AFC West: T.J. Ward

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos, given they are not one of the two teams that will get down to their Super Bowl work in Arizona next week, are in the business phase of the offseason.

They have a substantial list of 17 prospective free agents, restricted and unrestricted combined, to work through. That includes some of their front-line players -- nine starters -- and two of the five team captains in wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.

But the big picture shows that the Broncos have plenty of core players, including all of their players in Arizona for the Pro Bowl, under contract well beyond next season.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas is a free agent, but the Broncos could still put a franchise tag on him.
None of the Broncos’ eight players taking part in the Pro Bowl practices this week leading up to Sunday’s all-star game are prospective free agents. Demaryius Thomas (ankle, toe), tight end Julius Thomas (ankle) and quarterback Peyton Manning (thigh) were also selected for the Pro Bowl, but elected not to participate because of injuries.

Of those three, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas will be free agents while Manning, signed through the 2016 season, has not stated whether he will return for the 2015 season.

Of the other Broncos in the Pro Bowl:
Of the Pro Bowl group, only Manning (38) and Ware (32) were older than 28 this season. So if the players stay reasonably healthy, it means the Broncos have several key players locked up for two or more seasons, before most become 30-somethings. Demaryius Thomas will almost certainly get the team’s franchise player tag if no long-term deal is worked out this offseason, so that’s another player to mark down for 2015.

Julius Thomas’ representatives have made it clear they’re interested in negotiating in the highest-paid-player-at-the-position area, as you would expect, and that might prove too daunting for a Broncos front office that is already planning for a potential salary-cap squeeze in 2016. And, as the Pro Bowl list shows, Miller will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2015 season and Anderson will be a restricted free agent, free to get offers that the Broncos can match, if they wish.

Miller and Anderson are both players the Broncos are going to want to keep, but they'll have to open the checkbook to do it.

The Manning question looms as well on the business side with a $19 million salary that is guaranteed if he’s on the roster on the last day of the league year, March 9.

Another business item that will bear watching among the Pro Bowl selections is if the Broncos will take a look at Clady’s contract for a future reduction. Tight end Jacob Tamme, a prospective free agent in the coming weeks as well, took a contract hit before this past season.

Clady, who struggled with groin and thigh injuries this season and hasn't yet shown his form of 2012 since a season-ending foot injury early in 2013, is slated to count $10.6 million against the cap next season, $10.1 million in 2016 and $10.6 million in 2017. He also has already received the bulk of his guaranteed money, with a $3 million signing bonus in 2013 to go with a $10.5 million roster bonus in July 2013.

That combination always puts a player in the crosshairs for a re-do. Clady’s base salary for 2015 -- $8 million -- is also guaranteed in the fifth day of the new league year, which will be March 14.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Over 17 games, five months and more than a few bumps, injuries and dilemmas along the way, the Denver Broncos discovered some things about themselves and why they didn't earn a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Today is the fourth installment of a week-long look at those lessons, both good and bad, as the Broncos began with such high hopes in September only to be so cruelly disappointed in January.

And while the team's executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said he likes the roster, there figures to be more change than usual this offseason.

[+] EnlargeGary Kubiak
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesNew coach Gary Kubiak could be the first of many changes for the Broncos this offseason.
The Broncos are still pretty young overall with 24 players on the season-ending roster who were 25 or younger and 38 players who were 27 or younger. But on the contract side, the Broncos -- with a new coaching staff in place -- will have plenty of decisions to make.

The team has 17 players who are scheduled to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. And part of the list reads like a who's who of the starting lineup: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, guard Orlando Franklin, tight end Virgil Green, linebacker Nate Irving, center Will Montgomery, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and safety Rahim Moore.

That's not even the entire list, but those are eight players who started games this past season for the team and it doesn't even include tight end Jacob Tamme, who is slated to an unrestricted free agent as well and played 24.5 percent of the offensive snaps this season.

Toss in a new head coach in Gary Kubiak, the potential for new playbooks on both sides of the ball with two new coordinators, and uncertainty surrounding Peyton Manning, and there is potential for plenty of change.

Still, Elway said: "I like this roster. … We've got a good base of guys for the most part … so I feel great about our football team."

