winning the division, they’re always there and so if you’re going to play them, for the main reason we’ve played them so many times is because we’ve won the division the year before also," Manning said. “So it’s a challenging consequence of being a good team the year before; that’s what you want. You want to win the division. It gives you the chance to get in the playoffs, gives you the chance to win a world championship. That’s kind of your goal every year."
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If Bob Sutton had never become the defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of trying. When Herm Edwards was head coach of the Chiefs, he unsuccessfully tried to hire Sutton away from the New York Jets.

Andy Reid made it his annual quest when he coached the Philadelphia Eagles to make Sutton a part of his staff.

“Andy Reid tried to get him every single year,’’ Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “He would call and try to get him and I’m like, ‘No I’m not letting you, not letting you have him’ and things like that.

“I never wanted to lose Bob. Obviously, he was my assistant head coach and everything, but it was the best thing for Bob and his career to get an opportunity to be a coordinator, and I knew the kind of coach he is. He’s a great coach and a great person.”

When he joined the Chiefs last year, Reid finally pried Sutton away from the Jets. It’s looking like Sutton was worth the wait.

The Chiefs, in Sutton’s second season as coordinator, are third in the league in total defense and points allowed and first in passing defense. This is happening despite the fact the Chiefs have played almost all of the season without four starters, including a pair of Pro Bowlers, linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry.

The Chiefs had a dominant defense for the first half of last season as well. They were on an NFL record pace for sacks and were forcing turnovers in bunches. But the Chiefs ran out of gas in the second half. They allowed a lot of big pass plays, a lot of points and eventually wasted a 28-point third-quarter lead in losing to the Indianapolis Colts 45-44.

What the Chiefs are doing now looks to be sustainable. They’re still sacking the quarterback with frequency, but not at the expense of allowing big plays. They’re a lot more solid defensively, something San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers noted before the Chargers’ game against the Chiefs two weeks ago.

For that, the Chiefs can thank the 63-year-old Sutton, a longtime college assistant and nine-year head coach at Army before he joined the staff of the Jets in 2000. He was an assistant to Ryan and much of what the Chiefs are doing defensively, he adopted from Ryan.

“It’s a lot of what we did in New York and what Rex brought to New York from Baltimore,’’ Sutton said. “I think each system goes off a little bit on its own as you get to a place, a lot of time it’s driven by either what you’re faced with and also what your personnel can do. We always think about this system that it has a lot of flexibility. We can play a lot of different ways, and I think that’s one of the real strengths of the system. You kind of push it over to one side or the other based on your players or the issues that you’re facing from the opponent. But a lot of it honestly is driven from what we did in New York.”

The Chiefs are certainly playing it better now than the 1-7 Jets.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Priest Holmes lost his all-time Kansas City Chiefs rushing record two weeks ago to Jamaal Charles, but he won’t lose his place in club history. Holmes will be inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame at halftime of Sunday’s game against the New York Jets at Arrowhead Stadium.

Holmes
Holmes rushed for 6,070 yards and scored 83 touchdowns during his seven seasons with the Chiefs from 2001 through 2007. His touchdowns total remains a team record.

Statistics aside, Holmes is a most deserving choice for the Chiefs' Hall of Fame. He was the perfect back for the offensive machine the Chiefs had when they were coached by Dick Vermeil. The Chiefs needed a versatile back, one who could run with vision and patience and allow the blockers to do their thing but also catch passes and protect the quarterback. Holmes could, and did, do all of that.

The Jets are an appropriate opponent to host for Holmes’ induction. He had one of his best game for the Chiefs during a 2002 game against the Jets in New York. He rushed 23 times for 152 yards and a touchdown and also caught nine passes for 81 yards and a score.

That touchdown, on a 19-yard pass from Trent Green with 34 seconds left, gave the Chiefs a 29-25 victory.

Broncos vs. Patriots preview

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
8:00
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The Denver Broncos visit the New England Patriots in the regular season for the third straight year. As usual, it’s one of the most highly anticipated games on the NFL schedule.

Why three regular-season matchups in a row in New England? It’s simply a result of the league’s rotating scheduling format.

And that rotation would call for the teams to meet again next year should they finish in the same spot in the division standings this season, a game that would be played in Denver.

