AFC West: Denver Broncos
When: 8:30 p.m. ET Monday Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati TV: ESPN
Peyton Manning is good. Under the lights, the Cincinnati Bengals are not.
But if the Bengals have plans of joining the Denver Broncos as a playoff-bound team, they will have to overcome the future Hall of Fame quarterback and put to rest their atrocious recent prime-time showing.
Since 2011, the year Andy Dalton became its starting quarterback, Cincinnati is 2-9 in nationally televised playoff games and night games on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights.
Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this week's "Monday Night Football" game:
Harvey: Manning is 8-0 against the Bengals, including a 3-0 mark against them in December. He has thrown 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against them in December. For the Bengals to have any hope of stopping him, what are two things their defense must do?
Legwold: As an opposing defensive coach told me this season, "I don't know why anybody needs to list the stats for him; let's just assume they're good against everybody and go from there." Manning has won at least eight games against 10 different teams in his career. And defensively, the formula is not complicated, yet difficult to do. Defenses who succeed against him generally create some kind of consistent pressure in the middle of the field -- they win the A gaps -- keeping him from setting his feet, and they don't give him room to climb the pocket to step into his throws. Those defenses also limit the Broncos' ability to use their variety of crossing routes. They play physically against the Broncos' receivers and limit yards after the catch because they tackle well. Not rocket science, but difficult to do because the Broncos are creative in play design. Manning delivers the ball quickly and consistently makes defenses pay for sending extra rushers (game video shows Manning had five completions this past weekend against the Chargers' blitz for 111 yards and a touchdown). So, a defense has to get all of that done largely by rushing four players, and it can't miss assignments behind that rush.
Defending a rookie in his first NFL start is one thing, and the Bengals did well in a 30-0 win against the Cleveland Browns with Johnny Manziel behind center last week, but how do you expect them to defend Manning?
Harvey: You just summed it up perfectly, Leggy. I'll add this. A defense can best stop Manning by sending a standard four-man rush and hope and pray the coverage downfield holds up. Last week, in fact, this was exactly what allowed the Bengals to bully Manziel. Only twice did they send blitzes on the mobile young quarterback. The rest of the time, they did exactly what you prescribed: They attacked the A gaps with great interior pressure from the line and forced Manziel to roll to his right. Obviously, Manning isn't rolling anywhere, but the Bengals have to hope Geno Atkins is up to pushing back the line the way he has finally started doing in recent weeks. With the Bengals also expected to use a lot of nickel defense to counter the Broncos' multi-receiver and tight end looks, don't be surprised if defensive end Wallace Gilberry goes inside to give some extra athleticism to the interior rush.
Jeff, it seems like over the past seven weeks, running back C.J. Anderson has exploded onto the scene for Denver. First, why did it take so long to get him involved in the run game, and second, what did Buffalo do so well to hold him in check two weeks ago?
Legwold: During the Broncos' offseason work, especially in minicamp, there was some thought around the team that Anderson's spot was pretty tenuous and that he might not make the roster because he had tried to bulk up a bit and looked sluggish. Anderson showed up to training camp leaner and looked far better, but Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman had already pushed their way in front of him. Anderson had routinely flashed in practice and in his limited game work, at least enough to stay in the mix, and when injuries forced the Broncos to hand him the ball, he showed patience and vision as a runner -- perhaps more than they thought he had -- and he almost always made the first defender miss or powered through the attempted tackle. If you're looking for a play that got everybody's attention, it was his 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Oakland when he made a one-handed grab on a screen pass -- a play Manning said he thought was "going to be a 1- or 2-yard loss" -- and five different Raiders had a chance to bring Anderson down and did not. In terms of Buffalo's plan, it was a sound group that was assignment-disciplined and tackled well; defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has faced Manning plenty over the years because of Schwartz's time with the Titans. The Bills came into the game against the Broncos leading the league in sacks, and they didn't sack Manning in the game. Anderson did pound the ball into the end zone three times, but his 2.8 yards per carry were the lowest since he became starter.
The Bengals are one of six teams averaging more than 30 rushing attempts per game this season; the Broncos are No. 2 in run defense. Do you think the Bengals will still try to pound away some to limit the Broncos' possessions, or because they believe they will be able to make some running room?
Harvey: One of the Bengals' most recent additions is NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, an offensive tackle who, before coming to Cincinnati three weeks ago, spent six seasons with the Texans and one with the Chiefs. He had an up-close look at Manning twice a season during the Texans' AFC South games when the quarterback still played for the Colts, and saw him twice in Kansas City in 2012. This week, Winston said those teams' mindset against Manning always involved running. So yes, I believe the run should, and will, be the Bengals' approach. Besides, Jeremy Hill has been running well in the past six weeks, topping 140 yards three times in that span. His hard running and guard Kevin Zeitler's constant pulling made for a nightmare day for Cleveland's defense. Also, I noticed that of the four times this season when teams have run 25 or more times against Denver, they beat the Broncos three times. To me, Cincinnati's best hope of winning is to run well, run often, get a late lead, and play keep-away from Manning.
Jeff, I'm sure the Broncos' many pass-rushers will be hounding Dalton all night, but why has Denver's front seven been so good against the run?
Legwold: Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton is -- even nationally, perhaps -- an undervalued player when it comes to what he means to the Broncos' run defense. He's disruptive, ties up blockers and doesn't get turned in the hole. He stays square and takes away run lanes. The Broncos also have plenty of team speed across the front and pursue the ball well. Even their pass-rushers, like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, are disciplined in their run fits. Ware especially has shown himself to be reliable in how he sets the edge, and as a result, offenses haven't been able to run the ball to the inside shoulders of Ware and Miller because they play with some vision as they move up the field. That wasn't always the case earlier in Miller's career, when offenses would catch him at times being a little too aggressive as he tried to get upfield. The Broncos have tackled well for the most part, too. They have helped themselves with good work on first down, as well. Offenses are routinely facing second-and-8 or third-and-7, and that takes those offenses out of any rhythm to run. For example, the Chargers ran the ball 10 times on first down last Sunday. Only one of the runs went for more than five yards -- an 11-yard run by Branden Oliver early in the fourth quarter -- and six went for three or fewer yards.
Few players take as much heat for their prime-time and/or postseason performance as Dalton. Is there significantly more pressure on him in this one given it is the "Monday Night Football" regular-season finale and the Bengals need the win to keep the inside track for a shot at the division title?
Harvey: It's more of the latter, Jeff. The pressure will be raised on Dalton this week because the Bengals simply have to get it done. Though there is an outside shot they will sneak into the playoffs as an AFC wild card if they lose the next two games, they would do themselves so many favors if they won at least one. The finale at Pittsburgh next week won't be a cakewalk, either. The heat Dalton has taken is real and deserved. It seems like he's mostly great at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. But turn on the lights and he's not. From a personal standpoint, Dalton wants to make up for his last nationally televised outing. The Bengals lost to Cleveland 24-3 in a Thursday night game last month in which Dalton registered a 2.0 passer rating.
The matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) and Denver Broncos (8-3) lost some of its shine last Thursday when the Chiefs lost against the previously winless Oakland Raiders. Still, there's much riding on Sunday night's game for both teams.
With a victory, the Chiefs would pull back into a tie for first place in the AFC West with the Broncos and perhaps the San Diego Chargers, depending on the outcome of their game against the Baltimore Ravens. A loss would end the Chiefs' realistic hopes of winning the division title and relegate them to chasing a wild-card berth.
Denver, with a win, would banish a rival from the division race and remain at least a game ahead of the Chargers.
ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold preview Sunday night's game.
Teicher: C.J. Anderson had a big game against the Dolphins last week, rushing for 167 yards. Is he a better alternative as the featured back for the Broncos than Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman? How has he energized Denver’s running game?
Legwold: The Broncos have learned a painful lesson in their three losses this season, especially the one in St. Louis two weeks ago when they ran the ball 10 times. The simple fact is Peyton Manning can make can’t-run, can’t-block games work because of his ability to deliver the ball quickly after the snap, but he is at his best when the Broncos have some kind of run game and can keep the area in front of him in the pocket clean because defenses can’t simply overload the A-gaps and come after him. Anderson was a huge part of that against the Dolphins, who came in among the league’s most blitz-happy teams but couldn’t turn it loose because of the run game. He is the guy right now as neither Ball nor Hillman will play against the Chiefs because of injuries. And Anderson has done well enough in pass protection -- Job 1 for Broncos running backs -- to go with what he has done on the ground, to have earned top billing when the other guys come back. The Broncos will use a rotation when everybody is healthy. They believe Hillman’s speed is an enormous threat in the passing game, but Anderson has seized the opportunity. Unless his play drops off, they will keep handing him the ball.