Because of last season's spending binge in free agency -- the Broncos signed four players selected to this year's Pro Bowl in Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- and a watchful eye that the Broncos already have on their tightening salary cap situation in 2016, expect them to stay in-house this time around.

Most of their attention and any money spent will be on their own players. If no long-term deal can be worked out with Demaryius Thomas, it is expected the Broncos would use the franchise player tag on him for a one-year deal that would be guaranteed for the average of the top-10 salaries at the position.

Last year the franchise player tag for a wide receiver meant a one-year deal for $12.312 million. That number is expected to rise a bit this time around.

"You hope they can keep things together," Knighton said. "This is a good group … you want it to be together. I believe the grass isn't always greener and I want to stay. But John Elway is building a team and they're going to make decisions they believe are right, the decision on me included."

The offensive line, with two free agents among the starters, figures to get a long look as well. The line struggled to consistently keep pass-rushers off Manning and the running backs faced first contact at or behind the line of scrimmage on about a third of the team's rushing attempts this season.

Elway said this week that Kubiak would have at least some say on personnel matters as the team formulates its offseason plan in the coming weeks.

"We're going to go through all those meetings, we're going to have all those meetings, and I guarantee, Gary and I are going to come out of the room with the right decision for the Denver Broncos," Elway said. "Gary's going to have a great influence on this team and how we shape this team. So yeah, Gary's going to have a huge influence on that. We'll get through it. We haven't had time, it's been a whirlwind. But we'll get into the meetings and look at the things, what he's looking at as far as offensive linemen, defensively, and we'll get into all those meetings with the coaches. So that'll be coming up."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Whoever the Denver Broncos hire as head coach, he could get a good look at some of the team's high-profile members in the Pro Bowl.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders became the Broncos’ 10th Pro Bowl selection Thursday, when he was added to game to replace Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. Sanders, who was part of the team's offseason free-agent haul, finished the season with career-bests in catches (101), receiving yards (1,404) and touchdowns (nine).

Sanders
Sanders’ catch total and yardage total were both fifth in the league. Sanders, who had not had a 100-yard receiving game in his four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, had seven for the Broncos this season. Sanders has repeatedly called his signing in Denver as a career move "to wide receiver heaven."

Sanders now joins quarterback Peyton Manning, left tackle Ryan Clady, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware as Pro Bowlers.

Sanders, Talib, Ware and Ward were all free-agent signings this past offseason, and only Ware is older than 28.

It is why when executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway described the Broncos' head coaching opening as being so attractive earlier this week.

“I feel real good about our roster," Elway said. “I think contrary to what everybody thinks we’ve got a good roster here. We’ve got a relatively young roster ... So I feel great about our football team."

Of the Broncos’ Pro Bowl selections, most will be back with the team next season. Manning has yet to formally announce if he will be back -- Elway told him to take “five-six weeks" to make the decision -- while Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

Elway has said he’d like to work on new deals for both players, but the Broncos figure to use a franchise player tag on Demaryius Thomas if a multi-year deal can’t be worked out.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was formally listed as questionable for Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round game against the Indianapolis Colts in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

But Marshall, the team’s leading tackler, who has not played since the Broncos’ Dec. 14 win in San Diego because of a foot injury, said he believes he crossed a hurdle in his recovery during Friday’s practice.

"Definitely," Marshall said following the practice. "(Friday) I felt the best, I was able to get out there and sprint like I haven’t sprinted in three weeks. I feel good, we’ll see what happens as far as the lineup."

Marshall has practiced on a limited basis all week, including Friday. But indications are, unless Marshall has some kind of setback or doesn’t look comfortable in the team’s on-field work on Saturday, that he would be back in the lineup against the Colts.

Before his injury Marshall had seven games when he played every defensive snap. He missed the final two games of the season and still played 81.2 percent of the defensive snaps for the season. Friday, Marshall said he knew before practice he was going to have a good day.

"I got past it, (Friday) was the day I really woke up and felt better, I was more confident when I was practicing," Marshall said. "And when I was running I felt great."

Despite missing the last two games of the regular season, Marshall finished with 36 more tackles than safety T.J. Ward -- 110 tackles for Marshall to Ward’s 74.