Sunday’s game will mark the 16th time that quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning square off against each other, with Brady holding a 10-5 edge. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, this marks the first matchup in NFL history among opposing starting quarterbacks who had at least 150 career regular-season wins entering the game.

Elias also reports the 890 combined career passing touchdowns for Manning (513) and Brady (377) are the most combined career passing touchdowns for opposing starting quarterbacks in NFL history. The previous record was 818, held by Manning and Brady last season.

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the matchup.

Reiss: Jeff, welcome back to town. What are the most significant differences you see in the Broncos from the team the Patriots saw in last year’s AFC Championship Game?

Legwold: The biggest difference -- and it’s major -- will be in the team’s defense. Three players who started in the AFC Championship Game this past Jan. 19 will likely be in the starting lineup again this time around. The total would have been four had linebacker Danny Trevathan not reinjured his leg against the Arizona Cardinals, but it has been an extreme makeover. And it’s one where I think you can see John Elway’s experience as a quarterback coming through as a personnel executive. Elway didn’t want to put Manning in a situation in which "he feels like he has to do everything," and after a season when the Broncos scored more points than any team in league history, yet still didn’t win the Super Bowl, Elway went about the business of making the Broncos far more well-rounded, with more team speed across the board on both sides of the ball. Defensively, however, Von Miller’s return and DeMarcus Ware’s addition in free agency gives the Broncos two elite edge players on a defense that can play with far more versatility than it did in either meeting against the Patriots last season.

For all of the discussion about Tom Brady’s decline early in the season, what have you seen in his play and have the Patriots simply done a better job protecting him in the past four games?

Reiss: It was difficult to evaluate Brady in the first four weeks of the season because he was under so much duress. So I’d say the main difference since that time has been better protection, which has given the offense a chance to find a bit of an identity; they are an attack that leans toward multiple tight ends and two-back groupings. And make no mistake, the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski has been a big part of it, too. He was still being eased into the mix in the first four games of the season and he has since hit top form. What a difference that has made. Brady’s arm strength and mental acumen have not wavered. I think it's most accurate to say that that the parts around him are playing better.

Aqib Talib was well liked among teammates in New England. How would you describe how he’s fit in with the Broncos and what he has brought to the team?

Legwold: Again, Elway, the former quarterback, went on the hunt as a personnel executive for the type of cornerback he didn’t like to face when he played. And that is Talib, a physical, fearless player with length, good speed and instincts in coverage. That was their hope for Talib and that’s what he has brought. He has been a willing tackler in the run game and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has used him all over the formation. The Broncos had questions about Talib’s ability to stay healthy, given the way he plays and that he had never played 16 games in a season, but it has been so far, so good as Talib hasn’t even missed any practice time so far. He has allowed the Broncos to play three cornerbacks -- Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and rookie Bradley Roby -- in the nickel and still defend the run game against the more open formations the Broncos have seen. That has always been a sticking point in recent years, especially against the Patriots at times. The Broncos play perhaps more man coverage than any team in the league right now, so Talib gets isolated in tough matchups at times and has given up some catches in those don’t-touch-the-receiver times, but he has played well and the Broncos like his ability to compete every play. Overall, Talib has fit well in the locker room and seems to like the same kind of postseason aspirations in Denver that were prevalent in the Patriots’ locker room as well. He has said all the right things so far this week, but his teammates say he’d like to make a "remember when" play Sunday.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has usually had a wrinkle for the Broncos to digest in recent meetings, especially for the Broncos' defense, everything from the up-tempo look in 2012 to Aaron Hernandez lined up at running back in 2011. How do you think Belchick and Josh McDaniels will attack this year’s version of the Broncos' defense?

Reiss: When the Patriots have been at their best this season, they’ve established a threat of the running game to set-up play-action opportunities. So I’d start there, while also remembering how much they struggled in that area in the AFC Championship Game. They couldn’t block Terrance Knighton consistently on the interior, so when I think of their potential game plan, there will surely be wrinkles, but I think it’s more about basics and fundamentals and securing the line of scrimmage better than they did the last time these two teams met. The major wrinkles will probably come more on the defensive side.

The defection of Wes Welker is still a sore subject for some, in part because the projected replacement -- Danny Amendola -- hasn’t filled the role. Julian Edelman has, but Welker was a fan favorite here. How has Welker looked this season, and where does he fit into the overall offense?