Jamaal Charles had just two carries in the Week 2 meeting with the Broncos, and the Chiefs still found a way to grind out 133 yards rushing in the 24-17 Broncos win. How has Charles fit in the offense since? Do you think Andy Reid sees him as a 20-carry-a-game runner?
Teicher: The Chiefs have tried to wean themselves off so much reliance on Charles but are back to facing the fact that he is their best offensive player. You will remember he left that earlier Broncos game with a foot injury and didn’t play in the next week’s game at Miami. Since then, he has been as effective as he’s ever been running the ball. His production as a receiver is way down. The Chiefs have been unable to get their screen game going with any consistency. Even last year, the Chiefs seemed to operate with a pitch count on Charles. They will blow through that if they believe that’s what they have to do to win a game. But his backup, Knile Davis, isn’t Charles' equal as a runner, pass-blocker or receiver.
Manning had a big game against Miami and ended a streak of three straight games in which he had thrown two interceptions. Was this just a case of Manning being human, or had opponents maybe started to figure out Denver’s passing game?
Legwold: New England, Oakland and St. Louis were all able to create pressure in the middle of the field -- the Raiders for a half anyway -- and keep Manning from striding into throws. That meant Manning couldn’t really drive the ball wide, out past the numbers, which limited his options. Manning did throw for 438, 340 and 389 yards in those games, so "handling" Manning is always relative. The Patriots and Rams were also particularly physical with the Broncos' receivers, jostling them at every opportunity before the catch and tackling well after the catch, limiting Denver's catch-and-run plays. Overall, the biggest difference between what the Broncos do with Manning and what Manning did with the Colts for so many years is that the Broncos move receivers all over the formation, whereas the Colts usually lined up players in the same spots. It makes it difficult to get a bead on the matchups for the defense; the Dolphins had trouble when the Broncos put a tight end out wide and put Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders or both in the slot. Miami then usually had a defensive back on a tight end out wide and linebackers trying to cover receivers in the middle of the field, which is exactly what the Broncos wanted. In the end, it comes down to not just pressure off the edge, because Manning identifies that quickly, but pressure in the middle of the field.
The Broncos, because of injuries at linebacker, have used more specialty packages on defense of late, especially against the Dolphins. How would you expect the Chiefs to attack the defense? Despite few teams having anything consistent in the run game against the Broncos, do you think the Chiefs will pound away a bit?
Teicher: I would think that plays into the Chiefs’ favor if the Broncos use extra defensive backs against regular Chiefs personnel. It’s unusual to see Andy Reid’s teams pound away with the running game, but the Chiefs did it a couple of weeks ago against Seattle. They rushed 30 times for 190 yards that day, and quarterback Alex Smith attempted just 16 passes. I wouldn’t expect numbers like that from Smith and the Chiefs on Sunday night, but Charles is their best player and the Chiefs need to establish the run, if only to keep Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware honest.
The Patriots are a popular pick to represent the AFC in this season's Super Bowl, but I’m sticking with the Broncos, my preseason pick. Success in the playoffs usually depends on the matchups, but do you like the Broncos’ ability to get back to the Super Bowl again this season, keeping in mind they may have to play the conference championship game in New England?
Legwold: Top to bottom, despite the team’s warts at times this season, it is still a better overall group than last year’s team that advanced to the Super Bowl. That said, this year’s version hasn’t always played with the close-the-deal efficiency last year’s team did. Two spots where the Broncos largely stood pat in the offseason -- offensive line and the return game -- have been significant issues, especially the offensive front. The offensive line has been a riddle for much of the season; the Dolphins win is the exception at this point. It's a group that is largely the same as last season with Ryan Clady back at left tackle after he missed all but two games in 2013, and the line has not played nearly as well as it did last season. The Broncos have already made four changes up front, including two at right tackle, as they look for a way to kick-start a group that has played on its heels for much of the season. It’s a foundation position, and unless the Broncos' play looks more like it did last Sunday, those troubles would be big enough to keep them out of the title game.
Was the Raiders loss indicative of some issues as far as the Chiefs’ postseason profile, or are they closer to the team that won five in a row? Do you think they have the chops to win on the road in New England or Denver in the postseason?
Teicher: The Chiefs have some flaws that will make things difficult against high-scoring teams such as the Patriots or Broncos, no matter where the games are played. They get few big plays on offense, so their margin for error is slim. Believe it or not, the Chiefs’ longest pass play of the season is just 34 yards. It seems like Manning and the Broncos get one of those a quarter. The Chiefs have forced just nine turnovers and are not getting as many long kick returns as they did last season, so they are not providing short fields for the offense. As a result, the Chiefs have to be remarkably efficient. They have to be good on third down, which they were until they got to Oakland, where they were just 2-for-14 on third down. That helps explain why they lost.
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis TV: CBS
At 3-6, the Rams appear headed toward their 11th consecutive year without a winning record. The 7-2 Broncos again look poised for a Super Bowl run. Rams coach Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff have a long history with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning dating to their days in the AFC.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the chances of the Rams pulling off the upset.
Wagoner: Obviously, the Broncos are a top Super Bowl contender and they're all in on trying to get it done this year. More than halfway through the season, what are some reasons you think this team might be better equipped to finish the job this year and what are some things that might give you a little bit of pause?
Legwold: This time around they bring a far better defense into the mix. When John Elway dove into the offseason, he felt like the Broncos who were returning from injured reserve -- starters like Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr. and Derek Wolfe -- could be supplemented with free-agency additions, and the Broncos used cap space they had been holding back to sign DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. The result is an across-the-board athleticism they did not have last season. And Miller has returned to his form of 2012 when he had 18.5 sacks. The Broncos also replaced Eric Decker with the more versatile Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver and Peyton Manning has plenty of options. So much so that Manning is on pace to be the first guy to have back-to-back 50-touchdown seasons -- 55 in 2013 and currently on pace for 51 this year. All that said, their biggest question mark at the moment is the offensive line, where they have already made four changes that weren't injury related, including three for this past Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders. Manning will always be the biggest reason the offense limits sacks, but three of the nine the Broncos have surrendered this year have come on three-man rushes. And they have had 36 rushing attempts this year for no gain or negative yardage combined. It's a fairly glaring issue at this point, but the Broncos' offense as a whole is historically explosive and they always seem to find a work-around to repair the issue week to week.
This past offseason there were plenty of folks in the league, probably among the Rams' decision-makers as well, who believed this team could put itself into the playoff discussion this year. What's happened?
Wagoner: Indeed, the Rams had been pointing to this, the third year of the Fisher regime, as the season they break through into playoff contention. But it hasn't come to light for plenty of reasons. It started with the season-ending knee injury to quarterback Sam Bradford, which spiraled into more injuries to key players over the first half of the season. But the other, perhaps bigger piece of the puzzle is a lack of development in many of the team's young players. The Rams are the youngest team in the league again this year and were banking on many of those young players who have already been playing to take a major step forward. While some have flashed promise, there haven't been enough taking the leap the Rams had hoped. The defense is finally starting to come around under new coordinator Gregg Williams but that took nearly half the season and the offense has regressed back to bottom-of-the-league levels as the quality of opponent has improved.
I've heard from a number of fans who are excited for this week just because they think it might be Manning's last visit to St. Louis (for reasons beyond just the possibility of him retiring before the Broncos would be back). He seems like he's as good as ever though. The Seahawks were able to beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl by generating consistent pass rush, especially from the front four. The Rams' pass rush is finally starting to live up to the hype. Do you see this as a matchup that could possibly be similar given Manning and the offense's relative issues, or will this be just another day at the office for him?
Legwold: The Broncos offense is a perfect storm at the moment between Manning's arrival, coordinator Adam Gase's ability to construct an offense around Manning that suits the 38-year-old quarterback, Gase's risk-taking in play calling and the personnel the team has. Throw in a pass-friendly rulebook and you have the pile of touchdowns Manning has put up with Denver. In 41 regular-season games with the Broncos, Manning has now thrown 121 touchdown passes and been sacked just 48 times. He has 15 consecutive games and counting with at least two touchdown passes and his current streak of 48 consecutive games with a touchdown pass is third all time. In the end, teams that have success against him in the rush get the pressure in the middle of the field. Manning tends to identify the edge rushers quickly, even if defensive coordinators try to disguise them, and the ball is usually gone before the edge guys can win the one-on-ones. So the teams that have affected him the most made him pull the ball down, the ones that get push between the guards into the A gaps. Manning can also see those guys coming, so a defense has to get there or the price is high. But overall, the Broncos are dialed in, they find the matchups in the secondary to exploit and have enough impact players. They consistently get one-on-ones their guys can win. Even when Manning said he "stunk" after the loss in New England, he had thrown for 438 yards.