"In my mind, I know I could go," Marshall said. "I know I could play. It just depends on what the coaches want to do, what the training staff wants to do. In my mind I can go, so we'll see what happens."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On the doorstep of Sunday’s AFC divisional game, the Denver Broncos are face-to-face with a harsh reality of the pro football business.

[+] Enlarge
Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning is more focused on the Broncos' present rather than their future.
 The team that takes the field against the Colts is a far different group than the one that played last February in Super Bowl XLVIII. And it will be a far different one that will take the field in the 2015 regular-season opener.

“That’s the way the league is,’’ said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. “Every year is different.''

Only a handful of starters will start Sunday’s game in the same positions they did in the Super Bowl. The Broncos have 17 players on the current roster who will be either unrestricted or restricted free agents at season’s end, a substantial list which includes some of the team’s high-profile players like wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, guard Orlando Franklin, tight end Jacob Tamme and Knighton.

So, change is coming for this group because, change always seems to be coming.

“That’s why, as a player, you look at it like this is it, this is the season,’’ Knighton said. “John Elway has to look at it differently, he’s looking at the whole thing. But me as a player, I don’t know if I’ll be here or somewhere else. You want to be where you can win and you can win here, but for this team, this group, it is a win-now thing. The team isn’t in win-now really, we have a lot of young guys, but this specific group of guys, it’s a win-now thing.’’

The win-now narrative is always something that raises Elway's hackles, despite the fact he is the guy who oversaw the Broncos’ spending spree that essentially created the narrative for a lot of those asking about it.

Elway prefers to say he wants "to win [from] now on" and in the big picture the Broncos do have 38 players who are 27 years old or younger on the roster, a total that includes seven rookies.

"I see my job as trying to look two, three years down the road, to do what we need to do with the salary cap and the roster to stay competitive, to play for world championships every year.''

“I really approach it year to year,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “It’s a long season. You do have a lot of change year to year. You don’t have the same players in that meeting room that we had a year ago, and it probably will not be the same next year. It’s not negative, it’s not threatening; it’s just the reality of the National Football League. We’ve had faces change even this year. There are guys that were here to start the season that aren’t here now whether [they're] on [injured reserve] or they are not around. You do try to make the most of it when you have the opportunities because you don’t know when they are going to happen again so you try to make the most out of it.’’

For the Broncos, it will be the current regime’s first real wrestling match with free agency that includes players from its first draft class -- 2011. That class included Franklin and Julius Thomas.

But whether any of that potential roster churn adds any urgency to what the Broncos do as they prepare to play the Colts is not up for debate. Most of the players simply say they would feel urgency for any postseason game, that the postseason should matter no matter how many pending free agents a team has or how many new faces arrive in the next season.

“For me I haven’t played in a playoff game, that’s why I came here,’’ said safety T.J. Ward, one of the marquee signings for the Broncos this past offseason. “ … I think you go into it like another game, but you know you’re going to feel differently because it’s like win or go home. That's urgency. You're not trying to win because of next year, you're trying to win because this is the game right now.’’

Most of the discussion about a championship window revolves around 38-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is in his 17th season overall, his third with the Broncos, and his contract runs for two more seasons after this one.

He said in recent weeks his current plan was to play in 2015 “if the Broncos will have me.’’ And Manning isn’t working off the now-or-never template, just that of course he would like to win now, but he isn’t all that worried about later just yet.

“I can’t speak to the window,’’ Manning said. “I’ve been being asked about the window for like 10 years. I think our team has played with a sense of urgency all season to tell the truth. I think it’s how you have to play … you try to play fast with a sense of urgency.’’
DENVER -- After saying running back Ronnie Hillman looked “very good’’ in practice Friday, Denver Broncos head coach John Fox followed through Sunday by putting Hillman in uniform for the regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

It will be Hillman’s first game back in the lineup since he suffered a left foot injury Nov. 9 against the Raiders. Hillman had been a full participant in all of the team’s practices this past week.