Legwold: Certainly it hasn’t been the year Welker had hoped it would be thus far, beginning with a four-game suspension for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs -- it was later reduced to two games when the new drug policy was approved by the league and the NFL Players Association -- to open the season. He also suffered a concussion in the preseason against the Houston Texans, and it was his third concussion since November. So in the early going, Welker has spent a lot of time answering questions about his suspension and whether he’s worried about his health because of the concussions. Toss in the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas in the offense, and Welker hasn’t seen the ball all that much with 19 catches, on 24 targets, in his five games. He has six catches in the past three games combined. That said, Manning continues to go to him in some key third-down situations, including against the New York Jets on Oct. 12 and against the San Diego Chargers last week. But he has been a specialist of sorts in Denver this season. Each of the Broncos' receivers has had a marquee game this season as Manning continues to work the ball all over the formation, and Welker is due for his. But to this point he’s a distant fourth in targets and has just eight more catches than running back Ronnie Hillman, who has started just three games.

In the end, it’s hard to get away from the Brady-Manning storyline. They are, and will always be, the biggest names on the marquee in this matchup. But beyond the future Hall of Famers, what’s the one thing the Patriots must do to win this game?

Reiss: Establish control of the line of scrimmage and good things will happen for the Patriots. It’s so basic, I know, but that’s really been the top story of the Patriots’ season to me. They couldn’t get where they wanted to go until they figured out things along the offensive line and they seem to have done that, but now comes a stiff test against Knighton and dynamic pass rushers Miller and Ware. On defense, they haven’t been stout against the run while playing sub defense, and they’ll need to create more resistance than they did last year.
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The Seattle Seahawks return home this Sunday to CenturyLink Field to face a winless team in a game that should be an easy victory for the Seahawks.

The Oakland Raiders are 0-7, just trying to find a way to get on the right track. The Seahawks are 4-3 after a victory in Carolina they hope ends some of the doubts surrounding the team the past two weeks.

ESPN.com Raiders reporter Bill Williamson and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount preview the game and take a candid look at where both teams are headed.

Blount: Bill, the Raiders now are the only winless team in the NFL. I’m sure there are many reasons for it, but what would you say is the biggest reason, and is it possible they could go 0-16?

Williamson: The biggest problem is, unless something crazy happens, the Raiders are staring at 0-11. After playing at Seattle, the Raiders host Denver and then go to San Diego. That is tough sledding. The easy part of the schedule is over. If the Raiders get to double-digit defeats without a win, the reality of going 0-16 is going to be facing Oakland. The reason why Oakland is winless is it has not put together a complete game. The Raiders are nearly halfway through the season, and have yet to put together an effort capable of ending with a victory.

Terry, while the Seahawks have been a tad shakier than expected, what is a realistic finish for them in the second half?

Blount: I think they still could go 11-5 or 10-6, and here’s why: The Seahawks have two home games coming up they should win -- the Raiders this Sunday and the New York Giants the following weekend. Winning both games would make Seattle 6-3 heading into the defining six-game stretch of the season, and it’s brutal -- two games against the Cardinals, two against the 49ers, at Kansas City and at Philadelphia. That’s four tough road games, two against NFC West rivals. Realistically, the Seahawks should hope to split those six, or possibly go 4-2, before closing out the regular season at home against the Rams, another game they should win. So 11-5 is probably the best they can do, but whether that will be good enough to win the division is hard to say. They really need to win both games against Arizona.

Bill, talk about Derek Carr’s progress. His stats look pretty good other than his TD-to- interception ratio, but that’s to be expected for a rookie on a struggling team. Are the Raiders happy with what they’ve seen in Carr? And what does he need to work on the most to continue to progress?

Williamson: The Raiders love Carr. They love his poise, his leadership and his ability to grasp the game. I’m not sure he is going to be a superstar, but the game is not too big for him and I expect him to be a fine player for Oakland for years to come. He is a definite bright spot and a reason why the Raiders should be excited. I think the biggest thing Carr needs is a supporting cast. Once the talent around him gets better, he will be in really good shape.

As far as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, all is good, right? All that stuff is just noise, correct?