Sticking with the quarterbacks, what's the long-term plan there? Do they believe Bradford comes back with potential to still be the long-term starter, so the Rams commit to another contract? Or are they looking at what is, at least in the early going, considered a thin class at quarterback in the 2015 draft beyond the top tier?
Wagoner: At this point, I think they're still figuring out the best option moving forward but there's a sense that it's possible Bradford could be back. The Rams have budgeted for his $16 million-plus cap number and could theoretically bring him back at that level, but it seems more likely that they won't. The question then becomes whether he'd come back at a reduced rate with incentives built in and a rookie quarterback to compete with or if he'd want to explore other options. Austin Davis has done enough to earn a role as a backup but probably not more than that. And Shaun Hill is now the starter but he's only on a one-year deal and he's 34. One way or another, the Rams have to prioritize quarterback in next year's draft. It should be in the first round but Fisher's knack for getting teams to mediocrity might take the top options out of play, which could in turn force the Rams to move up to get their guy. That would be a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for a team that has been flush with premium picks the past few years after trading the chance at Robert Griffin III to Washington.
The offseason additions to the defense seem to be paying off just fine. How much better is that group and what can Davis expect from that unit in terms of scheme and approach?
Legwold: When things are going well the Broncos have a rhythm on defense. They pound opposing run games out of their base look on early downs and this year have consistently forced teams into long second- and third-down situations. At that point defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes to go to their specialty packages in the nickel and dime when Del Rio loads the formation with speed. They give a variety of defensive fronts at that point; move Miller and Ware all over the formation and Del Rio will bring pressure from a variety of places. The Broncos have been successful this season in doing that because they have the lead so often and force teams to chase them and they have the No. 1 run defense in the league. They haven't surrendered over 67 yards rushing in a game since Week 3 in Seattle and over the last six games they've only faced more than 20 rushing attempts by an opposing offense one time -- 25 by New England, which ran for 66 yards.
On defense, there may be no collection of coaches who have faced Manning more than Fisher, Dave McGinnis, Williams and Chuck Cecil. How do you think they go about it and have they finally found some rhythm in their pass rush after a slow start?
Wagoner: I would think that the Rams took plenty of notes from how Seattle handled the Broncos in the Super Bowl and in their game earlier this season. The pass rush has been much better over the past four weeks, in part with improved play by the front four and even more so by better timed and executed blitzes. The Rams are first in the NFL in blitz percentage, which is no surprise given that Williams is running the show. Manning is probably the best ever at diagnosing blitzes pre-snap and getting the ball out quickly and accurately. I have to think that would give the Rams a little bit of pause in dialing it up as much as normal but I also tend to doubt they'll stop being who they are completely. The best bet is for the Rams to lean on the front four to do most of the heavy lifting, which is what they had hoped they'd be able to do at the beginning of the season. But for that to work, they'll need to have their best performance of the season.
Let’s turn back the clock, way back to, say, 2011.
John Fox is in his first season as coach of the Denver Broncos, and John Elway in his first season as the team’s top football executive. After five weeks, the Broncos are 1-4. Kyle Orton gets benched, the Broncos put Tim Tebow in at quarterback, and Denver goes 7-4 to finish 8-8 and win a tightly clustered AFC West on the basis of tiebreakers.
The San Diego Chargers also finished 8-8, as did the Oakland Raiders. The Kansas City Chiefs were 7-9.
All four teams piled together in a bit of a mediocrity club. Not too good, not too bad.
And then, in March 2012, the balance of power didn’t just shift, it was tilted by the weight of a future Hall of Famer when the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. The Broncos have followed with two more division titles, back-to-back 13-3 finishes and one Super Bowl appearance.
In all, the Broncos have gone 33-10 since moving Tebow and then Manning into the starting lineup. But the Broncos lost a Super Bowl by 35 points, looking physically overwhelmed while doing it, and Manning just turned 38. The clock is ticking on his storied career, and three teams with head coaches and general managers all hired since 2012 hope there is opportunity.
“You know they’re working their tails off to change things," Fox said. “We’re working hard to keep going, but your first goal always is to win the division; that’s the only guaranteed way to get in the tournament."
The Broncos were the most active of the four AFC West teams in free agency in recent weeks, but as Chargers coach Mike McCoy put it, “We’re grinding away. That’s the solution, just keep grinding."
The four writers who cover the AFC West for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Paul Gutierrez in Oakland, Jeff Legwold in Denver, Adam Teicher in Kansas City and Eric D. Williams in San Diego -- offered their insights on closing the gap on the Broncos and some other key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which team is closest to catching the Broncos in the AFC West?
Paul Gutierrez: Is this a trick question? Sure, the Broncos excel at losing Super Bowls in blowout fashion like no one else this side of Fran Tarkenton's Minnesota Vikings. But when it comes to the division in which they reside, the Broncos got better defensively in free agency by adding DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Since the Chargers were the only ones in the AFC West to beat the Broncos last season and have had a better run than the Chiefs in free agency, I'll go with the Bolts. While Kansas City lost three starting offensive linemen, San Diego essentially stayed the course. Quarterback Philip Rivers enjoyed a renaissance season under first-year coach Mike McCoy and figures to spread his wings (and bolo ties) with a year of experience. As far as the Raiders are concerned, there are simply too many questions and new faces at this juncture to think they will make a quantum leap in improvement, though stranger things have happened. Think Tony Sparano and the 2008 Miami Dolphins, who improved to 11-5 a year after going 1-15. And, yes, Sparano is on Oakland's staff.
Jeff Legwold: Everyone in the division, including the Broncos, carries a significant question in tow this season. For the Chiefs, it's their secondary; for the Chargers, it's their offensive line; and for the Raiders, their search for a get-it-done quarterback has now landed on Matt Schaub. The Chiefs were closest in the standings last season, powered by their defense, but the Chargers were closest on the field, with a win over the Broncos in the regular season and a hard-fought loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Chiefs return the guts of that defense, and even with the questions in the secondary, they are poised to duplicate a double-digit-win season in coach Andy Reid's second year. The Chargers played the Broncos tougher last season, and if Philip Rivers has another quality year, they will be in the playoff conversation. But they have largely sat out free agency with a draft-built approach. That puts them on a timetable to need one or two more drafts to be in position to win the division.
Adam Teicher: The Chargers finished last season in that spot, and though they lost offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, I don't see how much else has changed in that regard. The Chargers were competitive in their games against the Broncos last season, something the Chiefs and Raiders couldn't manage. San Diego also has the division's best quarterback and, yes, that includes Peyton Manning. The way the Chiefs finished last season, losing six of their last eight games, makes me wonder which way their program is headed. Their 9-0 start was a long time ago. The Raiders should be better than in 2013 but still haven't come far enough to be a serious part of this discussion. They had a huge pile of money to spend, but for the most part I don't agree with how they used it. While Matt Schaub is better at quarterback than the guys who played there for Oakland last season, he's still fourth among the four starters in the division.
Eric D. Williams: The Chargers offer the best challenge to Denver's throne in 2014. San Diego is the only AFC West team to defeat the Broncos since Peyton Manning's arrival in 2012. The Chargers held Denver's offense to 24 points a contest in three games last season, 14 points lower than the Broncos' NFL-best average of 38 points a game during the regular season. San Diego is the only team that returns its entire offensive line from 2013, and the defense should improve with the return of a healthy Dwight Freeney along with the development of young players like Shareece Wright, Jahleel Addae and Manti Te'o.
@adamteicher As much as I want to say the Chiefs I think it's the Chargers. Great coach, Top 10 QB, no significant FA losses.— clarkgriffiths (@clarkgriffiths) March 26, 2014
The AFC West had three teams make the playoffs last season. Can it happen again?
Gutierrez: Sorry, can't see it happening this season. Besides the fact that the Broncos are still the class of the division, even if they lost Eric Decker and Wesley Woodyard, and the Chiefs and Chargers are stuck playing catch-up, the rest of the AFC's wild-card chasers -- the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens -- won't be down for long. Plus, it's such a statistical anomaly for a division to gobble up three of the six playoff slots in a conference. Since the 2002 realignment, it's happened only five times -- in 2006 with the NFC East (Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants), in 2007 with the AFC South (Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee) and the NFC East (Dallas, New York and Washington), in 2011 with the AFC North (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) and last season with the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers. Then there's this: The AFC West next season plays the tough NFC West, which went a combined 42-22 last season, compared to the AFC West going 37-27. They will beat up on each other a bit, allowing other AFC teams to grab playoff berths.