Before his injury, Hillman had taken a turn as the Broncos’ lead back earlier this season with 100 yards rushing in the win over the New York Jets and 109 yards rushing in an Oct. 23 win over the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos will be happy to have his speed back in the lineup. Of the team's eight runs of at least 20 yards this season, Hillman has three – all three came in a three-game span in October. He’s also had two of the team’s three runs of at least 30 yards.

Hillman’s return comes at a good time since Juwan Thompson (knee, hip) was one of the Broncos’ seven game-day inactives, so Hillman is expected to be the No. 2 back behind C.J. Anderson.

Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who suffered a left foot injury in the Broncos’ win in San Diego, did not practice this week and, as expected, was also one of the inactives. Marshall did work with the strength and conditioning staff this week and would certainly benefit from the bye in the wild-card round the Broncos would earn with a win Sunday.

Safety T.J. Ward, who suffered a neck injury in Monday night’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, was limited in Friday’s practice and was also one of the Broncos’ inactives. Ward will be available for the Broncos’ first playoff game.

Also among the game-day inactives for the Broncos were: tackle Paul Cornick, tackle Michael Schofield, tight end Dominique Jones and defensive tackle Mitch Unrein.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos continued through their preparations Friday for the regular-season finale, the chances continue to increase that running back Ronnie Hillman will be part of the mix on offense Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

Hillman
Hillman, who has missed the last six games after suffering a left foot injury Nov. 9 against the Raiders, practiced fully again Friday. It meant Hillman was a full participant in all of the team's practices this week.

Before his injury, Hillman had taken a turn as the Broncos' lead back with 100 yards rushing in the win over the New York Jets on Oct. 12 and 109 yards rushing in an Oct. 23 win over the San Diego Chargers. The Broncos will be happy to have his speed back in the lineup. Of the team's eight runs of at least 20 yards this season, Hillman has three -- all three came in a three-game span in October -- and he's had two of the team's three runs of at least 30 yards.

"He's got good burst, good explosion, same things you saw before the injury," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Friday's practice. "He looks to be back in that form and we'll see how that goes, he hasn't played football in six weeks. Get nervous a little bit about that, but he has a good week of practice."

Hillman was formally listed as probable for Sunday's game.

Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who suffered a left foot injury in the Broncos' win in San Diego, did not practice this week and was formally ruled out of Sunday's game. Marshall did work with the strength and conditioning staff this week and continues to progress.

He would certainly benefit from a Broncos win on Sunday, which would give the team a bye in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Safety T.J. Ward, who suffered a neck injury in Monday night's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, was limited Friday and listed as questionable. Given the nature of the injury and the way Ward plays in the defense, the Broncos may be inclined to hold him out Sunday.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip) was also limited Friday and listed as questionable, but is expected to play. Reserve tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) was the only other player limited in Friday's practice.

Again the Broncos had lengthy list of other players with injuries on the report who took part fully in Friday's practice, including Peyton Manning (right thigh), left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) and running back C.J. Anderson (left ankle). All are listed as probable and expected to play.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Tucked within a long injury report as the Denver Broncos prepare for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders was running back Ronnie Hillman taking part in his first full practice since he suffered a left foot injury Nov. 9 in the Broncos' first meeting of the season with the Raiders.

Hillman
It was also Hillman's first full practice since Nov. 7. Hillman has practiced at least some during the last two weeks, but has missed the six games since his injury.

And as defenses continue to pack the middle of the field to take away the Broncos' favorite routes in the passing game and crowd the line of scrimmage in the run game, Hillman's speed to the edge could be a welcome addition back into the offensive huddle.

"We've had a chance to watch him all week, participate and he's obviously further ahead than he was this time a week ago," said Broncos head coach John Fox following Wednesday's practice. "And the fact we're on grass, not on Astroturf, lot of variables, but I like what I see."

The Broncos have had a wave of illness go through the locker room in recent weeks with defensive end Derek Wolfe and quarterback Peyton Manning among those who have felt the effects.

Wednesday linebacker Lamin Barrow, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein and guard Manny Ramirez were all held out of practice because of illness. Linebacker Brandon Marshall (left foot) was also held out of practice.