Blount: Much ado about nothing. Once the Percy Harvin trade went down, the rumor-mill ran wild. But I can tell you for a fact there is no budding mutiny against Wilson. It’s absolutely preposterous. This man just led these guys to a Super Bowl victory. He never says an unkind word about any teammate. In fact, he even went to bat for Harvin to try to get the Seahawks to give Harvin another chance. He gives everything he has to this team and his teammates. To think there would be a revolt of some sort against him is beyond ridiculous. Could someone have said something negative about him, possibly someone who no longer is here, out of jealousy? Maybe. But truthfully, it saddens me that race could enter this equation, insinuating whether he’s "black enough." As Wilson said, "I don't even know what that means." Shouldn't we be beyond such characterizations by now? If anything, these accusations just made the team stronger and closer.

Bill, I asked the same question to Rams reporter Nick Wagoner a couple of weeks ago. It’s only a matter of time, probably the near future, until a team moves to Los Angeles. Is this a race between the Rams and the Raiders to see which team can get there first?

Williamson: Raiders owner Mark Davis has made it clear everything is on the table, but he wants to stay in Oakland. But he needs a new stadium. The Raiders’ lease at the Oakland Coliseum runs out after this season. So, Los Angeles is a possibility. But I think the key is that all we hear is talk. He needs to see action regarding Los Angeles before any team can go there. If it gets to that point, yes, I think the Raiders could be in play. But it’s all fluid. Again, the bottom line is the Raiders want to stay in Oakland.

In conclusion, Terry, do you think the Seahawks have any worry about the old letdown game against a winless, hapless road team?

Blount: If Seattle had entered this game on a roll, maybe so, but there’s no way that happens for a team that’s a disappointing 4-3 and already has a home loss. The Seahawks know they can’t afford any slip-ups now against a weaker opponent.

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In in the end, it’s the minds that matter.

Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning. Again.

Sunday will be the 23rd time, as either a head coach or defensive coordinator, Belichick has faced Manning. The 23rd time the matchup coach, the guy who has been more successful than most at taking away what you do best, has faced the matchup quarterback.

Former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley has always said Manning works every play to the open guy. He doesn’t play favorites, that "if you’re the matchup, the open guy, you get the ball."

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick and Peyton Manning
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBill Belichick said this week that Peyton Manning was the best quarterback he has ever faced as a coach.
Manning was asked this week if he thought deep down Belichick, who is 12-10 when facing Manning as a coordinator or head coach, might be tired of facing Manning after all these years.

"I don’t know. I can’t speak for that, but somebody was asking me if I ever see the schedule come out and say, 'boy, I wish we didn’t have to play them again,' but in reality they’re always winning the division, they’re always there, and so ... you’re going to play them," Manning said. "... The main reason we’ve played them so many times is because we’ve won the division the year before also. So it’s a challenging consequence of being a good team the year before, that’s what you want. You want to win the division, it gives you the chance to get in the playoffs, gives you the chance to win a world championship. That’s kind of your goal every year."

Through the years, Belichick, who is 10-5 against Manning with Tom Brady as his starting quarterback, has routinely chosen coverage over pressure with Manning. The Patriots have often filled the passing lanes with defenders dropping into coverage and hoped a four-, three- or sometimes even a two-man rush on a smattering of snaps can get there if Manning has to consistently go deeper into his progressions.

Last November, on a cold blustery night in Foxborough, Mass., Manning threw for 150 yards -- his lowest output of his record-setting 2013 season -- and was sacked twice as the Broncos chose to run the ball plenty against defensive sets with so many defenders off the line of scrimmage and in coverage. The Broncos ran for 280 yards, 224 of those from Knowshon Moreno. But in the end the Broncos could not protect a 24-0 lead, losing 34-31 in overtime.

Manning sees the same attention to detail in the Patriots' defense this time around, even with the Patriots missing Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo, who is now on injured reserve with a right knee injury suffered during an Oct. 12 victory in Buffalo. New England also played this past Sunday’s win against the Chicago Bears without defensive lineman Chandler Jones, who suffered a hip injury in the Patriots' Oct. 16 win against the New York Jets.

"That’s why Bill’s been so successful is they’ve done a tremendous job," Manning said. "They’ve taken a 'next-man-up' philosophy. They’ve lost some key components to their defense and plugged guys in and done a terrific job. They’re not giving up explosive plays. They’re high both in scoring offense and scoring defense, and part of that is pass rush. It’s just pass defense as a whole."

