AFC West: Bill Belichick


DENVER -- When Hall of Famer John Elway sat across a nicely appointed desk from Peyton Manning, whose gold jacket is a future given, a promise was made.

A promise that went beyond the recruitment of the most decorated free agent to ever hit the open market in the NFL's history, a promise of what could be if both took a leap of football hope and faith.

Elway made a promise to Manning 22 months ago that he would "do everything in my power to make sure [Manning] finishes his career the way I finished mine."

Make no mistake, children across the Front Range leave their footy pajamas behind carrying the knowledge Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons with the Denver Broncos. And in his third season as the Broncos' chief football decision-maker, hired by Pat Bowlen to restore glory and secure trophies, Elway has now seen Manning lead the Broncos into the Super Bowl.

Manning was at his take-that best Sunday as he swatted away the pregame chatter about his record against Bill Belichick, about his oh-so-many on-field battles with Tom Brady, with a performance that was as efficient as it was relentless in a 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game. Manning finished 32-of-43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns.

He wasn't sacked, was rarely even disturbed as he went about his work and did not throw an interception. The Broncos and Manning dropped a total of 507 yards worth of misery on Belichick's defensive game plan and flaunted the variety that has vexed defenses all season long.

Five different players caught at least three passes as eight players had receptions overall. Or as Belichick put it, in his own bottom-line way: "They've got a lot of good players."

That they do. And in the end, it was Belichick who provided the nudge that pushed the Broncos to where they were Sunday.

It was Jan. 14, 2012, when Belichick dismantled the Broncos' postseason run powered by Tim Tebow and a read-option offense. In a 45-10 hide-your-eyes Patriots win, Tebow was 9-of-26 for 136 yards and was sacked five times.

It dropped the curtain on what had been a dynamic stretch for the Broncos, who had unveiled the read-option after making Tebow the starter, a run that included an overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round. And the loss left the Broncos at a crossroads.

Broncos coach John Fox said this past week that "I remember we lost in the playoffs in New England that year, and it was a pretty good indicator of how far we had to get moving."

Then, after Manning was cut loose by the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks later, Elway and the Broncos closed the deal on the surgically repaired quarterback. Manning has gotten better and better since.

He threw a franchise-record 37 touchdowns in 2012, threw a league single-season record 55 touchdowns in 2013.

"There was a lot of uncertainty, whether he was going to play anymore," said Archie Manning, Peyton's father. "That kind of makes it special ... His age, what he went through, playing the quarterback position in this league, we tried to stay positive with him. He handled it so well."

"He's a great man off the field, a great leader and a great person to follow because he does everything right," said Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball.

But simply landing Manning wasn't all Elway did. He hit on some draft picks, players like Ball, Orlando Franklin and tight end Julius Thomas. He got a coach in Fox who assembled a staff with both veteran hands like defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and mark-it-down, up-and-comers like offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Elway also got more from inherited players such as Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno.

He had to deal with last January's crushing playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens; and Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season; Fox's open-heart surgery; a long list of injuries that included Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady, Miller and Chris Harris Jr.; and making the right call on short-term signings like defensive end Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He had to maintain his composure and hold the door against complacency.

"It meant we had to deal with everything we had to deal with, to keep the focus on what needed to be done," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. " ... A lot of people talk about being good, but you have to do the things that need doing to be good. All the time, every day. All you want is a shot at the big game, and we have that. Now you get to work on that one game."

People are always telling Elway, because his quarterback is 37 years old and in his 16th season after four neck surgeries, that the Broncos need to win now. Elway's retort is not a surprise to anyone who knows him, to any of those who were in the huddle with him while the game was on the line.

Elway always says "it's about win [from] now on."

It was all there Sunday, awash in orange, played out with the emotion of a team making its first Super Bowl appearance since Elway was its quarterback. It will be a Super Bowl where the Broncos will be asked questions about whether their high-powered offense can handle a snowy day, can handle a muscle-bound defense from the NFC or if the Broncos' defense can be good enough, for one more game, to get it all done.

And it will be a Super Bowl game where a promise is kept.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Even as two teams that won 12 and 13 games in the regular season fell all over themselves to try to be the underdog this week -- even John Elway offered that “no one thought" the Broncos would “get by" San Diego to even get this far -- the topic of the Denver Broncos' Nov. 24 trip to Foxborough, Mass., has come up more than once in recent days.

Come up in the framework of whether the New England Patriots' 34-31 overtime victory in a game the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime has any bearing on Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

The Broncos rushed for 280 yards in the game and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 344 as both teams played half a game that was decided when a punt hit Tony Carter's leg and put the Patriots in position for the game-winning field goal.

[+] EnlargeManning/Brady
AP Photo/Steven SennePeyton Manning, front, and the Broncos would just as soon forget their overtime loss against Tom Brady's New England Patriots on Nov. 24.
“Again, just like I’m sure they’re doing, you look at things, you look at matchups, you look at schemes," Broncos coach John Fox said. “But that game will have little to nothing to do with this game. Typically, they’re always different."