Safety T.J. Ward (neck), who was injured in the fourth quarter of Monday's loss, took part in practice on a limited basis. Ward underwent X-rays at the stadium Monday night to go with some additional tests, including an MRI, on Tuesday after the team had returned to Denver.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (hip) and tackle Paul Cornick (toe on right foot) were also limited in practice.

The Broncos also listed 13 other players with injuries on the report who took part fully in Thursday's practice, including Manning (right thigh). Tight end Jacob Tamme, who has dealt with a rib injury in recent weeks, was listed with a foot injury and took part fully Wednesday.

Left tackle Ryan Clady (right thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (right ankle), tight end Julius Thomas (left ankle) and running back C.J. Anderson (left ankle) were also among the players who took part fully in Wednesday's practice.
video » Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster

SELECTIONS

Peyton Manning, QB, 14th Pro Bowl selection: People have asked him about wobbly passes or if he’s hurt, and he had his first four-interception game since 2010. But at 38, Manning has led his team to 11 wins, he leads the league in touchdown passes with 39, and he is fourth in both passing yards (4,454) and passer rating (102.9). With a win Sunday, Manning and the Broncos will have the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Whom he beat out: The Chargers' Philip Rivers, with former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as his head coach, did not make the Pro Bowl cut, despite 31 touchdowns.

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Third Pro Bowl selection: Thomas is second in the league in receptions (103), third in receiving yards (1,504) and tied for seventh in touchdown receptions (11). He also became just the third receiver in league history with three consecutive seasons with at least 1,400 yards and at least 10 touchdown receptions.

Whom he beat out: There is no scenario that doesn't include Demaryius Thomas on the Pro Bowl roster, but Thomas' selection likely kept, for the most part, the Broncos' Emmanuel Sanders off the roster.

Julius Thomas, TE, Second Pro Bowl selection: Folks obviously gave Julius Thomas credit for his fast start. He had 12 touchdown receptions in the first nine games and led the league at that point. Since he injured his left ankle Nov. 16 against the St. Louis Rams, however, Thomas has not played in three games, and he had three catches combined in his past two games.

Whom he beat out: Thomas' back-to-back 12-touchdown seasons were part of the reason Antonio Gates didn't make it. Gates also has 12 touchdowns to go with 65 catches this season.

Ryan Clady, T, Fourth Pro Bowl selection: Clady has played through some lower-body injuries (groin and right thigh) this season, but he has often been the guy the Broncos have left singled-up in pass protection. Although this season’s injuries have affected him at times, especially as he continues to come back from last season’s foot surgery, Clady hasn’t had the consistency of previous years. But in a jumbled offensive line, Clady has been the guy the Broncos have consistently given the toughest jobs.

Whom he beat out: The Bengals' Andrew Whitworth will certainly make many snubbed lists, especially as the Bengals have pounded the ball in the run game in the season's second half.

DeMarcus Ware, DE, Eighth Pro Bowl selection: When Ware signed with the Broncos, John Elway said he liked to “sign Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders." Ware has 10 sacks through 15 games, and if he gets at least one more in the regular-season finale Sunday, he will, at age 30, have had his eighth career season with at least 11 sacks.

Whom he beat out: Three of the Buffalo Bills' defensive linemen made the Pro Bowl, but the one guy who didn't was Jerry Hughes, who has 9.5 sacks this season.

Von Miller, LB, Third Pro Bowl selection: Miller underwent ACL surgery last January and still rebounded with what might have been his best all-around season in terms of learning all facets of his job. He has 13 sacks (seventh in the league), leads the team in hits on the quarterback (27) and is second on the team in tackles for loss (14).

Whom he beat out: It's hard to remove Miller from the mix, but a player such as Oakland Raiders rookie Khalil Mack didn't have the sack numbers to get on the radar, though he has certainly played with down-to-down impact each week.

Aqib Talib, CB, Second Pro Bowl selection: Talib is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four and has been the physical presence at the position the Broncos wanted. He’s fourth on the team in tackles (59) and has consistently been active along the line of scrimmage, as well as being a reliable defender when matched up down the field.

Whom he beat out: The position didn't have the kind of snubs as some others, but there are guys with interceptions, such as Perrish Cox (five) and Leodis McKelvin (four).