Legwold: That's a tough sell. When the division had three teams make the postseason in 2013, it was because the Steelers, Ravens, Jets and Dolphins -- who finished 8-8 -- lost a spot on the final day of the regular season. For the second consecutive year, Miami has tried to buy improvement in free agency, the Jets waved the checkbook around, and the Steelers and Ravens continued to trust the draft-first formula that has served them well on the way to multiple Super Bowl wins. It's a stretch to think all four of those teams won't cross the .500 mark in 2014 or that somebody won't come out of the AFC South. NFL personnel evaluators continue to say Houston's roster isn't that of a 2-14 team and that, with the No. 1 pick in the draft, their turnaround could come quickly.
Teicher: It can, but it won't. That Denver, Kansas City and San Diego all made the playoffs last season was a factor of the AFC West teams getting some extremely favorable scheduling. AFC West teams played against teams from the AFC South and NFC East. Only two of those eight opponents finished with a winning record and included were games against three of the worst teams in the league (Jacksonville, Houston and Washington). They won't have such luck in 2014. The common opponents from outside the division include four teams that won 10 or more games last season (New England, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona). So all three of last year's playoff teams from the AFC West will find it difficult to beat or even match their records from last season. Few if any gimmes are built into this year's schedule.
Williams: While I believe the AFC West will remain one of the most competitive divisions in pro football, three teams will not make the playoffs again. The Chargers needed several things to go their way on the final week of the regular season, including Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop missing a relatively easy 41-yard field goal, to sneak in as the final AFC wild-card team. Other teams like Houston, Pittsburgh and Tennessee should improve, making it tough for three teams from one division to get into the postseason for a second straight year.
@eric_d_williams There will only be 2. The Chargers and Broncos. Too much turnover in KC especially on the O-line.— Mikey G (@MikeyG253) March 27, 2014
Peyton Manning is the obvious top choice at quarterback in the division. Which of the other current starters -- Philip Rivers, Alex Smith and Matt Schaub -- do you think will have the best 2014?
Gutierrez: The knee-jerk reaction is to go with Rivers, who, as mentioned above, experienced enough of a rebirth to be named the NFL's comeback player of the year by The Associated Press, an honor that usually goes to someone coming back from injury. But let's think outside of the box and put on our silver-and-black-tinted glasses. Schaub had a nightmarish season in Houston last year, with visions of pick-sixes dancing through his head. But if a change of scenery is all the doctor ordered -- and Darren McFadden stays healthy enough to make the play-action pass a devastating weapon for Schaub, and the Raiders' rebuilt offensive line gives him time, and a playmaking receiver emerges -- then Schaub might be the guy. That's a lot of ifs, but we're just talking here, right? I'm not saying that translates to wins, but with an offense tailored to his strengths and confidence, might Schaub be the second straight QB from the division to win a non-injury related comeback player of the year award?
Legwold: The Raiders were quick to pour on the optimism at the recent league meetings about Schaub's arrival and what he could mean to their offense, and the Chiefs believe Smith will be better in his second season with Andy Reid. But after Manning, Rivers is still the most accomplished passer among the other three, and he, too, will be better in the second season with McCoy. With former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's departure to be the Tennessee Titans coach, Rivers is facing at least some transition, but with McCoy's presence and the promotion of Frank Reich from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, it should be fairly seamless. If the Chargers can protect Rivers, they will benefit from the results.
Teicher: Rivers. He was rejuvenated in Mike McCoy's offensive system. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact Whisenhunt's departure has on him. Smith had a strong finish last season, even if the Chiefs didn't. Things should run more smoothly for him in Year 2 in Andy Reid's system, but it's troubling that the Chiefs lost their best offensive lineman in left tackle Branden Albert and two other regulars on their line. They have yet to add to their meager collection of offensive threats, though I expect they will in the draft. Their inability to sign Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency will haunt them. I have little in the way of expectations for Schaub in his first season with the Raiders. It's a bit much to ask him to thrive in his first year in a new system with unfamiliar teammates.
Williams: Rivers has the best chance to repeat his success from 2013 for one reason: continuity. The Chargers will return almost every starter from one of the best offenses in the NFL last season. San Diego added Donald Brown in free agency to bolster an already potent run game led by Ryan Mathews. Young playmakers Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green should get better. Look for San Diego to add another playmaker in the draft, along with a player or two to bolster an aging offensive line.
What is the dark-horse free-agency move in the AFC West that will have the biggest impact?
Gutierrez: Seems to me that there have been few, if any, dark-horse signings in free agency; they've all been pretty big names, especially among the top three teams. Even the Raiders' signings have been relatively well-known names. Perhaps, then, the most surprising signing that could have an impact in the division is the guy who was thought to be long gone: Oakland running back Darren McFadden. When he's healthy and used to his skill set -- think early 2011, before a Lisfranc injury ended his season -- Run DMC looks like a league MVP candidate. With the zone-blocking scheme all but scrapped in Oakland, McFadden figures to benefit from the change back to a power-blocking mantra. The Raiders re-signed him to a relatively cheap, incentive-laden deal, so that qualifies as a dark-horse move. Whether he has a breakthrough season will determine if the signing is impactful enough to help decide the division.
Legwold: LaMarr Woodley will turn 30 in November and Justin Tuck turned 31 on March 29, but if the two have a little something left in the career tanks, then they can have an impact in Dennis Allen's defense with the Raiders. If not, well, then they are the first steps toward some salary-cap dead money when they can't play out their contracts. But overall, Emmanuel Sanders was the Broncos' last big splash in the opening days of free agency, and he's the guy who could make a significant jump in the Broncos offense. One of the league's better receivers in terms of yards after the catch, he is now with a quarterback whose greatest strength is getting the ball to players on short and intermediate routes in the best place to do the most with it. Sanders' 67 catches in 2013 were his career best, but his 11.0 yards per catch from '13 figures to jump with the opportunities he will get in the Broncos offense.
Teicher: This probably doesn't qualify as a dark-horse move, but when Sanders didn't sign with the Chiefs and instead joined the Broncos, it further tipped the balance of power in the division. Sanders would have been a nice fit in Kansas City's offense. His ability to line up in the slot or split wide would have given the Chiefs a fast receiver to use in a variety of ways. The Chiefs, for the time being at least, are without a proven slot receiver after losing Dexter McCluster to free agency. Their best hope at this point for that position is Weston Dressler, who was signed this year after putting up big numbers for several seasons in the CFL. Sanders, meanwhile, appears destined to catch 80 or more passes for better than 1,000 yards and several touchdowns as Eric Decker's replacement in Denver.
Williams: While some league observers consider San Diego signing Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal a reach because the team needs more immediate help in other areas, I believe the Chargers made a good decision for a couple of reasons. Brown is a known commodity because of general manager Tom Telesco's familiarity with the University of Connecticut product from their time together in Indianapolis. Brown is a perfect fit in San Diego's offense with his ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. Brown strengthens something the Chargers already do well: running the football. With Brown, Mathews and Danny Woodhead, San Diego has the most talented running back group in the AFC West.
Opposites attract? It depends upon your perspective … and allegiance.
ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez break down Sunday’s regular-season finale at the O.co Coliseum.
Gutierrez: Manning has obviously already set the single-season touchdown record (51) and will most likely set the mark for most passing yards in a season this weekend. If and when he does that, do you think coach John Fox pulls him from the game to save him for the playoffs, or is Manning too much of a competitor to sit?
Legwold: Paul, Fox has already spent plenty of time this week telling his players all that matters is Sunday’s game, that there’s plenty of time to worry about the postseason in the postseason. His fuel has been a lackluster effort in a Thursday night loss to the Chargers two weeks ago when many with the team felt that the players were more concerned with the upcoming break that weekend than handling the business at hand. The Broncos caught a break later that weekend when the Patriots lost, so Denver still has the inside track for home-field advantage in the postseason. They need the win Sunday to guarantee it. And with the Patriots-Bills game kicking off at the same time, it’s likely that the scoreboard will dictate who sits and when, including Manning. They would like Manning to have the record, but all involved, including Manning, want home-field advantage. They want opponents to have to come in and face their no-huddle at altitude. So if they get things in hand, they will pull some players out. If it’s a close game and the Patriots are winning, or in a tight game, they’ll likely play it straight with the starters.
What do you think Dennis Allen’s future is and will this game have any bearing on that?
Gutierrez: That’s the million-dollar question, Jeff. Put it this way: Owner Mark Davis is taking a wait-and-see approach to this weekend. Obviously, he’s not thrilled with the prospect of the Raiders losing six straight and eight of nine to end the season and go 4-12 for a second consecutive year. But the understanding two years ago when Davis hired general manager Reggie McKenzie and McKenzie, in turn, hired Allen, was that this was a three- to four-year project, hence Allen getting a four-year contract. Of course, Davis has said he’s patient, but he wants to see progress, not regression. It’s hard to say the Raiders have progressed this season because while they have played hard for Allen, they have not necessarily played smart. Unless Davis already has someone else lined up, it’s hard to imagine him pulling the plug on Allen, especially if it goes against the wishes of McKenzie, who is intrinsically linked to the coach since hiring him and calling him “my guy” in January 2011.