Well, yes and no.

Certainly, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for rarely attacking a problem the same way twice. Or at least twice the same way in such a short period of time. And some of the names have already changed in the weeks since.

Whether it was the frigid conditions -- 22 degrees at kickoff with wind gusts of up to 40 miles an hour -- or Belichick’s usual crafty ways, the Patriots held Peyton Manning to 150 passing yards.

That was by far a season low in a game in which the Broncos spent virtually the entire game in their three-wide-receiver look -- every snap but two. The Broncos did not have tight end Julius Thomas in the lineup that night -- it was one of two games Thomas missed this season with a knee injury -- and the Patriots did well in doubling Wes Welker and forcing Manning away from his usual favorites.

Eric Decker finished that game with just one reception, and Demaryius Thomas and Welker, who had three drops in the game, had four receptions each. Overall, it was the worst outing of the season for the Broncos' pass-catchers as they finished with a season-high seven drops.

“And you have to clean those things up," Decker said. “If you have opportunities to make plays, you have to make them."

Defensively, the Broncos will not face do-it-all tight end Rob Gronkowski this time around -- he’s now on injured reserve -- so the Patriots' offense will look vastly different, at least as far as intent. The Patriots have been far more run-first in their approach in recent weeks as Brady has completed 14, 14 and 13 passes in the past three games, respectively.

In the last meeting, Brady used Gronkowski to get back in the game -- Gronkowski had seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown -- and Julian Edelman finished with 110 yards on his nine receptions, including two touchdowns. The Broncos figure to use veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, who did not play in the Nov. 24 game, at least some against Edelman.

“They came out and played a great second half of football, there is no doubt about that," said Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan. “There is nothing else to say. They just came out and played -- they fixed what they needed to fix, and we didn’t adjust well to what they fixed. We have to be able to, when we’re up, stay up, and, if we’re down, get up on them and keep them down.”

The Broncos also fumbled five times in November, losing three on a night when the teams lost a combined six fumbles.

But, in the end, the Broncos closed out the week wanting neither to remember that sliver of history all that much nor be doomed to repeat it. They have chosen to look at Sunday’s game as its own set of circumstances with a chance at the Super Bowl at stake.

“Every game is a learning experience, but that one really taught us something," Trevathan said. “It is a different day, a different attitude and a different mindset. We’re going to go out here and do what we have to do to get a win."

“You look at it, but they’ve been through a lot to get this far, we’ve been through a lot to get this far," Bailey said. “And a month is forever, and that was a month ago, almost two months. We’re on to this one, and you don’t need any more than that."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There were times Wednesday when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was at his pizza-hawking, SNL-hosting, cut-that-meat best. Manning was taking his usual Wednesday lap with the media, in preparation of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, when he strayed off the one-game-at-a-time straight and narrow at times.

Manning
And in between saying New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick would go down “as the greatest NFL coach of all time," and that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been “a better player each year than he was the year before," Manning offered a few other gems along the way.

Asked about “Omaha," and what it means, Manning said;

“Was that like a fan written-in question? I’m not sure how to answer that, but I’ve had a lot of people ask what Omaha means. Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action play, depending on a couple things -- the wind, which way we’re going, the quarter and the jerseys we’re wearing. It varies play to play. There’s your answer on that one."

Asked why he chose Omaha, he said;

"It wasn't my pick, I guess."

Asked about if he would quiz cornerback Marquice Cole, a former Patriots player the Broncos signed Tuesday, on the New England defense, he said;

“I just said ‘how are you doing? My name’s Peyton. Good to have you here’ about five minutes ago. So that’s the extent of it so far. No telling where it will go, but that was the starting point."

Manning did get to the task at hand as well. Sunday’s game will be Manning’s fourth career AFC Championship Game appearance, his first with the Broncos. The Colts were 2-1 in the previous three with a win in Super Bowl XLI to close out the 2006 season.

“We’re excited about the opportunity, we’ve worked hard to get to this point," Manning said. “Coach (John) Fox mentioned how many obstacles the Patriots have overcome to be in this game. We’ve overcome a number of obstacles as well to get here ... It’s commendable to the team that we fought through those obstacles and we put ourselves in this position and are playing a great football team -- AFC Championship, it’s certainly exciting."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos head coach John Fox had just been asked about how teams all over the league seem intent on finding a guy like Julius Thomas these days.

“I think they're hard to find,'' Fox said. “It's kind of a unique position because you have to block and be a receiver -- and that is a unique, physical body to find, with that athleticism. It's like trying to find a center in the NBA. I mean, it's not easy to do.''

Fox could just as well been talking about why the position is so difficult to defend in today's NFL as much as he was about the difficulty in finding the guy to play it in the first place.
In Sunday's AFC Championship the full spectrum of the position will be on display in the two team's offenses. The guy who could do it all, the matchup nightmare of nightmares at the position, Rob Gronkowski is on injured reserve for the Patriots, so he is not on the Broncos' defensive to-do list.