Chris Harris Jr., CB, First Pro Bowl selection: After not finishing in the top 10 in fan voting at the position, Harris must have won the vote from players and coaches in a landslide. Harris has lined up all over the defensive formation this season -- he has taken snaps at both outside spots and in the slot on both sides of the formation -- which makes him one of the most versatile players at the position.

Whom he beat out: See above.

T.J. Ward, S, Second Pro Bowl selection: The Broncos signed three defensive players in free agency -- Talib, Ware and Ward -- and Ward’s selection to the Pro Bowl means all three players were selected for the all-star game. Ward has lined up at a traditional safety spot this season, has essentially played weakside linebacker in the specialty packages and played in coverage with the Broncos more than he was asked to do with the Cleveland Browns. He’s second on the Broncos in tackles (74), and the Broncos have spent much of the year as the league’s No. 2 run defense.

Whom he beat out: San Francisco 49ers safety Antoine Bethea played at a Pro Bowl level for a team that did not make the postseason.

SNUBS

Emmanuel Sanders, WR: Although it was Sanders who said when he signed with the Broncos last March that he was coming to “wide receiver heaven," the Broncos are thanking just as many lucky stars. Sanders is fifth in the league in receptions (95) and sixth in receiving yards (1,331) -- both career highs. He has also displayed remarkable toughness, as he has made impact plays lined up both on the outside in the formation and in the slot.

Whom he should have beaten out: It’s hard to bump anybody at receiver in these pass-happy times, and it's a little quirky to say a team that got nine Pro Bowl slots missed out on a couple, but Sanders’ ability all over the formation was worthy of a spot. Although it's difficult to say Calvin Johnson shouldn't be among the group, his injury-marred year wasn't to his usual standards.

Terrance Knighton, DT: Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was a snub on performance, given what he’s done as an every-down player to lead the Broncos in tackles, but Knighton makes what the Broncos do on early downs go and constantly surrenders his own opportunities at some statistics because his job is to clear the way for others.

Whom he should have beaten out: The Kansas City Chiefs are 28th in run defense and allow 128.3 yards per game, so Knighton's body of work is, according to several personnel executives, at a higher level than Dontari Poe's.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos head coach John Fox said Tuesday that safety T.J. Ward has a neck strain and didn’t suffer significant damage during Monday night's game.

Ward
Ward was injured on a fourth-quarter tackle in the Broncos’ 37-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. X-rays taken at the stadium were negative, Ward said following the game.

Ward underwent some additional tests, including an MRI, Tuesday morning after the team returned from Cincinnati.

"MRI proved and things proved negative as far as anything serious," Fox said. "He has a neck strain."

Ward suffered the injury with just under eight minutes remaining. He tackled Bengals running back Giovani Bernard and got pinned at the bottom of the pile. Broncos players immediately took off their helmets and each went to one knee as the team's medical staff evaluated Ward on the field.

Fox walked onto the field as well, and said Tuesday that he thought Ward's injury was collarbone related. A fractured collarbone would have ended Ward’s season.

Ward is expected to miss some practice time in the coming days, but Fox said, as he usually does when it comes to injured players, that Ward was day to day.

Ward is the team’s second-leading tackler with 74.