For Manning, it always means patience is a key. Belichick tends to try to take away a quarterback’s favorite routes, favorite receivers, and make him put the ball into the hands of others. That means the Patriots will try to limit the Broncos’ bread-and-butter crossing routes with plenty of attention given to receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

The make-somebody-else-beat-you philosophy usually makes someone else in the offense make the plays that make the difference. Last season it was Moreno, with a career night, who almost pushed the Broncos over the top.

In the AFC Championship Game, in Denver, this past January, the Patriots' secondary, especially after Aqib Talib left the game, wasn’t up to the challenge as Manning remained on schedule in his reads and finished with 400 yards passing, with 134 of those going to Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos believe they have enough depth, with Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders capable of 100-yard games -- Sanders has two this season, to go with a three-touchdown game -- if that's what it takes to end the Patriots long home winning streak (33 regular-season games in a row) against AFC opponents.

"When you’ve got Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, two first-ballot Hall of Famers in my eyes, those guys are definitely winners and going at home with the crowd and the environment, it’s definitely a tough place to play," said Sanders. "But at the same time, we’ve got to go out there. We’ve got to handle business. We’ve got to go out there and execute at a high level, we’ve got to be assignment-detailed, we’ve got to be physical."
Good morning.

Pete Prisco of CBS Sports has a couple San Diego Chargers on his midseason All-Pro team. Eric Weddle gets the nod at free safety, and linebacker Kavell Conner is a somewhat surprise addition as Prisco’s special teams ace.

Prisco on Weddle: “He is smart. He has range. He’s a good tackler. He’s a big part of the Chargers’ 5-3 start.”

ESPN NFL Nation Dolphins beat writer James Walker reports that starting left guard Daryn Colledge and tight end Dion Sims missed a second straight practice on Wednesday.

Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight.com says the Chargers have a 44 percent chance to make the playoffs.

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com believes Philip Rivers is the No. 3 quarterback in the league behind Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

Jordan Beane of Chargers.com talks to new San Diego cornerback Richard Crawford in this video.

Kevin Acee of U-T San Diego says Sunday’s game at Miami is not a must-win, but it’s close.

Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus drops Jason Verrett to No. 7 on his top-10 rookie list.

Kyle Posey of Bolts from the Blue believes that Verrett is the injured player San Diego needs most on the field.

Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated writes that despite off-the-field scandals, NFL ratings are stronger than ever.

Chiefs vs. Jets preview

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
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The Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets, teams headed in opposite directions, meet Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. After losing their first two games, the Chiefs climbed to 4-3 after Sunday's 34-7 win over the St. Louis Rams. The Jets, after beating the Oakland Raiders to begin the season, have lost seven straight games, including Sunday's 43-23 defeat to the Buffalo Bills. This week, the Jets replaced struggling quarterback Geno Smith with veteran Michael Vick.

ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Jets reporter Rich Cimini preview Sunday's game.

Teicher: Rich, do you think the Jets are making the best decision for this game by replacing Smith with Vick?

Cimini: I don’t think the change will solve the turnover problem, but Vick might bring a spark to the offense. He isn’t the Vick of 2010, but he’s still capable of escaping trouble with his legs. That alone will be good for a few first downs a game. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds to a full week of practice reps with the starters, something he hasn’t had with the Jets, including training camp. I know one thing: The players were ready for a change after last week’s brutal performance by Smith. The downside to Vick is that he will fumble; he’s always been careless with the ball. He had four fumbles last week (and lost two). Obviously, Andy Reid knows him better than anyone, having coached him in Philadelphia. That insight will help in the game planning.

It looks like the Chiefs are taking dink and dunk to a new level. How would you describe their passing game and what’s the deal with Alex Smith’s shoulder?

Teicher: It is a dink-and-dunk passing game. Smith last Sunday was the first NFL quarterback in two years to win a game by attempting just one pass longer than 10 yards down the field. While that’s an extreme, Smith has had similar games earlier in the season. Shaky protection is part of the problem. The Chiefs have allowed more sacks per pass play than all but four other teams, so the Chiefs put a premium on Smith getting rid of the ball quickly. The Chiefs have no pass play of longer than 33 yards. All the other teams have at least two pass plays of 34 yards or longer. The Chiefs ask their receivers to earn yards after the catch. Tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and running back Jamaal Charles do that well.