But in Thomas, the Broncos have the kind of pass catcher everyone covets at the position in this wide-open era. He is riding a breakout season that has included 65 receptions to go with 12 touchdowns as well as an invitation to the Pro Bowl. Thomas is too quick, too agile with too much top-end speed for most of the linebackers who have tried to shadow him this year. He's too strong, with too much reach, for most of the defensive backs who have taken their turn as well. And while his blocking remains a work in progress, when Peyton Manning throws you the ball on a third-and-17 late in the fourth quarter with a playoff game on the line you have arrived as a go-to guy in the pattern.

Even though the Patriots have a linebacker with athleticism in rookie Jamie Collins -- the former safety ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at last February's scouting combine at 250 pounds and his drop into the passing lane to snatch an Andrew Luck pass last weekend had the look of a cornerback in coverage -- New England's defensive staff will still face plenty of difficult choices in what to do with Thomas. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase is willing to line up Thomas all over the formation, often forcing defenses to put bigger players in the open spaces where they are not nearly as comfortable.

But the Broncos will have their own problems with the position as well. While the Patriots' Michael Hoomanawanui had just one catch in last Saturday night's Patriots win over the Indianapolis Colts, he was no less a matchup problem for the Colts in that game. As the Patriots pounded out 234 yards rushing, it was Hoomanawanui who was often creating the crease on the outside edge, consistently allowing the Patriots to plow open holes as if they had six offensive linemen in the game.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is one of the game's most proficient practitioners of situational football. Belichick consistently creates the matchups on both sides of the ball that suit his team the best against a particular opponent and sticks to it.

To that end Belichick played Hoomanawanui on every offensive snap in the game -- 74 in all. Overall the Patriots used a two-tight end look for 34 plays in the game.

It means Broncos defensive ends Jeremy Mincey, Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips will have to find a way to disengage from Hoomanawanui and hold the edge. Because if running backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley are getting the corner down after down against the Broncos that will be every bit as disruptive as Thomas helping the Broncos to move the chains.
Knowshon MorenoMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsKnowshon Moreno and the Broncos rushed for 133 yards on 34 carries against the Chargers.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are the face of a passing league.

They launched 675 passes this season, but it probably seemed like more to the defenses caught in the vapor trail. Quarterback Peyton Manning finished out the regular season with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. If you're thinking about an NFL offense, there is a good chance you're thinking about Manning and the Broncos' fast-break, no-huddle attack first, or you don't get too far down the list before you do.

But in the postseason? The postseason brings the potential of defenses good enough to take away a team's preferred option. It also brings with it weather, with the kind of wind that grounds flights, let alone quarterbacks.

"We always want to have that option," Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno said of the team's ground game. "If they start calling our numbers, no question Montee [Ball] and I want to be ready to be those guys."

The highest-scoring offense in league history has already played its wild card in these playoffs. The Broncos ran the ball 34 times for 133 yards in their divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers. There is a feeling around the team that even with Manning and a passing attack that features a staggering five different players with at least 60 catches, the Broncos will need to go by land from time to time.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Montee Ball
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyRookie running back Montee Ball had 10 carries for 52 yards against the Chargers.
Sunday, the Broncos pounded when they needed to pound, they kept the Chargers off-balance enough that Manning was not sacked, and the Broncos threw the ball just two more times than they ran it. In the regular season, the Broncos threw the ball on 58.4 percent of their offensive snaps.

"It was critical; we stressed all week being productive on first and second down," Manning said. "We did not do that last time we played San Diego and got into some third downs and didn't convert those. We were good on third down because we were good on first and second down. That was the point of emphasis all week, and we carried that from the practice field to the playing field. It was good to see that pay off. A mix of some runs and some short passes to keep moving the chains. So it was a good job by the guys up front. I thought Montee and Knowshon both ran really hard.”

The Broncos were certainly not alone this past weekend. The four winning teams in the divisional round ran the ball a combined 149 times. In fact, the average rushing line in the four games was 37.25 carries for 166.75 yards. The Patriots ran for 234 yards, the Seahawks ran for 174 yards, the 49ers ran for 126, all to go with the Broncos' 133 yards.

That's a whole lot of dirt under a whole lot of fingernails for a league that has supposedly left grind-it-out football behind. But there is plenty of logic to go with the necessity. With passing attacks like the Broncos and Patriots have, defenses often answer with smaller personnel groupings in both the defensive line and in the secondary.

Against defenses built for speed, New England coach Bill Belichick has even taken the approach a step further. They not only run against those lighter groupings, they can repeatedly pound away with the mammoth LeGarrette Blount, at 250 pounds, or the 220-pound Stevan Ridley.

The Patriots ran the ball on 62.5 percent of the their offensive snaps in Saturday night's victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

And the last time the Broncos and Patriots faced each other this season -- Nov. 24 on a frigid, blustery night in Foxborough, Mass. -- the Broncos ran for 280 yards, with all but one of their 48 carries coming out of a three-wide receiver formation. They had 38 of those runs with Manning lined up in shotgun.

