AFC West: Marshawn Lynch
There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.
From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.
The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.
It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:
Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?
Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.
Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?
Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.
Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.
For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?
Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.
Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.
Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?
Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.
Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?
Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.
Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?
Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.
In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?
Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.
Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?
Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.
They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.
Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?
Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.
Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?
Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.
They see the back-to-the-basics equation that every broken tackle by the running back in Super Bowl XLVIII will be a chance for the Broncos to have a broken heart.
"With such a strong back a quick back and somebody his size, you have to gang tackle," Broncos safety David Bruton said. "You can't just leave it up to one guy. We have to try to get 11 hats to the ball all the time."
But Lynch runs heavily, and when it comes to adding the force and acceleration to his mass, he is one of football's best finishers. Bigger players slide off or are shoved aside.
And it isn't a confetti run every time he touches the ball. Sometimes, it's a 3-yard run after several 3-yard runs, before Lynch drops his shoulder on a defender who doesn't finish the job. His earthquake run in the 2010 wild-card game, when he stiff-armed former Broncos and New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracy Porter on the way to a 67-yard touchdown run when eight New Orleans defenders had a chance to tackle him brought cheers loud enough to have formally registered as seismic activity.
"You have to gang tackle a guy like that," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "You try not to have so much pride as a defensive player and want to go out there and make the plays yourself. Especially with me being a D-lineman. Obviously, I think I can go out there and handle it all by myself, but we have to gang tackle him. I haven't seen on film any guys really taking him down by themselves or knocking him back. We'll have to do a good job containing him and not allow him to break big runs."
Since the start of the 2011 season, Lynch leads the NFL with 39 total touchdowns, two more than Adrian Peterson and three more than Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
And for the most part, the Broncos know where Lynch plans to get to work. In the NFC Championship Game win over the San Francisco 49ers, 107 of Lynch's 109 rushing yards came between the tackles. The Seahawks use plenty of two-back looks as well to help clear the way. The Broncos have often this season answered heavy-run formations with more of a 3-4 look on defense without outside linebackers standing up on the line of scrimmage with three down linemen, especially on early downs.
But a lot of how things go against Lynch will be how the Broncos fare in those initial one-on-one moments, defender and running back. And the Broncos will have to either get him down on their own or at least slow him long enough until the help arrives.
“Every week has been a challenge," Knighton said. "We stepped up to the challenge last week stopping New England's run game. San Diego had success running the ball in the regular season and we stepped up to that challenge in the playoffs. It just gets worse and worse each week. Going against a back like this -- we obviously have to stop him and can't allow him to get going. A guy like that who builds momentum and has confidence that he can run the ball just makes it worse for us."
"A guy like Marshawn Lynch, he requires us to do some extra film study and do some extra hitting," Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "He is that kind of player."
1. Find some room: Against the Seahawks' “Legion of Boom'' secondary, the Broncos' pass-catchers will have to win some physical one-on-one matchups and be aggressive to the ball. Earlier in the regular season, the Colts, Patriots and Chargers all had limited success with the rough stuff against the Broncos' wideouts, in particular. Against the Seahawks, the Broncos' receivers have to get off the jam and give themselves a chance to get into the route and not disrupt quarterback Peyton Manning's timing -- particularly Broncos tight end Julius Thomas against the Seahawks' safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
2. Tame the Beast: Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is a fierce yards-after-contact runner who saves some of his best performances for the postseason. The Broncos have been more effective down the stretch out of their base defense against the run, holding the New England Patriots to 64 yards on 16 carries Sunday. The Broncos will need another quality outing from defensive tackle Terrance Knighton to keep the Seahawks from setting the tempo on offense with Lynch.
3. Make Wilson uncomfortable: When the Broncos had Russell Wilson in for a visit leading up to the 2012 draft, Broncos officials loved his confidence, his composure and his potential leadership abilities. And now Wilson will become just the sixth quarterback to start a Super Bowl in either his rookie or second season. Wilson will hold the ball at times to try to make a play, but he is accurate on the move and the Seahawks are comfortable having him throw after dropping back or playing him out of an option look. The Broncos will have to be disciplined in the rush and find a way to create more pressure than they did against Tom Brady on Sunday.
4. Hold the edge: The Seahawks have the kind of inside-outside combination in the defensive front to get after Manning. The Broncos prefer to work out of the three-wide-receiver set because it gives defenses the most difficulty. Their feeling is when they spread the field, they get some of the potential rushers out of the middle of the defensive formation as well. But it also leaves the Broncos' five offensive linemen fending for themselves much of the time. Manning needs room to step and move his lower body into throws. The Broncos have to maintain the integrity of the pocket to give him that room.