The Jets are allowing a lot of points and their pass defense has been horrible. Give me a scouting report on the Jets defense and detail some of the reasons they’ve been so bad on that side of the ball.

Cimini: You’re right; the defensive performance has been stunning. Blame injuries and poor personnel decisions at cornerback. Rex Ryan is playing cards with half a deck, and the results have been lousy. They’re giving up big plays (nine pass plays of 40-plus yards), they stink on third down (a league-high 12 touchdowns) and they can’t steal the ball. Incredibly, they have only three takeaways -- one interception and two fumble recoveries. They don’t have anyone who can play man-to-man, so Ryan is playing more zone than ever before. Now, I will say this: The Chiefs don’t have an explosive passing attack, so this matchup plays to the Jets’ strengths, stopping the run and rushing the passer.

Obviously, Justin Houston is having a great year. What makes him so effective in Bob Sutton’s scheme, which is similar to Rex Ryan’s scheme?

Teicher: Houston would be a good fit in a lot of schemes, but he’s the perfect outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. He’s a solid all-around player, good against the run and in coverage as well as rushing the passer. He’s getting plenty of help in pressuring the quarterback. Tamba Hali, a relentless player, is a nice complement to Houston as an edge rusher. Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe have been effective inside rushers.

The Jets traded for wide receiver Percy Harvin last week and they got him involved immediately in the game against the Bills. How did they utilize him and what difference, if any, should he make in the Jets’ offense?

Cimini: Harvin didn’t make much of a difference in his Jets debut -- seven touches on offense for a total of 50 yards. Instead of using him as a “gadget” receiver -- bubble screens, jet sweeps, etc. -- the Jets used him as a traditional X receiver. I guess they think they’re smarter than the Seahawks, but the only plays that worked were his old Seattle plays. Two of his three catches came behind the line of scrimmage. Elsewhere, he caught only one of seven targets. His four rushes came from a running-back position. He played 44 of 84 snaps last week, so look for that total to increase after another week of absorbing the system. He’s fast, all right, but he’s not the kind of player that can elevate those around him.

After an 0-2 start, the Chiefs seem to have their act together. Could they pull a reverse of last year, finishing strong and becoming a factor in January?

Teicher: It’s possible. I think the Chiefs will be a strong contender for a wild-card spot. They’ve greatly reduced the number of big pass plays they’re allowing. That was a big problem for them last season, even during their 9-0 start. They aren’t a big-play offense, but they run the ball well and are very effective on third downs. They finally got a significant contribution last week on special teams, where they won on a weekly basis last year. If they continue to get that, the Chiefs will be tough to beat during the second half of the season. If they do make the playoffs, their chances of winning a game or two would be better than they’ve been in a long time, depending on the matchup.
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The San Diego Chargers (5-3) will travel to face the Miami Dolphins (4-3) in an important game with early playoff implications. Both teams could be fighting for a wild card in the AFC, which would make owning the head-to-head tiebreaker important.

Who will prevail in this matchup? ESPN Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss:

Walker: Miami has won two in a row and San Diego has lost two in a row, so momentum may be a factor in this matchup. Where are the Chargers in terms of confidence and ending their losing streak?

Williams: The Chargers are a veteran-led group that understands the ebb and flow of an NFL season, so confidence will not be an issue traveling on the road to face the Dolphins. Two of San Diego's three losses have come on the road, against teams that have one loss apiece (Denver and Arizona). San Diego's other loss was a three-point setback to AFC West rival Kansas City at home.

The Chargers don't make a lot of mistakes and generally force opponents to beat them. Coach Mike McCoy is meticulous in his game-day preparation and his staff is skilled in making in-game adjustments. I expect San Diego will be ready for whatever the Dolphins plan to do scheme-wise on both sides of the ball.

The Dolphins are doing a nice job of running, ranked No. 6 by averaging 138 rushing yards per game. How has new coordinator Bill Lazor turned things around on offense?

Walker: Most people expected Lazor to come in and quickly fix the passing game, but he has made his biggest contribution with the running game. Miami's ground game has been consistent, whether it was Knowshon Moreno early, Lamar Miller lately or even quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has three runs of 30 yards or more in the past three games. Lazor has done a good job of spreading out defenses and calling run plays at the right time. His read-option with Tannehill and Miller has been a huge success. Miami's passing game still needs work, but there is progress.