"When we're efficient in our running game, that is when you're looking for that balance." Gase said. "When we're able to move the ball efficiently in the running game and the passing game, that's when you get that. It's never really going to be 50-50. You try to get that. A lot of times it's probably more 60-40 for us ... And that is on me to make sure we make the adjustments we need to make and then stick with the run."

Because of the constant threat of the passing game all across the league, defenses are built more for situational football, for moving people in and out of the lineup, to defend wide-open formations and uberquarterbacks. Some defenses just aren't built to dig in, down after down, and defend, helmet on a helmet, the point of attack in run defense.

It's not so true in the NFC, where the two remaining teams in the postseason both finished in the league's top 10 in run defense -- San Francisco was fourth and Seattle was tied for seventh. In the AFC, however, only two teams in the playoff field (the Broncos and Cincinnati) finished among the league's top 10 in run defense (Cincinnati No. 5, Denver No. 7).

"We always feel like, as a defense, we need to be ready for when offenses line up and come right at us," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "I think in this time of year, teams are always going to look to run the ball. I think it's always been that way."

"I think balance is important, keeping the ability to do both [on offense]," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "It keeps defenses guessing a little better. It' s not easy to do, something you stress, something that I believe is important, especially in playoff season."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

November, 25, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 34-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots.

What it means: The Broncos' 2012 season turned with a Week 6 comeback in San Diego, when the Broncos trailed 24-0 at halftime and roared back to beat the Chargers 35-24. This season, they must now work from the other end of the spectrum after having let a 24-0 lead of their own slip away on a night when Peyton Manning again struggled in the cold and the offense went into the deep freeze until a game-tying drive. In the end, the Broncos couldn't overcome a special-teams mistake by Tony Carter.

Stock watch: At least for one half, the Broncos saw the Von Miller they have been waiting for since his suspension ended in Week 7. Miller dominated the opening half with a 60-yard fumble return for a touchdown to go with two sacks, including a strip of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady that forced a fumble. However, Miller didn’t have near the same impact after halftime, particularly in the pass rush, as Brady threw for well more than 200 yards in the second half and overtime combined.

The sequel: Patriots coach Bill Belichick is noted for picking away at what you don’t want to do, and in recent meetings with the Broncos, he has often chosen to throw the ball against the Broncos defense when it’s in the bigger base look and run on the Broncos when they are in a smaller nickel package (five defensive backs). Of the Patriots' 251 rushing yards in last season’s meeting, 140 came against the nickel, and through three quarters Sunday night, the Patriots had ground out 65 of their 87 rushing yards in the nickel.

Go with what you know: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was targeted just twice by Brady in the first half and had just one catch as the Broncos used a combination of linebackers and safeties to track the Pro Bowler. The Patriots obviously wanted to make sure he got far more involved after halftime. Gronkowski had three catches in the third quarter alone, including a touchdown.

What’s next: When the Kansas City Chiefs came to Denver in Week 11, they were 9-0 and at the top of the division. Next Sunday, the Broncos will go to Arrowhead Stadium to face a 9-2 Chiefs team with two of Kansas City's best defenders -- Tamba Hali and Justin Houston -- dealing with injuries. And the Broncos are a battered group after Sunday night's old-school scrap.

Broncos-Patriots matchup of the day

November, 22, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long been considered by his peers to be one of the league’s best defensive minds, particularly in how he coaches, and arranges, the players in the secondary.

His defenses understand what quarterbacks want to do in a variety of situations, and they play with discipline, almost no matter who is on the depth chart. But his cornerbacks and safeties in particular have always been well-schooled and able to take the lessons from the classroom on to the field.

Manning
Belichick
The talent in recent years may not rival some of his first teams in New England when he had the likes of Ty Law, Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison in the secondary, but they often get it done when they need to. Even this season, despite a variety of injuries, the Patriots have succeeded in keeping teams out of the end zone enough to be 7-3.

Sunday, however, the Patriots will face an offense often with four or sometimes five receiving targets in the pattern. The Denver Broncos play with the kind of balance that few, if any, teams can match. After 10 games, they have three players with at least nine touchdown catches and four players with at least 45 receptions (and running back Knowshon Moreno has 37 catches). That is next-level spread-it-around.

How Belichick deploys the players in his battered secondary, and how Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning deals with it, will have a lot to say about how things go Sunday night. Belichick has routinely picked coverage over pressure when facing Manning through the years, even rushing as few as two or three players at times to get as many people in coverage as possible.

But Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib has a hip injury and cornerback Kyle Arrington has a groin injury. Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have matched Talib on an offense’s best receiver at times this season, but if he isn’t 100 percent Sunday and is still in the lineup, it would be a lot to ask of him to trail Demaryius Thomas for an entire game.