On the surface, it seems that the Broncos losing Von Miller to a knee injury would be a crippling blow to their Super Bowl hopes. But they were 6-0 during his suspension. What’s the vibe on the Broncos’ championship designs sans Miller?
Legwold: The defense has spent much of the season listening to the idea that they are the brown socks to what is otherwise a spectacular black tuxedo. They are a bit tired of the premise and seem intent on showing people otherwise. But until they do so in a meaningful game, they’re going to continue to hear it. Even with Miller in the lineup they had not always played the way defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has said they should. They have speed, they have athleticism, but they also have a lot of specialists of sorts -- guys who do one or two things very well. It has meant the Broncos are always sending players into the game in waves, and at times all those personnel groupings have meant some coverage busts or assignment errors. But they have played better of late, and against the Texans they posted season lows for points and yards allowed. Overall, they’ll likely have to take some more risks in the pass rush without Miller, so they need their secondary to be up to that challenge in man-coverage situations. And they need Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips to lift their games. Those two players, more than most, have to make a difference as the Broncos head into the postseason without Miller.
The Raiders will have Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Is this any kind of audition for him over the long term, and will the Raiders be in the market for a quarterback come free agency or the draft?
Gutierrez: Well, if you take any stock in what Pryor’s agent, Jerome Stanley, said earlier this week, Allen is playing Pryor in hopes of him failing. The theory being that Allen would then look justified in benching his client in favor of undrafted rookie Matt McGloin earlier in the season, after Pryor went down with a sprained MCL in his right knee. Pryor distanced himself from such talk and Allen called the claim “the stupidest thing I’ve ever frickin' heard.”
The official reason Allen gave for giving Pryor the start in the season finale? He’s healthy now, they got enough of an evaluation on McGloin -- who started the previous six games -- and Pryor gives the Raiders the best shot to win against the Broncos. In fact, Allen said he thought McGloin showed enough to be a part of the Raiders’ future. Of course, that’s with Allen as coach. He said no such thing about Pryor. So in a way, you could call this an audition of sorts. But even if the Raiders are not quite sure whether their quarterback of the future is on the roster at the moment, it’s obvious that McGloin’s skill set better fits the type of offense Allen wants to run. I expect the Raiders to be players in the market this offseason for a veteran free-agent quarterback to bridge the gap next year … unless they draft a quarterback they expect to be a franchise savior.
My 8-year-old son and my 5-year-old daughter love the song so, of course, they desperately want to know "What Does the [Coach] Fox Say"? Me, I want to know what he says regarding his midseason health scare and whether it’s changed his approach to coaching?
Legwold: Oh, what does the Fox say indeed. Well, he says “next man up" and “it’s a bigger, stronger, faster league" a lot. Because his condition -- a faulty aortic valve -- was something he was born with, it was also something he had dealt with and knew about for the past 20 years or so. He had open-heart surgery and took a four-game leave of absence. He returned in the days leading up to the Broncos’ Dec. 8 game against the Tennessee Titans. He says he feels better than ever now that he’s had the valve replaced, that he has more energy now than he’s had in a long time. So it hasn’t affected his schedule in that regard. But he has told the team’s medical staff and his family that he’s “going to be smart about it," that if he feels poorly, he will take action even if that means leaving for the day. This week the medical staff sent Fox home Monday because he had flu-like symptoms, and as Fox said “they didn’t want me infecting everyone," but he said he’s had no issues with his heart in his return and has worked his former schedule, including coaching from the sidelines.
Pro football can be a tough business when the playoffs are no longer a carrot for their efforts. How do you think the Raiders will perform in this one? Will they take more risks? Play with some emotion?
Gutierrez: As noted earlier, the Raiders have not quit on the season, as many players did a year ago. They just have not played very smart, as evidenced by their season-high 12 penalties (on 15 flags thrown at them) at the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. I think they’ll show up; I just think they hit the wall the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when Oakland’s defense allowed the Tennessee Titans to drive 80 yards in six minutes for a game-winning TD. I asked Charles Woodson what there was, exactly, to play for and he smiled sadly, tilted his head and said it was about having fun, trying to get one last W and putting something positive on tape … I assume for future potential employers. Yes, Woodson is one of 17 pending free agents. With Allen’s future potentially on the line, I expect Oakland to empty its playbook, especially with Pryor at quarterback. The question, then, is whether the Raiders leave themselves open on defense by blitzing Manning with aplomb.
So McCoy will face his mentor for the first time when the Chargers meet the Broncos in Denver on Thursday.
“I remembered him as a player,” Fox said. “I definitely thought he had head coaching capabilities, and he’s done a fine job in his first year with the Chargers. Mike’s level-headed. He’s smart. He understands ball. He played in the league. He’s got a good feel for people skills and those types of things. As coaches we spent a lot of time together, so his traits come out. I knew he would do a good job once given the opportunity.”
Both have a no-nonsense approach when it comes to coaching football.
“It’s great to see him back out there,” McCoy said. “I wouldn’t be here today without John Fox. The seven years we were together in Carolina and then in Denver, he is a great football coach but he is an even better person. With the scare he had, you understand there are more important things in life when something like that happens to a close friend. Fortunately he is back out there doing a great job. He loves to coach. He’s a good coach.”
McCoy said the two texted back and forth during Fox’s time in the hospital recovering from heart surgery. Fox, 58, underwent aortic valve replacement surgery at a hospital in Charlotte, N.C., after he became dizzy playing golf near his offseason home in the Charlotte last month.
Fox had a pre-existing heart condition, and hoped to put off the operation until after the season.
Last week’s Denver game at home against Tennessee was Fox’s first on the sideline since the surgery. He missed the first meeting earlier this season between the two teams in San Diego, a 28-20 win for the Broncos on Nov. 10.
“Re-entry is never easy, but we managed to get through it,” Fox said. “It was pretty tough conditions weather-wise all last week, and I made it through just fine. So I got Week 1 of the re-entry all done, and I’m ready for a short week for Week 2.”
Fox is in the unique position of having two of his former coaches now serving as head coaches for division rivals. His former defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen, is the coach at Oakland. That makes for some odd moments standing across the sidelines competing against guys he helped groom.
“Mike’s a good friend,” Fox said. “I know his family. I know his wife, Kellie. I’ve spent a lot of time with his whole family. But it’s still competitive. He’s trying to beat our brains out and we’re trying to beat his brains out. But you develop a lot of close relationships in this league over time.”
The Broncos, meanwhile, also collapsed last week, blowing a 24-point halftime lead and losing in overtime to the Patriots in New England. Both teams are 9-2, so first place in the AFC West is on the line.
Here, ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.
Teicher: Jeff, given how some things have changed since the teams played a couple of weeks ago, would you expect Peyton Manning and the Broncos to change how they attack the Chiefs this time around?
Legwold: Adam, I wouldn't. They have stayed in their three-wide set through concerns about Manning's health, their pass protection and blitzing defenses. And they ran all but 10 plays out of the three-wide set against the Chiefs two weeks ago. They did try to run more against Kansas City than they had in previous games, particularly with Manning in the shotgun; they had 22 rushing attempts the last time they faced K.C. with Manning in the shotgun. They'll likely do the same, but will test the edges of the Chiefs' formation to see if the injuries have affected things there. They rushed for 280 yards against the Patriots this past Sunday, a total that was hidden in the loss, but if they can move the ball in the run game, the offense is that much more difficult to deal with.
With those injury concerns on defense for the Chiefs, would they have to take more chances to come after Manning?
Teicher: I would think so. They certainly came after Philip Rivers with a lot of different things in last Sunday's game. They just weren't effective. Rivers was very candid about things after the game, saying the Chargers emphasized having their backs help in pass protection against Houston and Hali before the injuries but they got away from that after Houston and Hali left the game. I would expect the Chiefs to change things up quite a bit against Manning this time: blitz some, play some coverage, maybe even mix in some zone. They haven't played much zone coverage all season but they may have no choice on Sunday. Their cornerbacks were horrible in coverage and the safeties often took bad angles to the receivers. The Chiefs allowed 228 yards after the catch.
Big game for Von Miller in New England the other night. I'm guessing it was his most productive of the season. He certainly didn't get much done against the Chiefs the last time. Was it a case of him taking advantage of favorable matchups against the Patriots or is it just a matter of getting that readjustment period out of the way?