5. Get Ball and Moreno going: The Broncos will need to get running backs Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno into a rhythm to keep the Seahawks from settling into a get-after-Manning mode. The 49ers rushed for 161 yards against Seattle in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, but 130 of that came from 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Broncos are not built that way and are going to have to carve out some running room in more traditional ways. San Francisco's running backs had just 31 yards rushing in the game.
Percy's tumor talk: Harvin shocked everyone after the game when he said he had a tumor removed last year. No one knew for sure what he was talking about at first or how serious it was. But the Seahawks' public relations staff later learned that doctors found a tumor (apparently benign) on his appendix when Harvin had an appendectomy in late November in Minnesota, three weeks after he went on injured reserve with an ankle injury. That little oddity aside, Harvin showed his stuff in his Seahawks debut with a 58-yard kickoff return and an athletic 17-yard catch on his finger tips that kept a Seattle TD drive alive in the second quarter.
Wilson stays perfect at home: Wilson just can do no wrong at CenturyLink Field. He now is 13-0 at home in his NFL career, and those 13 consecutive home wins are a franchise record. Wilson was 13-of-18 for 230 yards with two TDs and a 151.4 quarterback rating. Both TD throws were eye-catching. The first was 19 yards to Doug Baldwin when Wilson lofted it over two defenders in a place where Baldwin was the only person who could catch it in the back corner of the end zone. The other TD toss was an improvising move when Wilson was scrambling in the middle of the field and let go a shovel pass to Marshawn Lynch at just the right moment for a 6-yard score. Wilson’s 13 completions went to eight different receivers, including four catches for tight end Zach Miller.
Hauschka is a kicking clinic: Seattle kicker Steve Hauschka is having a remarkable season. He was 2-for-2 on field goals Sunday, including a 50-yarder, and has made 24 of 25 attempts this season. His only miss was a blocked attempt at Indianapolis, which wasn’t his fault. Come playoff time with a game on the line, Hauschka could be the difference for the Seahawks.
Bronson from Raleigh, NC wants to know if former North Carolina State teammates Philip Rivers and Jerricho Cotchery could play together in San Diego in 2012.
Bill Williamson: I know why you ask. Rivers and Cotchery go all the way back to being basketball opponents in Alabama. They had a great working relationship at NC State and they remain close friends. But the truth is, Cotchery was available last year and the Chargers didn’t bite. He is not a top-level player, so I think the Chargers will look at several other options first.
Rico from Fresno wants to know if I think the Raiders could sign Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan now that they cut Stanford Routt.
BW: Well, I think Finnegan was a dream target of Oakland’s before it cut Routt. The question is if Oakland can afford Finnegan. The Raiders don’t have any proven starters on their roster and they have a small draft class. Cornerback help will be needed in free agency. Finnegan may be tough to get. New Orleans’ Tracy Porter may be more affordable, plus he played for new Oakland head coach Dennis Allen in New Orleans.
Derron from Campbell River wants to know if I think Denver could sign Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch in free agency.
BW: Lynch would certainly be someone who would be attractive to Oakland. Yet, I think Lynch will either re-sign with Seattle or be franchised. I just don’t see him getting to the open market. The Broncos will either sign a free agent running back or take one early in the draft, but obtaining Lynch may not be an option.
Will the draft change at No. 5? There are expectations that the drama of the draft will begin when Kansas City picks at No. 5. With Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Russell Okung expected to be the first four picks; the Chiefs represent the first question mark. Kansas City could take safety Eric Berry or a tackle such as Bryan Bulaga, Trent Williams or Anthony Davis. A trade down is also possible assuming Okung is off the board. No matter what the choice is, it will be fun when Kansas City is on the clock.
What will the Chargers do? There will be almost as much drama when the Chargers’ turn arrives. I expect them to be big draft-day players. They have the No. 28 and No. 40 picks. San Diego has big needs at nose tackle and running back. There are several solid running backs available and the Chargers will likely make one of them their new primary tailback. It will be interesting to see if the Chargers take a nose tackle or a running back first. They could also trade up (San Diego has two third-round picks in 2011 to use as bait) in the first round and get a premier player at either position. No matter what happens, expect San Diego general manager A.J. Smith to be in wheeling-and-dealing mode.
Will Bryant replace Marshall in Denver? The Broncos visited with Oklahoma State standout receiver Dez Bryant this week. Now that Brandon Marshall has been traded, Bryant could be the team’s choice at No. 11. Bryant is very talented, but the Broncos would be adding a new set off off-field issues after trading Marshall. This would be a big story if he ends up in Denver. The Broncos could trade down from No. 11 and still get Bryant, who could tumble because of his issues.