West Coast teams often don't look the same in Miami; San Diego hasn't won here since the 1981 season. How are the Chargers combating that and will the 10-day layoff help?

Williams: Although West Coast teams traditionally struggle in early games traveling east, the Chargers have been relatively successful of late, posting a 7-5 record in 10 a.m. PT games since 2012. The extra days off have given this banged-up team a chance to get some players healthy, and with Philip Rivers controlling the offense, the Chargers are competitive more times than not. One of the keys for San Diego will be the possible return of running back Ryan Mathews. Out for the past six games with an MCL sprain, the Fresno State product could help provide some much-needed balance to San Diego's offense if healthy and cleared to play on Sunday.

After starting 1-2, the Dolphins have won three of their past four games to get back into the AFC playoff race. What has been the difference?

Walker: Part of it is the schedule. The Dolphins cannot hide from that fact. All three of Miami's victories during this stretch have been against the struggling Jacksonville Jaguars (1-7), Oakland Raiders (0-7) and Chicago Bears (3-5). Those are bad teams the Dolphins must beat if they want to be considered playoff contenders, and to their credit they took care of business.

The Dolphins are 1-3 against teams with winning records. That is why this game against San Diego is such a good measuring stick of where the Dolphins stand. Miami's next four opponents have a combined record of 22-9 (.709 winning percentage), so we are going to find out quickly whether the Dolphins are contenders or pretenders.

San Diego was banged up before its previous game against the Broncos. Where are the Chargers injury-wise heading into Sunday's game?

Williams: The Chargers should be in a better place health-wise. Four weeks ago against Jacksonville, the Chargers barely had enough healthy bodies to fill 46 spots on the active roster. Along with Mathews, cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Donald Brown are possibilities to return from concussions. Pass rushers Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring) and Cordarro Law (ankle) also should have a chance to make it back on the field on Sunday. Offensive linemen D.J. Fluker (ankle) and Rich Ohrnberger (back) have been playing with injuries, so the extra time should work in their favor as well.

The Dolphins are No. 3 in passing defense, holding teams to just 212 passing yards a game. How does the front seven set the tone?

Walker: Miami's front four are the strength of the entire team. The Dolphins have waves of good players, starting with defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and defensive tackles Jared Odrick, Earl Mitchell and Randy Starks. Miami also is getting contributions off the bench from Derrick Shelby, Chris McCain and Dion Jordan, who recorded a couple of tackles in his first game off suspension. This group sets the tone for the defense. The Dolphins' linebackers have been inconsistent with the exception of Jelani Jenkins, who leads Miami in tackles (53) by a wide margin.

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- He has played in the two highest-scoring offenses in league history.

He's had a 16-catch game in his career and he's had more 100-catch seasons -- five -- than anyone who has caught passes in the league's history.

Yet as the Denver Broncos have rolled out to a 6-1 start, again with the league's highest-scoring offense, there are times when wide receiver Wes Welker's role has been almost ornamental. His 19 catches are his lowest total over the first seven games of a season since 2005. Back then Welker was a Miami Dolphins wide receiver who had 16 receptions over the first seven games -- a far cry from a key piece in the 2007 New England Patriots offense as well as the 2013 Broncos.

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AP Photo/Jack DempseyIn five games this season, Wes Welker has just 19 receptions for 181 yards.
"Yeah it's definitely been different, for sure," Welker said. "Would I want the ball more? Yes. As long as we're winning games and we're being productive on offense and doing those things, I'm good with however we get that done. It's kind of strange being, I feel like, the weak link of our offense. If I'm the weak link, we're going to be OK."

The season has been a bumpy ride thus far for Welker. It started with a concussion in the preseason game against the Houston Texans, Welker's third concussion since last November, followed by a suspension for a violation of the league's policy on performance enhancing drugs. The suspension was initially for four games, but was reduced to two when the NFL and the NFL Players Association approved a new drug policy.

Others have stepped up this season. Julius Thomas had seven of his nine touchdown catches over the Broncos' first four games, Emmanuel Sanders had three 100-yard efforts in the first four games and Demaryius Thomas has four consecutive 100-yard games.