Legwold: Likely a little of both. He was a terror in the first half as he forced a fumble to go with two sacks and a 60-yard fumble return for a score. He was the best player on the field in those opening minutes when the Broncos opened up a 17-0 lead that grew to 24-0 at halftime. He beat Patriots left tackle Nate Solder with both power and speed in those opening segments. But the Patriots picked up the pace on offense a bit in the second half, spreading things out more with some empty sets and forcing the Broncos to rush with fewer people at times. Miller had some quality rushes in the second half as he forced Brady to deliver the ball early on a smattering of occasions, but he did not sack Brady after the initial flourish and the Broncos didn't have a sack in the second half of regulation or overtime. Miller looked better -- consistently quicker, more explosive -- but he has yet to put together a full game like the Broncos want to see. In fact until the New England game Jack Del Rio had graded Miller's play as "OK." The Broncos need something consistently more than OK coming down the stretch.
After so many good things that happened during the 9-0 start, how have the Chiefs dealt with back-to-back losses?
Teicher: We're about to find out. I think the Chiefs are still stunned after losing their two top pass-rushers and a double-digit lead against the Chargers. They were certainly stunned after the game over how poorly their defense played. If there was something positive to come out of the Chargers game, it was that their offense was able to keep up. They scored five offensive touchdowns, topping their previous season high of three, and drove down the field for the go-ahead TD with about a minute and a half left. So they should have some confidence if Sunday's score climbs beyond a certain point. But between the injuries to Houston and Hali, an already sluggish pass rush, horrendous play in the secondary and the quality of the upcoming opponent, the Chiefs suddenly have a lot to sort through on defense.
Likewise, how confident will the Broncos be after coughing up a 24-point halftime lead in New England?
Legwold: Del Rio came right out of the gate Monday, just hours after the team had landed at 5 a.m. or so Denver time, in full keep-your-composure mode, essentially saying his message to the players was to avoid the "we're the greatest" chatter they've heard after wins as well as avoiding the "we're the worst" feeling after a loss like Sunday's. They took some solace in Manning putting together a big-time drive late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 31-31. After that they slugged it out in overtime until a special-teams gaffe gave the Patriots the field position they needed for the win. There may have been more of a hangover if they had an opponent other than the Chiefs on the schedule this week. The potential to position themselves for the division title against the Chiefs got their attention quickly. They need a big game from Manning, however. He sets the tone for this group and Sunday night was a struggle for the passing games at times in the bitter cold.
The Chiefs challenged the Broncos' wide receivers plenty in man coverage two weeks ago. Given how the past two games have gone, would you expect them to do that again?
Teicher: That's how the Chiefs have defended all season and how they are built, so it's difficult to picture them going in a drastically different direction on Sunday. Just two weeks ago, the Chiefs thought they had the perfect big, physical cornerbacks in Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper to match up with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and the right slot cover guy in Brandon Flowers to match up with Wes Welker. Maybe what they saw two weeks ago in Denver or last week against the Chargers was enough to change their minds about how to best handle Manning and his receivers. But I doubt it. They might mix some things a little more than last time but I seriously doubt we'll see a wholesale change.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One week after an entertaining game with a new-school/old-school quarterback duel between Cam Newton and Tom Brady, it's pure old-school this week.
Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady.
Need we say much more?
This is one of those games that is circled the day the NFL schedule is released in April, and as we know, there is much more than just the quarterbacks to highlight when dissecting a matchup between the visiting Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots. Receiver Wes Welker, for one, adds another intriguing storyline as he returns to town for the first time since signing with the Broncos this year.
The Broncos (9-1) are the class of the AFC, and arguably the entire NFL, after knocking the Kansas City Chiefs from the unbeaten ranks this past Sunday. Now comes a tough test against a resilient but depleted 7-3 Patriots club that needs a victory to keep pace in the overall AFC playoff race.
Here to break it down for us are NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jeff Legwold (Broncos):
Reiss: Jeff, let's get right to the news before we dive into the X's and O's. I expect Welker to receive rousing cheers from the fans here because he was a beloved player from 2007 to 2012. Most Patriots fans, as I sense it, didn't want to see him go and hold the team more responsible for the departure. Any chance Welker's “homecoming” actually doesn't happen because of the concussion he sustained?
Legwold: Mike, because Welker was removed from Sunday night's game with a concussion, he is subject to the league protocol. That means he won't be allowed to practice fully until Friday at the earliest and then only if he has passed a baseline test early in the week. The Broncos have said they expect him to be OK and he will obviously want to play, but Friday would be the first real litmus test of their plans with him. Welker has dealt with some ankle issues this season as well, but he has had every bit the impact in the offense the Broncos had hoped to have when they signed him. He has lined up much of the time in the slot, but offensive coordinator Adam Gase has also put him out wide and he scored a touchdown earlier this season on a route that began with Welker in the backfield. Manning knows why Brady liked throwing Welker the ball so much.
That said, people here asked Welker plenty about his departure and while he's said all the right things, what were Brady's thoughts on the matter?
Reiss: No question that he was personally disappointed. Welker remains one of his closest friends. I think Brady even said it at one point, you go through an initial period of dealing with the emotions and then you move forward and focus on the task at hand. That's part of what makes Brady the great competitor that he is, the ability to compartmentalize things and have that laser-like singular focus. There were quite a few growing pains for the passing offense through the first eight games, but it has looked better the past two contests. It's no coincidence that the results have improved as tight end Rob Gronkowski has rounded into form, receiver Danny Amendola seems to be taking steps forward and running back Shane Vereen has been activated from the injured reserve list.
The Patriots are going to need to put up some points to help a depleted defense. So what type of defense can they expect to see from the Broncos?
Legwold: Jack Del Rio is the Broncos' interim head coach these days after John Fox's open-heart surgery earlier this month, but Del Rio is still calling the defense on game day as well. The players like and respect Del Rio and have responded to him since his arrival before the 2012 season. Del Rio uses everybody in uniform on game day -- he's used nine different defensive backs in varying roles in the defense in some games, for example -- and overall he's aggressive. He likes to change things up in the pass rush and match up on the outside with plenty of man coverages. It is no accident the past three games have been the best for the Broncos' defense after a rough start to the season in pass defense, particularly with so many teams trying to play catch-up against the Broncos. But the past three games are also the first Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller have played at the same time. Miller missed six games with a drug policy suspension and Woodyard then missed two games with a neck injury he suffered against Dallas. With them both in there, Del Rio can do more things. The Broncos know they have to get some pressure in the middle of the field against Brady and get the receivers out of their routes if they can.
Defensively, how concerned are the Patriots about the health of their own secondary at the moment?
Reiss: Very concerned, and it's why I thought they might have made a more aggressive push for free-agent safety Ed Reed when he became available last week. Especially in a game like this, it's not a good time to be short in the secondary, and it's a banged-up group for the Patriots. All three of their top cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib (groin), Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) -- are dealing with ailments that will affect their availability and/or effectiveness in some form. Starting safety Steve Gregory (broken thumb) missed Monday's loss but returned to practice Wednesday and that probably means he will play. So that helps them a bit. Still, this has the potential to be a bad matchup for the Patriots this week based on the health snapshot.
If they could order up some bone-chilling temperatures for a Sunday prime-time game in late November, maybe it helps a bit. But is there any reason to think, based on what you've seen, that would even slow down Manning at this point?
Legwold: Folks both near and far have talked about Manning's wobbly passes all season. His ankle and whether or not he wears a glove on his throwing hand are always cause for a this-just-in bulletin. In the end, bad ankle and all, he leads the league in completions (286), yards passing (3,572) and passing touchdowns (34). Those 34 touchdowns still top the number of touchdowns scored by any other team in the league -- New Orleans, Seattle and Cincinnati have 33 touchdowns overall. After four neck surgeries he's a pitcher now, working the corners. He throws the fastball when he needs it and while it may not always be as pretty as people would like, he gets the ball where it needs to be. How he plays in the cold is still a bit of a question mark given his performance on a historically cold day here in the playoff loss, but this Broncos offense has a lot of ways to come at a defense and the only real way to slow Manning down is to get consistent pressure in the middle of the field so he can't work his progressions in the comfort of the pocket.
This is the 17th time, including three playoff games, Bill Belichick has faced Manning since Belichick accepted the New England job. That's a lot of road traveled. How do you think he wants to defend this offense as compared to how he's attacked Manning in the past?
Reiss: Personnelwise, we can expect the Patriots to be in their sub packages (either nickel or dime) for the majority of the game. That's a contrast from what we saw Monday night when the Patriots mostly played their base defense against the power-running Panthers. In this game, when factoring in the Broncos' three-receiver offense and the view that tight end Julius Thomas is probably going to be seen more as a receiver, I'd project them to go much lighter in the box and almost dare the Broncos to run against them. Of course, the other factor with Manning is maintaining discipline pre-snap and not tipping intentions, which is what opponents often say about facing Brady. If Manning has the answers to the test before the snap, it's going to be tough to win. He's just too smart. So those are some general thoughts on a defensive approach as I think the Patriots will have to get creative to cover up for some of their personnel issues, and take some chances on third down.