Will Mt. Cody rise in the AFC West? The Broncos, Chargers and the Chiefs have all shown interest in Terrence Cody, the huge nose tackle from Alabama. He is considered a prototype 3-4 nose tackle, and all three of those teams use that scheme. San Diego has the most pressing need for a nose tackle of the three. It wouldn’t be a shock if the Chargers used the No. 28 pick on Cody. The Chiefs could potentially look at him in the second round, and -- if he lasts -- so could Denver. Fellow defensive tackles Brian Price and Dan Williams could attract interest from AFC West teams. However, Williams may be taken in the first 15 picks.
Will the Raiders address their quarterback needs? The Raiders are clearly looking to upgrade their quarterback situation this offseason. It could happen in the draft. Clausen has been linked to Oakland with the No. 8 pick. But he does not have the huge arm coveted by Oakland owner Al Davis. Tim Tebow has talked to the Raiders. He’d likely require a second-round pick. Oakland has worked out Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka, a likely mid-round pick. It would not be a surprise at all if Oakland drafts a quarterback to develop.
Will there be veteran trades? The Marshall trade may not stop the veteran action in the division, Denver is also shopping tight end Tony Scheffler. He could be had for a mid-round pick. There is also the possibility Oakland could pursue Washington quarterback Jason Campbell on draft day. Campbell could likely be acquired for a mid-round pick and Oakland has reportedly shown interest. Baltimore tackle Jared Gaither is reportedly on the block. Both Oakland and Kansas City could add a tackle. Gaither would likely cost a second-round pick. There is also the possibility of San Diego acquiring a veteran running back such as Marshawn Lynch or Marion Barber if they become available. Still, the odds are San Diego looks to the rookie class for its new tailback.
Will the Tebow project continue in the AFC West? Tebow visited with Denver this week. The Broncos have two picks in the second round and could pull the trigger on the project then. Tebow has met with Oakland officials. It would be wild to see the pristine Tebow in the Silver and Black. He wouldn’t be ready to contribute right away, but he could be an interesting project. While I don’t think the Chargers would address a quarterback before the third round, Tebow could be a possibility if he fell. The Chargers need to develop a young quarterback and Norv Turner can do wonders with quarterback prospects. It would be an interesting pairing.
Will the Raiders add a receiver? The Raiders have studied the likes of Bryant, Tate and Mardy Gilyard. It’s not out of the question that the Raiders will look at receivers early in the draft. It would be intriguing. The Raiders have a lot of young, promising players at the position. What they need is a veteran presence. If a top receiver is taken in Oakland, what does it mean for the development of existing youngsters Chaz Schilens, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy?
Will Toby Gerhart pound his way through the AFC West? The rough-and-tumble Stanford tailback is on the radar in San Diego and in Denver. The Chargers make more sense because they have more of a pressing need. However, the Broncos also like the Heisman Trophy runner-up. The Broncos need a big back. I could see Gerhart, who is rising up draft boards, ending up in this division.
Will the Broncos find their new center? If the season started today, the Broncos would not have a starting center. They are looking for one in the draft. The Broncos love Florida’s Maurkice Pouncey. But taking him at No. 11 may be too high. The Broncos may have to move -- possibly up, perhaps down -- to get Pouncey. He is on their wish list, though. Boston College’s Mark Tennant and Baylor’s J.D. Walton are other possibilities.
I’m not so sure that’s a realistic possibility. Lynch’s production has slipped and he has had some serious off-field issues.
San Diego general manager A.J. Smith isn’t big on decreased production (see LaDainian Tomlinson) and players with issues (see Antonio Cromartie). So, a Lynch pairing in San Diego would be out of character.
Yes, the Chargers desperately need running backs and yes, the team has not been adding any running backs. But the Chargers say they have a plan.
I believe that plan revolves around the draft. I fully expect San Diego to take a running back in one of the first two rounds. I could even see San Diego taking a running back in the late rounds.
Perhaps there will be a veteran who becomes available before or after the draft who intrigues San Diego. But at this point, I don’t see that player being Lynch.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Next up on the AFC West draft rewind is No. 12, which is held by Denver:
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Many readers have asked if the NFL's investigation into Brandon Marshall's off-field issues has been completed since the league just announced a three-game suspension for Buffalo running back Marshawn Lynch.
A league spokesman said Friday that Marshall's situation is still under review. Lynch was arrested Feb. 11. Marshall was arrested 18 days later after a domestic dispute.
Charges were dropped the day after Marshall was arrested. It was Marshall's fourth arrest in three years. He was suspended by the league for three games last year but it was knocked down to one game after an appeal.