Arrington has played as the slot corner when the Patriots are in the nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) – most teams line up in either when facing the Broncos’ three-wide-receiver look – and that would put him across from Wes Welker much of the time. The Broncos believe they will see both Talib and Arrington in the lineup Sunday night.

Patriots safety Steve Gregory has a fractured finger, did not play in the Patriots’ loss to the Panthers this past Monday night and remains a question mark for Sunday's game. The Patriots will also be without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard against the Broncos because of a knee injury.

It all means Belichick figures to mix and match in coverage with plenty of zone looks. If history holds true, the Patriots will try what several teams have done with the Broncos this season: knocking receivers out of their routes early with plenty of the physical stuff.

The Colts and the Jaguars disrupted the Broncos’ offense some with the tactic, and Denver's receivers will have to be ready to play through it and get themselves in the right spots.

Fun With Numbers: Denver Broncos

November, 21, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is a matchup that is awash in numbers, but it is rather remarkable how many times Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has faced the New England Patriots in his decorated career.

Especially when you consider Manning has not played in the same division as the Patriots since the league did its most recent realignment following the 2001 season -- Manning’s fourth year in the league. Sunday night will be the 17th time Manning has faced the Patriots since Bill Belichick became the team’s coach in 2000 and the 14th time he will have faced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady head to head -- both totals include three playoff meetings.

After some numbers crunching, as well as another huge nod to the fine folks at ESPN Stats & Information, here are some numbers of note:
  • Of Manning’s 14 games against Brady, eight have been at New England, including two of the three playoff games. Or as Manning put it with a laugh: “It seems like I sure do go there a lot -- out there to Foxborough. I don’t know how that always works, I guess it’s always random they say, but it’s been strange how that works out.’’
  • The Patriots and Broncos are already scheduled to play in the 2014 regular season as well since, in the schedule rotation, the AFC East is slated to play the AFC West.
  • The Patriots held Manning without a touchdown pass in just one of those 14 games -- the AFC divisional-round game to close out the 2004 season, a 20-3 Patriots win.
  • Manning has a season-low one touchdown pass in the 27-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday night. And while that number often makes defensive coordinators feel pretty good, it shouldn't. With that win, Manning is 149-57 in games in which he throws just one touchdown pass -- a .723 winning percentage.
  • The Broncos' 398 points are already, with six games remaining, the fifth-most scored in a season in the franchise’s history. Should they score two points Sunday, it will also be just the fifth time the team has scored at least 400 points in a season. The franchise record is 501 points, by the 1998 team.
  • In 20 previous meetings against Belichick as a team’s defensive playcaller or head coach, Manning has thrown for at least 300 yards in just eight of the games. Manning has thrown for at least three touchdowns in seven of those games, including the last three in a row.
  • Manning is 7-13 against the Patriots in his career -- a .350 winning percentage -- his worst mark against any team he has faced more than three times.
  • Inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, Manning is 17-of-19 on pass attempts to Wes Welker with eight touchdowns.
  • If it seems like Manning is getting rid of the ball faster than most other quarterbacks these days, it’s because he is. Manning has been the fastest in the league this season, holding the ball just 2.83 seconds on average on his dropbacks. He is the only quarterback under three seconds, on average, with the Bengals' Andy Dalton at No. 2 (3.02) and the Lions' Matthew Stafford at No. 3 (3.06). As a result Stafford (12 sacks) and Manning (13 sacks) have been sacked the least among quarterbacks who have started every game this season.

Manning-Belichick a road well traveled

November, 20, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The football odometer now reads 20.

Yes, 20 times Peyton Manning has played quarterback against a team that featured Bill Belichick as either the top decision-maker on defense or the top decision-maker on the sideline.

After all that time spent trying to decode what Belichick has done, Manning can get into Belichick's mind and knows what the three-time Super Bowl winner in New England is thinking, right?

"Well, I cannot say that," Manning said.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning has a 9-11 record against Bill Belichick-coached teams.
It means whatever happens in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday night will be the 21st time the two have faced each other. A rather astounding number in a not-for-long profession for many players and coaches. Two of the game's most driven perfectionists will search for weaknesses in the other's plan and try to force mistakes in the other's execution.

Manning is 9-11 against a Belichick defense in those previous 20 meetings: four when Belichick was the New York Jets assistant head coach and 16 since Belichick became the New England Patriots head coach in 2000. Manning has thrown 37 touchdowns in those games to go with 29 interceptions and has been sacked 28 times -- including five games when he was sacked at least three times.

It includes Manning's 6-10 mark against the Patriots, it includes three playoff games, two AFC Championship Games. It includes a mountain of decisions, a host of players and a fairly large, and still unfinished, slice of history that will be left behind whenever the two decide to call it a career.

"They're always well-coached, they're always very disciplined," Manning said. " … They're not making a lot of mistakes or giving you the easy 15-yard penalty there. … Any time you played their football team, you're playing a well-coached, disciplined team and in my opinion that starts with the head coach."