The Patriots really struggled on third down against the Panthers, who were 8-of-11. Offensively in that game, the Patriots didn't cash in enough in the red zone. Those are two big areas of focus for them. What are the top areas the Broncos are talking about for improvement?
Legwold: Offensively, they've surrendered just 13 sacks -- Detroit's Matthew Stafford is the only quarterback to have started every game who has been sacked less than Manning -- but the Broncos want to limit the hits. Manning was not sacked or barely touched for that matter by the Chiefs this past Sunday, but the Broncos need that to continue to keep Manning's ankle from getting any worse. They also, even as they line up in their beloved three-wide receiver set (75 snaps against the Chiefs including penalty plays), have to find a way to run with some more efficiency to keep the play-action game at least on the minds of the defenders. To that end the Broncos had a season-high 21 running plays out of the shotgun against Kansas City. Defensively they do plenty of good work only to watch it unravel in one big play. Last season they surrendered 38 pass plays of at least 20 yards in the entire regular season. This season that total is already 46. They've been better over the past month -- they haven't given up a pass play of at least 31 yards in the past four games -- but the trend has to continue.
In terms of big-play threats, where is Gronkowski in his return in terms of his health and performance right now?
Reiss: I'd say somewhere between a Half-Gronk and the Full-Gronk, so maybe about 80 percent. He's getting closer to a full workload after playing 51 of 79 snaps in his debut versus the Jets, followed by 33 of 65 against Miami, 48 of 75 against Pittsburgh and 63 of 72 on Monday night against the Panthers (snaps included penalties). Since Gronkowski didn't have a preseason, we've reached the point now where he's had what is essentially a preseason within the regular season. The past two games, in particular, things have seemed to click.
One of the fun parts about these “Double Coverage” assignments is to learn something about the opposing team that maybe slips beneath the everyday radar. Do you have a player or X factor that might be easy to overlook?
Legwold: Easy for the Broncos because he's often camouflaged by his more famous teammates, but the fact Woodyard has never been voted to the Pro Bowl says a lot of his peers just aren't doing their homework when they fill out the ballots. Last season Woodyard was the first player since Brian Urlacher in 2007 to finish a season with at least 100 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions. And he wasn't even voted as a Pro Bowl alternate despite being just the 12th player to put together that stat line since the sack because an official statistic in 1982. Woodyard is an every-down player in an age of specialists, a leader with top-end work ethic and elite speed to the ball. Mike Shanahan, who kept Woodyard as an undrafted rookie in '08 -- Shanahan's last year in Denver -- called him “everything you want in a football player.” The teams that don't pay attention to him have a long day on offense.
From your end -- and I know everyone is going to talk about the quarterbacks -- but is there a player, or players, who can make a difference in this one other than Brady?
Reiss: I'll go with the returners on special teams -- Julian Edelman (punt) and Josh Boyce (kickoff). This is one of those games where the Patriots are going to need all the points they can get to keep up with Manning and the NFL's top-scoring team, and maybe special teams can chip in. The inclusion of the speedy Boyce as the primary kickoff returner caught my eye Monday night, even though he didn't have any opportunities. The ball likely won't be carrying as far on Sunday night in Foxborough, Mass., so Boyce should have a greater chance to make an impact. Edelman is excellent in his role as a punt returner. For the Patriots to win, they will need to play a good complementary game and special teams are a big part of that.
Filed with touchdowns, Peyton Manning and record performances, quarter after quarter, game after game. And with that the questions lingered. What exactly the Broncos would do if Manning wasn't, well, Manning and they had to get in touch with their defensive side?
Or as cornerback Chris Harris Jr. put it on his way into the locker room following a dirt-under-their-fingernails 27-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Sports Authority Field at Mile High Sunday night: "I thought y'all said we didn't play defense."
Perhaps it says something about the Broncos' season and how high the bar has been set that Manning had his ninth 300-yard passing game and the Broncos were "held" to 427 yards and 27 points, and it all still went down as a rough-around-the-edges affair. But it was just that at times, with Manning nursing an injured right ankle encased in a brace.
The Broncos needed something else. They needed to run for more than decoration on offense and they needed their defense, a defense that has enjoyed life in the jet wash of the Broncos' offense for much of the season, to stand up and raise its hackles.
They needed their defense to roll up its sleeves and get to work. To outperform the Chiefs' defense that came in as the league's leader in scoring defense and sacks.
"Without a doubt, we heard all this hoopla about which offense is best, and which defense is best," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We just wanted to get out there and play our style of football and that’s physical. l We got this win and we’re happy to get this win."
Sunday really belonged to the Broncos' defense that both made the critical play of the night and checked off the biggest item on the to-do list they had carried into the game. The play came just seconds after Manning and rookie running back Montee Ball didn't connect on a handoff. The Chiefs recovered the fumble at the Broncos' 18-yard line in a game the Broncos led 3-0.
On first-and-10 from the 18, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith flipped a pass to fullback Anthony Sherman. Cornerback Quentin Jammer arrived first to stand Sherman up and linebacker Danny Trevathan then crashed into Sherman knocking the ball free. Jammer recovered the ball at the Broncos' 16-yard line. Five plays later the Broncos scored a touchdown for a 10-0 lead.
"They were kind of blitzing and I rushed the handoff and I didn't give him a good handoff at all," Manning said. "Obviously you're not feeling good leaving the field and they turn around and fumble right away pretty critical series there."
"I love the way Danny plays," Woodyard said. "He goes out there and plays hard every time and they didn't get any points out of that."
Then there was the matter of Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles.
After the Chiefs' first nine games, all wins, Charles was their leading rusher and leading receiver with 47 catches, or 14 more than Dwayne Bowe. If you had added it all together in those nine wins Charles had accounted for 39 percent of the yardage (1,114) the Chiefs had gained on offense and had 48 percent of the touches (217).
And the Broncos gave Charles the attention those numbers deserved, often slowing the pass rush from the edge at times to keep a linebacker within sight of Charles. The Broncos also used plenty of defensive backs in the pass pattern against Charles and swarmed him in the run game.
In the end Charles finished with 78 yards rushing, 35 of those yards coming on one second-quarter sprint around the left end, to go with minus-6 yards receiving on two catches. Those 72 total yards accounted for Charles' lowest output of the season.
"We tried to come out there and move the ball," Charles said. "But give credit to their defense, they did a great job scheming us."
"That was the key to the whole game, really, because if we can't stop Jamaal Charles, that's a long night for us," Harris said. "We wanted to make them one dimensional if that one dimension wasn't him."
So, here they are at 9-1 with Manning on a sore ankle, wide receiver Wes Welker with a concussion and tight end Julius Thomas with a sore knee. But the Broncos brought a little more to the table Sunday night and showed a little something some folks might have believed they didn't have.
"We all know, everybody in here, we're capable of playing on defense the way we played [Sunday]," Harris said. "We have the talent, we still didn't play our best game, but we've improved each week. People will see the real us, I think, when we put it all together. But this is a team and we think our defense, we have a lot to offer, we can be there when we're needed and I think we will be."
DENVER -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 27-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs:
What it means: The Broncos are back on top in the race for the AFC West title. The Chiefs had been able to get one game’s worth of separation with the Broncos’ loss in Indianapolis last month, but Denver erased that Sunday night. Both teams are 9-1, but the Broncos now have a win in hand with six games to play. They meet the Chiefs again Dec. 1 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Stock watch: Folks kept wondering when a Broncos defense that finished at or near the top of every major defensive category last season would make an appearance. The defense kept Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles in check for much of the night and the Chiefs could not find a Plan B.
Wall it off: Peyton Manning was wearing a heavy brace on his much-publicized injured right ankle, which limited his mobility. But a combination of Manning’s quick throws and a high-quality effort from the Broncos’ offensive line kept Manning from being sacked by a defense that came in leading the league in sacks. In fact, the Broncos had things under control enough to empty out the backfield for a red-zone play in the third quarter.
Bounce-back effort: Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball fumbled on his second carry of the game, deep in Denver's territory with just under six minutes remaining in the first quarter. He was then given a fumble-induced cooling down period on the sideline that routinely comes with that misstep. But he re-entered the game in the second quarter and finished with two touchdowns, his second and third of the season.
What’s next: The Broncos head to New England, where they will play their second consecutive Sunday prime-time game. The Patriots' defensive backs figure to get physical with the Broncos' receivers, a Bill Belichick staple against high-powered offenses, and the Denver wideouts are going to have to be ready to win the hand-fighting to play the ball.
Since Peyton Manning's arrival, the Denver Broncos own the AFC West, posting a 7-0 record against division foes.
Coming off a bye week, the 7-1 Broncos should be well-rested when they travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday. At 4-4, the Chargers look to stay in the AFC playoff hunt with a win, one of five AFC West contests left on their schedule.
Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano faces the daunting task of trying to slow down a Denver offense that is No. 1 in the league in scoring (42.9 PPG), third-down efficiency (50.5 percent) and red zone efficiency (78.4 percent).
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold break down the matchup:
Williams: With coach John Fox out indefinitely after having heart surgery over the weekend, the Broncos have named Jack Del Rio as interim head coach. Jeff, how have players reacted to the situation? And how will this change the team's game-day management, including who calls the plays defensively and decisions like whether or not to go for it on fourth down?
Legwold: The defensive players like Del Rio's no-nonsense, show-me approach, and that's the message they've given the rest of the locker room. Del Rio has a clear set of expectations for the defensive guys and hasn't wavered from it, and if guys do what they're supposed to do, they play regardless of their contract or draft standing. Players like that and respond to it. Denver is his second stop with Fox, so he will stick to the plan and not much will change in the players' day-to-day lives in terms of football. On game day, Del Rio will still make the calls on defense, but since he can't simply turn away and go talk to the defensive players when the offense is on the field as he had been doing, he will lean on linebackers coach Richard Smith to do a little more on the sideline as well as the other position coaches. But Del Rio, with nine seasons as the Jacksonville Jaguars coach on his résumé, will run the show on game day when it comes to timeouts, replay challenges and other in-game decisions.
Looking at the coaches, how much of what Mike McCoy has implemented in his first season with the Chargers came from his time with Fox, including McCoy's three seasons with Fox and Josh McDaniels?
Williams: I would say McCoy gleaned some of his core coaching philosophies from Fox. McCoy worked with Fox in Denver and Carolina for nine seasons. McCoy is a straight shooter who focuses on accountability, bringing the best out of his players and attention to detail. But he's also tried to create a family-type atmosphere and empower the players to emerge into leadership roles. Certainly, McCoy also picked up a few things while working with a creative offensive thinker like McDaniels, bringing some of those concepts and schemes with him to San Diego. Through the midpoint of his first season, players seem to have bought into McCoy's philosophy.
Manning is once again putting up eye-popping numbers in his second season in Denver. It's hard to believe Manning could get better, but how much more comfortable is he with the offense with another year under his belt?
Legwold: Manning is all about planning and preparation. When people ask him if he's got better timing with his receivers, he'll usually answer that it takes years to build real chemistry. But there is no question his improved comfort level with his surroundings in Denver can be seen in his play. After eight games, his 29 passing touchdowns are more than any other team has scored to that point. They've had some injuries up front and he's taken a little more punishment than they would like over the past three games, but they can challenge all parts of the field in the passing game. And when they move as fast as they can in the no-huddle, Manning has been at his best. He's difficult to fool, and defenses have struggled all season to find the right balance of coverage or pressure against him.
McCoy has always been good at adapting what he wants to do on offense to the quarterback he has behind center. He did that in catering offenses for Tim Tebow and Manning in back-to-back seasons. How much has he helped Philip Rivers?
Williams: Rivers is a new man. He finished with double-digit interceptions for three years in a row heading into the 2013 season. But he's displayed better decision-making this season in McCoy’s and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt’s new scheme. Even though Rivers has seven interceptions through eight games, he leads the league in completion percentage (72.2), showing a willingness to take the checkdown. The Chargers implemented more of a rhythm passing game, focusing on Rivers getting the ball out quick and letting his receivers do the work. And he's also been given more freedom to call plays at the line of scrimmage. As you mention, McCoy at his best is tailoring an offense to perfectly match the skill set of his quarterback, and that certainly is the case with Rivers this season.
Defensively, Denver is giving up 299 passing yards and allowing 27.3 points a contest. But the Broncos have a respectable 37.5 third-down defense percentage. Is this defense good enough for Denver to make a deep playoff run?
Legwold: That is the question the Broncos have to answer if they are really to be in the Super Bowl hunt. They have a historic offense that can score from anywhere, any time. They have quality special teams, front to back, from the kicking game to coverage units, and have blocked two punts already this season. Defensively, Von Miller missed six games with a suspension and hasn't played at his 2012 level since his return, and Champ Bailey has played in just two games because of a foot injury. That's a lot of impact on the sideline. In their absence, the Broncos didn't always consistently pressure opposing passers and teams have thrown it plenty trying to play catch-up with the Broncos' offense. But if they are really going to be in the Super Bowl mix, their defense will have to be more than it has been over much of the season's first half. It showed some teeth in a win over the Redskins just before the bye, holding Washington to 266 total yards.
Shaun Phillips, with 6.5 sacks over the season's first half, helped the Broncos cover for Miller's absence early on. Did the Chargers believe he could reach that level when they didn't re-sign him?
Williams: That's a fair question because San Diego certainly could use that production from Phillips. The Chargers had younger players like Melvin Ingram and Larry English ready to emerge, along with signing savvy veteran Jarret Johnson to a four-year deal in free agency leading up to the 2012 season. So Phillips likely would have had a limited role in San Diego. However, Ingram suffered an ACL tear in his left knee in May. The Chargers promptly signed Dwight Freeney to replace him, but the team's best pass-rusher suffered a torn quad against Dallas on Sept. 29, leaving San Diego's cupboard pretty bare at edge rusher. Johnson and defensive end Corey Liuget lead the team in sacks with just three each.
Miller has just one sack and seven tackles in two games since returning from a suspension. Is he still shaking the rust off? How important is Miller playing at an elite level to the improvement of Denver's defense?
Legwold: Opinions vary a bit around the league about how Miller has played in his two games back. Many personnel executives, citing what Miller has called an intentional 10- to 15-pound weight gain during his suspension, see a lack of the explosiveness and flexibility that made him special in his first two seasons. Their thought is he should lose the weight and play lighter. A few others are willing to wait and see, offering it might just be rust. But even some of Miller's current, and former, teammates have said the same thing, that he's had moments when he's looked himself but overall has not been nearly as explosive as he was down in and down out in 2012. The Broncos have even taken him off the field for a selection of snaps over the past two games, including in the base defense and a few pass-rush situations. It hasn't been many snaps, but it is an indication he's not yet at the level they want him to be, or they wouldn't be using other players in a smattering of down-and-distance situations.
With the Chargers' injuries along the offensive line, how have they tried to protect Rivers, and has Rivers adjusted his game because of those issues up front?
Williams: Veteran center Nick Hardwick really has been the key to the stability up front. Hardwick is the only offensive lineman who has started every game this season. He helps Rivers with the pass protections and blitz pickups. San Diego has played five starting offensive line combinations in eight games this season, including five players at left tackle. But offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris has done a nice job of creating some versatility within his group by having players learn multiple positions. Even with the injuries, San Diego's offensive line continues to play at a high level, allowing just 12 sacks through eight games. Rivers taking shorter drops and getting the ball out quickly also has helped keep the sacks down.
The development of Denver tight end Julius Thomas, a former basketball player at Portland State, and the emergence of former first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno has been fun to watch from afar. Thomas is second on the team in touchdown receptions with eight, while Moreno has 743 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns. How have these two earned the trust of Manning?
Legwold: Former Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley, a close friend of Manning's and a longtime teammate, said it best. Stokley always said the easiest way to earn Manning's trust is “to be in right spot, where he expects you to be, every single time. If you do that, you'll get the ball. If you don't, you won't be in there." Thomas, who is often overwhelmed when asked to block, is a difficult matchup for defenders and has worked plenty with Manning in terms of route running and understanding what Manning sees against certain looks on defense. Thomas has good hands and will fight for the ball in traffic, so Manning will throw to him even if Thomas doesn't have a lot of room to make a play. Moreno is a testament to hard work and getting up off the deck. He was a game-day inactive for eight games last season after an early-season fumble, and his roster spot was shaky when training camp opened this summer. But he never complained or blamed anybody else. He just worked. He is the most reliable of the team's backs in pass protection, is a quality receiver and has run hard when he's had the opportunity. He will likely see the ball more in the second half of the season.
In terms of the running game, do the Chargers still see Ryan Mathews as a lead back, or is the fact they didn't give Mathews the ball in a first-and-goal situation last weekend an indication they don't?
Williams: McCoy praised Mathews' effort and ability to gain tough yards. He's the leading rusher on the team with 480 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games for the first time since 2011. Mathews has played in every game and fumbled only once this season.
But the fact that Mathews does not have a goal-line carry this season, including last Sunday when the Chargers failed to score three times from a yard out at Washington, cannot be overlooked. McCoy has trust issues when it comes to giving the ball to Mathews near the goal line. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers are 2-of-11 (18 percent) on plays from a yard out this season, the worst in the league. Giving the ball to Mathews in those situations could help rectify that issue.