The Broncos are bracing themselves for a potential suspension of their star receiver. Last month, new Denver coach Josh McDaniels said he was concerned about the situation.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
DENVER -- We're early in the fourth quarter and the game is tied at 23.
Buffalo countered a Denver touchdown drive with a quick one of its own to take the lead in this wild game.
Denver quarterback Jay Cutler scored on a 6-yard run to give Denver the lead late in the third quarter. It was the only run on a nine-play drive by Denver. The Broncos went down the field despite having communication device problems. Cutler often ran to the Denver sideline to get the incoming play. Buffalo had scored 16 unanswered points.
Cutler also set the Denver passing mark for the season. He broke Jake Plummer's team record of 4,089 yards set in 2004.
Buffalo running back Marshawn Lynch is out with a shoulder injury.
Denver cornerback Champ Bailey has departed the game twice. This is his first game back after missing seven games with a groin injury.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Champ Bailey is back.
After missing the past seven games with a torn groin, Bailey is back in the lineup Sunday against Buffalo and he made an instant impact.
On the first play, Bailey, who hasn't played since Oct. 20 at New England, made a tackle in run support after a 1-yard gain by Marshawn Lynch. On the second play, Bailey came in on a cornerback blitz and blasted Bills quarterback Trent Edwards for a 5-yard loss. Edwards fumbled the ball after being hammered by Bailey. The Bills recovered the ball.
Bailey came up from the ground, yelling and pumping his fists. Bailey is known for being calm and relaxed on the field. He was obviously looking forward to getting back on the field.
Earlier in the week, Denver coach Mike Shanahan called Bailey the greatest defensive back ever to play in the NFL.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Here is one area each AFC West team needs to improve upon in Week 16:
Stop the pass: With Denver keying on stopping Carolina's run attack, the Panthers smoked Denver in the passing game. Panthers receiver Steve Smith had nine catches for 165 yards. The Broncos need to tighten their pass defense against Buffalo while making sure Marshawn Lynch doesn't kill them. Perhaps star cornerback Champ Bailey will return Sunday after missing seven games with a groin injury. It wouldn't hurt Denver's chances that's for sure.
Kansas City Chiefs
Finish games: Same old story in Kansas City. Nothing changes. The Chiefs blew an 18-point lead last week to San Diego. The Chargers scored two touchdowns in the final 79 seconds to stun Kansas City. It shouldn't be stunned any longer, though. It was Kansas City's fifth blown lead in the past eight games. Can it change against Miami?
Pass defense: Houston could have a big game Sunday. The Patriots passed the ball at will against Oakland as they compiled 49 points. The Patriots probably could have scored two or three more times. Rob Ryan's defense has to improve this week.
San Diego Chargers
Running game: Much like the Chiefs and their persistent problems blowing games, the Chargers have had issues running the ball all season. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is just not getting it done. He had 39 yards on 15 carries. If the Chargers are going to win at Tampa Bay, Tomlinson and his run blockers must step it up.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
On paper, a chilly forecast should help the Broncos as they try to lock up their first AFC West championship in three years on Sunday.
All they need to do is win at home and the division crown is theirs.
The team will have the benefit of classic December football weather. The Denver forecast for Sunday is for very cold temperatures expected to be in the low teens at kickoff and to drop into the high single digits later in the game.
It all points to an advantage for the home team, right? Usually.
But the problem for Denver is that the visiting team Sunday will be the Bills. Yes, the team that plays in Buffalo.
But the Bills will be ready. Playing in 10 degree weather for the Bills is a lark.
Plus, if the weather gets nasty, the Bills can run the ball well. The Bills' Marshawn Lynch is ranked fourth in the AFC in rushing yards with 1,002 yards. Denver is the No. 27-ranked run offense in the league. It allows an average of 140.1 yards a game on the ground.
Thus, the ideal Denver football weather is also ideal Buffalo football weather. Don't expect Denver to have any intangible advantages as it tries to clinch the division crown.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
He was fined for unnecessarily striking an opponent in the head area on a run play. Wilson, in his first season with Oakland after signing as a free agent from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, threw Buffalo receiver Josh Reed to the ground and slamming his palm against Reed's helmet after a play in which Reed blocked him on a Marshawn Lynch touchdown as Buffalo made a fourth-quarter comeback.
Meanwhile, Jets running back Thomas Jones was not fined for a low block on San Diego defensive lineman Luis Castillo in the Chargers' 48-29 win over New York on Monday night. Castillo lay on the grass for several moments after the hit. He did return to the game. The Chargers sent the play to the NFL for review.