On the surface that may seem like a quarterback trying to answer a question about what he sees from an upcoming opponent without awarding any information along the way. But many in the league who have also tried to solve the Manning Riddle have looked at what Belichick has done through the years and also used the word "discipline" about the defensive success.

Belichick's peers say that two of his greatest strengths as a coach are also what have helped him against the likes of Manning.

He gets players to follow instructions, to do what is asked, without mistakes, almost no matter how much he changes the plan week to week. To consistently, play after play, down after down, get those players in the right spots where they can make things the most difficult for the quarterback with the ball in his hands. No small thing when dealing with varying levels of ability and a pile of personalities that routinely come with an NFL depth chart.

Belichick also has an ability to take away what an offense wants to do most. When longtime Belichick assistant Josh McDaniels was the Broncos head coach, he mentioned how coaching staffs always talk about taking away what an offense wants to do. Belichick consistently forced offenses to beat his team, not with Plan A, but with Plan B or even Plans C or D.

Against Manning, Belichick's teams have often defended the the quarterback's staples well. They take away the seam routes down the middle of the field, make it difficult to hit the underneath routes, and keep the ball out of the hands of the tight end. He forces Manning to move deeper in the progression, and to hold the ball a little longer. Belichick has often routinely chosen coverage over pressure up front as well, usually dropping six, seven and sometimes even eight or nine players into coverage against Manning.

Manning files it, at least publicly when asked, under "all the multiple looks they give you."

For his part, when asked if he sees a different Manning these days after the four neck surgeries, Belichick said simply:

"Looks pretty good to me," Belichick said. "Makes all the throws, does a great job reading defenses, getting to the right play, great poise, excellent with the clock, recognizing defenses, really no weak points to his game."

So, here they go for the 21st time, both with plenty of road behind them now. Both with all of the accomplishments already in hand needed for enshrinement in Canton. But both still with some things left on their career to-do lists.

Final Word: Ravens at Broncos

January, 11, 2013
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NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Baltimore Ravens-Denver Broncos AFC divisional-round game, which will be played at 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Denver's Sports Authority Field:

Justify his glove: A quarterback wearing a glove is a fairly common occurrence. But when a quarterback the caliber of Peyton Manning starts to wear a glove, it’s noticeable. When it happens after Manning missed an entire season because of a neck injury that required four surgeries, it is going to be newsworthy. This week, Manning admitted he is wearing the glove as a result of his surgery. He wore the glove in the past two games -- both at home -- because he has had difficulty gripping the ball in the cold. Snow is a possibility Saturday, and temperatures might dip below 20 degrees at game time. Expect to see the glove make its third appearance. If the first two games are any indication, Denver shouldn’t be worried about the fit: Manning has thrown for 643 yards, six touchdowns and one interception while wearing the glove.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsWearing a glove to combat the Denver chill hasn't slowed Peyton Manning his past two games.
Is Rice suddenly a fumbler? There is a curious trend developing for Baltimore running back Ray Rice. Once the postseason begins, normally ball-secure Rice becomes vulnerable to fumbling. Rice has seven fumbles in 1,527 touches in his regular-season career. But after fumbling twice Sunday against the Colts, Rice has fumbled five times in 152 touches in the playoffs. Nothing can unravel an upset bid on the road in the playoffs like a key fumble. It will be something Rice -- and the entire Denver crowd -- will be thinking about Saturday.

Pees has playoff experience against Manning: Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees was an assistant coach in New England from 2004 to 2009 and faced Manning in the postseason twice, winning once and losing once. This week on ESPN’s “NFL Live,” another former Bill Belichick defensive assistant, Eric Mangini, said Pees’ time planning for Manning with Belichick's playoff staffs could come in handy. Mangini said there were times when Belichick changed an entire defensive scheme against Manning at halftime to get an edge. Thus, Mangini said, Pees is adept at doing what it takes to try to stop Manning in the playoffs.

Will the Ravens be worn down? Denver will try to strike quickly and set the tone. Expect to see some fast-paced, no-huddle offense against what could be a fatigued Ravens defense. Baltimore had a short week after beating the Colts on Sunday -- after which the Ravens had to travel west into the thin air of Denver. The Colts ran 87 offensive plays and kept the ball for 37 minutes, 32 seconds Sunday. All of these factors could come into play Saturday.

Will Caldwell give different looks? When Denver beat the Ravens 34-17 in Baltimore in Week 15, it was the Ravens’ first game with Jim Caldwell as their offensive coordinator. The Ravens promoted Caldwell, who was Manning’s head coach in Indianapolis, from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator after the firing of Cam Cameron. Caldwell’s offense was anemic against Denver, which took a 31-3 lead into the fourth quarter. The unit has made some strides in the three games since, meaning Denver should expect to see an improved Baltimore offense.
Maybe Andy Reid will be heading to the AFC West after all.

There were reports that Reid -- fired by Philadelphia on Monday after 14 years with the club -- would be interested in returning to his native Southern California and coaching the Chargers. They have not shown interest.