That, and the Broncos' desire to play out of a two-tight end set more often, have left Welker as a bit player at times. He had one catch, for 8 yards and a first down, in the Broncos' win over the New York Jets to go with two receptions for 5 yards in the win over the San Diego Chargers last week.

"Wes is far, far from the weak link in the offense," Sanders said. "The thing is, it could be anybody's day on any given Sunday. Wes just hasn't had his opportunity. But I remember when you guys were saying [Demaryius Thomas] was not being as productive and things of that sort, and I came out and I said, 'Look, Demaryius can go off in any game for 200 yards' and that next game, he went out for 200 yards. So that's the same thing with Wes. Wes can go out for three touchdowns and have a big game versus any opponent. I feel like it's going to click for him pretty soon."

Welker would likely like "pretty soon" to be this weekend. The Broncos (6-1) will face the New England Patriots (6-2), Welker's former team, on Sunday in Gillette Stadium. Welker's exit from New England was somewhat messy before he signed a two-year deal with the Broncos.

Of the four primary pass-catchers for the Broncos -- the two Thomases, Sanders and Welker -- Welker moves around the formation the least. Welker most often plays out of the slot, and Julius Thomas has been the preferred matchup in the middle of the field. And quarterback Peyton Manning meticulously throws to the coverage without forcing the ball to any of the receivers.

Demaryius Thomas has said "any week it could be your week," and Welker was asked this week if he believed Manning wanted to find a way to get him the ball more against the Patriots.

"Not necessarily; I don't want him to feel that way either," Welker said. "I just want him to go play his game and whoever's open is open and whenever we need to score touchdowns, that's the way I want it to be. I'm not going to put any pressure on him or anything else, [saying] 'Hey, I really need the ball because I'm playing my old team,' or anything like that. I just want to go out there and whatever we need to do to win the game, that's first and foremost for me. Hopefully I make some plays along the way, but however that happens is how it happens."

Last season Welker had four catches for 31 yards in the Broncos' regular-season loss to the Patriots (a Nov. 24 game the Broncos had led 24-0 at halftime) to go with four catches for 38 yards in the Broncos' win in the AFC Championship Game.

"I like the way Wes Welker works at football," Manning said. "He loves it, another football junkie, gym rat, whatever you want to call it that loves football, loves to work. You can't tell him, 'Hey, that's enough, we're going to stop.' He wants to do one more, one more, one more."

Welker said he feels more "comfortable" going back to play against New England this time around and that "I'm just so excited about the opportunity and a big game like this."
SAN DIEGO – If the San Diego Chargers are getting healthier, quarterback Philip Rivers didn’t seem to notice on Wednesday.

“I don’t know if you could say today looked that way on the practice field,” joked Rivers. “I almost thought, ‘Where is everybody?’”

Even after a long weekend to recuperate from nagging injuries, eight Chargers players still missed practice.

Brandon Flowers (concussion), Ryan Mathews (knee), Manti Te'o (foot), Jeremiah Attaochu (hamstring), Dwight Freeney (knee), Rich Ohrnberger (back), Jason Verrett (shoulder) and Jahleel Addae (concussion) did not practice.

However, Flowers, Mathews, Attaochu and Addae did some work on the side. Freeney and Ohrnberger are expected to play against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

After missing three games with a concussion, running back Donald Brown finally cleared the NFL concussion protocol and was a full participant in practice on Wednesday, along with cornerback Steve Williams (groin). Linebacker Reggie Walker (ankle) was a limited participant.

“It felt good to get back out there, get back into a routine and get back into the swing of things,” Brown said. “You put so much time and effort into the offseason to play in games. And to sit out and watch your team compete while you have to sit there and not do anything, it’s tough. But I’m excited about the opportunity this coming week to play Miami. It’s a good test, and it will be a challenge.”

The addition of Brown gives San Diego more depth at running back, with Branden Oliver taking the lion’s share of the reps in the backfield the last three games.

Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said even with eight players missing practice on Wednesday, his team is inching closer to being fully healthy.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are extremely close to coming back,” McCoy said. “You see some of those guys running around today on their own doing things. But we’ve got one thing on our mind – finding a way to get to 6-3. That’s all that is on our mind for the rest of the week.”

The Chargers also released cornerback Aaron Hester from the practice squad and signed cornerback Kendall James from Maine in his place.

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