Their rival Kansas City Chiefs, however, do.

In a move that makes a lot of sense, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen is reporting that Reid will interview with the Chiefs on Wednesday.

This answers our question: The Chiefs do have interest in a big-name coach.

The first names that emerged in Kansas City were Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and Atlanta special teams coach Keith Armstrong. Koetter talked to the Chiefs on Tuesday and on Wednesday announced he will no longer pursue a head-coaching job.

Pursuing Koetter and Armstrong really didn’t jibe with the plans of Kansas City owner Clark Hunt. He is still evaluating general manager Scott Pioli. The plan is for Hunt to lead the coaching search and then discuss Pioli’s future with the new coach.

That makes perfect sense with an experienced coach like Reid. Reid had power in Philadelphia that extended beyond the sideline and that could be the case in Kansas City.

Perhaps a Reid-Pioli relationship could work as Pioli’s relationship with Bill Belichick did in New England. Pioli would be in the background and in he would be in this circumstance as well. But there is also reason to believe Pioli could still be dismissed.

I think a Reid-Kansas City pairing could work.

He is an established coach who could bring a good staff. He is an offensive mind and the Chiefs need big help on offense. The team has to find a quarterback, but Reid could help that process move along quickly by indentifying a good fit.

Reid would bring some legitimacy to this program.

I have heard that this possibility is real. I know there were many reports Tuesday that said Reid was nearing a deal in Arizona. But I think the Chiefs are very much in the mix and they can get Reid if they want him.

Reid is now clearly the focus of Hunt’s search. With both the Chiefs and Cardinals hot for Reid, I think we will see a decision made quickly.

If Reid is the man in Kansas City, the next step is figuring out Pioli’s future, then it is finding a quarterback. Then the franchise must decide what to do with the No. 1 pick.

There could be worse first steps than hiring Reid.

What is Scott Pioli's future?

December, 31, 2012
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Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt is clearly mulling different options and I think he is open to keeping general manager Scott Pioli.

I think one of the ways this could happen is if Hunt decides to hire a coach who is powerful enough to run a big part of the organization and allow Pioli to operate as a top decision maker behind the scenes.

That’s how Pioli made his name in New England. He was Bill Belichick’s right-hand man. In that role, Pioli worked on personnel moves and such. For that to work in Kansas City the right coach would have to be brought in and everyone would have to be on board.

Hunt hasn’t closed the door on Pioli yet and if he does stay, it’s clear it will be in a reduced role. Hunt has said the coach and general manager will report directly to him.

Meanwhile, Kansas City center Ryan Lilja told the Kansas City Star he is retiring. He had a nice season. The Chiefs will be fine because youngster Rodney Hudson will be coming back from an injury. The team likes him. But Lilja’s leadership will be missed.

Fox Sports is reporting the Chiefs will interview Atlanta special teams coach Keith Armstrong. The Chiefs are also talking to Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. I think both may be long shot candidates.

Meanwhile, Hunt sent emails to season-ticket holders Monday, promising better days ahead.

In other AFC West news:

The NFL Network reported that the Chargers have been granted permission to speak to 49ers’ executive Tom Gamble about San Diego's general manager’s job. Gamble is a hot candidate.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy will interview with Chicago and Arizona. McCoy is also a hot candidate. I expect him to get a job.

AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky thinks recently-fired Oakland offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp could provide instant help to his former team, Houston, in the playoffs.

I wonder if the Raiders will consider making offensive assistant Al Saunders Knapp’s replacement. He did a fine job under Hue Jackson in 2011.

Oakland coach Dennis Allen said he doesn’t plan to make any other coaching changes. He needs to find an offensive coordinator, special teams coach, offensive line coach and a linebackers coach. Allen had some issues filing his staff last year as far not getting his first choice. Now, he will have a jump on the process and this will give him a chance to build a better staff.

ESPN columnist Ashley Fox thinks the Broncos are heading toward a victory parade.

Time for Scott Pioli to go?

October, 25, 2012
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ESPN.com’s Jeffri Chadiha writes that the Kansas Chiefs should get rid of general manager Scott Pioli and that he is another failure from Bill Belichick’s tree. Chadiha points out Pioli’s failures as evidence for why he should go.

We have discussed the subject often on this blog and I’m sure we will continue to do so unless the 1-5 Chiefs turn their season around. I think ownership likes Pioli and it wants to get him a chance to find a new quarterback and move on. But things can change as the season goes on.

Meanwhile, Kansas City running back Peyton Hillis is likely going to play against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday after missing three games with an ankle injury. He practiced fully Thursday.

 
Peyton ManningGreg M. Cooper/US PresswirePeyton Manning threw for three touchdowns but could not overcome a litany of Denver miscues.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have long maintained that it is not all about them.

The Denver Broncos proved that theory correct Sunday. Despite a brilliant performance by Manning, the Broncos were handled 31-21 by the New England Patriots.

If this was simply Manning versus Brady, Manning would have prevailed instead of dropping to 4-9 lifetime against New England. Manning completed 31 of 44 passes for 345 yards. He threw three touchdown passes and did not throw an interception. Brady threw for 223 yards with one touchdown.

“If you would have told me before that game that [Manning] would throw for 345 yards and three touchdowns, I’d say we would have easily won the game,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. “But you can’t give up over 250 yards rushing and expect to win. We just have to play better.”

Is it to the point where the rest of the Broncos have to elevate their play to match Manning's?

“Yeah, basically, it is,” Bailey said. “I agree with that.”

The good -- potentially great -- news for Denver is Manning, 36, is every bit the superstar quarterback the Broncos hoped he’d be when they signed him. In his past two games, Manning is 61-of-82 passing for 683 yards with six touchdown passes and no interceptions. He hasn't thrown an interception in his past 15 quarters since throwing three interceptions in the first quarter at Atlanta in Week 2.

It was widely believed a healthy Manning would translate into Super Bowl contention for the Denver Broncos. Yet after five games, Denver is 2-3. This team just isn't doing enough things well around Manning. Too many mistakes are being made around Manning on offense and too many big plays have been allowed on defense.

Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas, who otherwise had a terrific game with 188 yards on nine catches, fumbled deep in New England territory on the first drive of the game, completely killing momentum for Denver. In the fourth quarter, Denver failed to convert on fourth down when running back Willis McGahee dropped a pass from Manning. McGahee then lost a fumble in the red zone with less than four minutes remaining and Denver trying to pull within a field goal.

Defensively, Denver allowed New England to convert 11 of 17 attempts on third down. The Patriots converted a team-record 35 first downs and they rushed for 251 yards.

That is how you nullify great quarterback play.

“[The Broncos] competed hard and they certainly fought right to the end,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “Our guys just made a few more plays than theirs did.”

That’s what the great teams do. They make more plays.

Denver's losses this season are very similar. The Broncos fell behind early to the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans. In both games, they stormed back to get close, but couldn't pull out the victory. It’s admirable, but it’s a sign of a team not ready to win against good teams yet. It’s because of the mistakes.

The Broncos are growing tired of their own act.

“They hung in there all 60 minutes,” Denver coach John Fox said of his team. “We just came up short again and we’ve got to get out of that.”

Added Bailey: “It’s not winning. We have to get the wins.”

Not all is lost for Denver. There are some good things happening around Manning. Besides the fumbling issues, Thomas is becoming a big threat. Second-year linebacker Von Miller had a monster game Sunday. There is a lot to build on, starting with Manning.

But the Broncos need a complete team effort. Thus far, they have been unable to do what it takes to win. If the Manning Era in Denver is going to be successful, the product around him must improve.
There are few people alive, if any, who have a better grasp on defensive play than New England coach Bill Belichick.

He is widely considered a defensive mastermind and the preeminent defensive mind in the game today.

Thus, when I read his insight into the play of Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, it jumped off the page. Reporters recently asked Belichick his general thoughts of Bailey. Belichick’s response was fascinating. He said Bailey may be the only cornerback in the game who has the ability to cover any type of receiver. Check it out:
“To me, he’s one of the few corners in the league that really can match up against anybody. He matches up against the Andre Johnsons of the world, the big, strong, physical, fast guys. Then he’ll match up against quick, real good route running, quick receivers, guys like that, too. [It] doesn’t really make any difference. You can watch him match up against whoever they want to put him on, whether it’s Mike Wallace or whether it’s Calvin Johnson, through the years; I’m not just talking about this year.

"At times, he’s been on tight ends, like when he would be on (Tony) Gonzalez back in the day and things like that. So, I think he’s really capable of being physical and standing in there and banging with the big guys. He’s got enough quickness and length with the little guys to match their quickness and give them a problem and stay with them, or if he gets his hands on them and jams them, he can destroy the route right off the bat. He’s a very instinctive player, so he has a good sense of what the guy is trying to do and what their tendencies are and things like that. He’s on a lot of routes just because he’s experienced and he’s smart. I think he can cover, I’d say there aren’t too many corners in the league – it would be hard to think of who the next one would be – who like him could match up as well against any type of receiver. Some guys do well against some type of players and have a little trouble with another type of guy. It looks like to me like he does a pretty good job against anybody – on whoever the other team’s best receiver is, if they want to match him up, which sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. They don’t always match him but at times they will.

"He can match them or not match them or he can take whoever comes out and do a pretty good job with it. Man, zone, he’s a good Cover-2 corner, he’s a good one-on-one corner, he’s a good zone corner, tackles well, he’s a good run-force corner, he’s pretty much a prototype corner in terms of having a full set of skills. Does everything well, plays the ball well, very good hands, but he’s a strong tackler and a good run-force player, too.”

That is unbelievable analysis of a future Hall of Fame player by a future Hall of Fame coach. Belichick often catches criticism for not being insightful in his media responses, but this is brilliant information.

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