Following the game, Ward said: "I hit, it was actually to the side of [Bernard] and then Von [Miller] landed on top of him, landed on top of me, and it went all the way back. Just the weight of all the people falling on me … I don’t want to discuss it until I figure it out. … I’ve had enough stingers to know what they feel like, this was a little different."
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Denver Broncos' 37-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium.
  • Ward
    T.J. Ward will have his neck evaluated further Tuesday after the team has returned from Cincinnati. Ward left the game with a neck injury with just under eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Ward had tackled Bengals running back Giovani Bernard on a 2-yard gain on third-and-5 that had begun at the Broncos' 7-yard line. Ward got pinned at the bottom of the pile. "X-rays were negative that I took [Monday], but I still got to go get it checked," Ward said. "I hit him, it was actually to the side of him, and then Von [Miller] landed on top of him, landed on top of me, and it went all the way back. Just the weight of all the people falling on me." Asked if he had lost feeling in any of his limbs briefly following the hit, Ward added; "I don't want to discuss it until I figure it out. … I've had enough stingers to know what they feel like; this was a little different."
  • The Broncos lost their last chance at home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs but still can clinch a first-round bye if they can win their regular-season finale Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. "All this loss did was make next week's game a must win," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. And in a locker room full of players in no real mood to search for good things from the game, Miller said; "We can't play that type of football."
  • Running back C.J. Anderson took a page from fellow California alum Marshawn Lynch's postgame interview playbook following Monday's loss. Anderson was asked three questions and answered; "Played terrible; just got to get better. Look at the tape and get ready for next week." He then followed with "Just played terrible tonight; all we can do is try to get better next week." Anderson then followed with his next answer; "Just played terrible; got to get ready for next week."
  • The numbers were staggering, but the Broncos' special-teams units consistently surrendered field position the Broncos desperately needed for themselves. The Bengals had 72 punt return yards, including a 49-yarder from Brandon Tate, to go with 134 kickoff return yards from Adam Jones, including an 80-yarder. "The kicking game, as far as coverage, kind of broke down," said Broncos head coach John Fox. I think we gave up 200 return yards, which didn't help our cause."

Broncos want to finish strong

December, 3, 2014
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Since Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos in March 2012, the team has been an AFC powerhouse. The Broncos closed the 2012 regular season with an 11-game winning streak and opened 2013 with a six-game winning streak.

Now they’re hoping to close out this season with what would be their longest winning streak of this season and keep themselves in the conversation for the AFC’s top seed.

After a wobbly lose-win-lose stretch against the New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams, the Broncos have moved to 9-3 with back-to-back wins over the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. The two wins have also kept the Broncos in place to get a playoff bye and in the conversation for home-field advantage.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesGetting a decisive win in Kansas City was just what Denver needed as the Broncos try to go on another late-season run.
But for any of that to happen, they likely have to close out the season with four wins, starting with the Buffalo Bills in Denver on Sunday, followed by road games against the San Diego Chargers and the Cincinnati Bengals before closing at home with the Raiders.

Not that coach John Fox wants any part of the topic. Asked this week if he had addressed the potential of earning the AFC’s top seed for the third consecutive year, Fox said: “No, it just kind of diverts focus. Our focus is on us. We’re not doing that right now. We have four games remaining. We need to take care of our business, and we’ll just see where the chips fall."

But for many in the locker room, Sunday night’s win in Kansas City was what they were looking for at this point in the season.

“This was our best game on defense, maybe other than the San Francisco game [a 42-17 Broncos win in October]," defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “And overall, offense, defense, the special teams, it showed what we can do across the board, how we need to play. Now it's on us not to do it once and leave it at that. We have to do it every week."

While the Rams loss was what Fox has repeatedly called a “wake-up call," two slug-it-out wins over the Dolphins and Chiefs, both of whom are ranked among the league’s top six in scoring defense, have created a somewhat different outlook. The Broncos have rushed for 201 and 214 yards, respectively, in those two games.

The win over the Chiefs was easily the Broncos' best road performance and the first time all season they defeated a winning team away from Denver.

“We needed to win," Manning said. “We’ve beaten two really good football teams. [St. Louis] was a disappointing loss where offensively we did not play well. We certainly answered the challenge the last two weeks against two really good opponents. I was kind of glad one was at home and one was on the road. We haven’t played particularly well on the road, so it was good to get this road victory [Sunday night] and keep that going the rest of the way."

That confidence comes at a welcome time, as Buffalo leads the league in sacks and San Diego, whom the Broncos play after the Bills, is right behind Denver in the AFC West standings.

“It’s important for us to get rolling, get into the playoffs and hopefully get that one seed depending on what happens the rest of the season," safety T.J. Ward said. “And if we continue to play the way we played [Sunday] night, that’s the type of performance we expect from ourselves and from every individual on the defense."

“It’s the perfect time to start peaking," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “We’ve got some tough games left in the season, and we’ve got to approach every game like a playoff game from here on out."
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OAKLAND, Calif. – In a week that opened with John Elway speaking in a team meeting and ended with the Denver Broncos thumping the Oakland Raiders 41-17 at O.co Coliseum with a five-touchdown day from quarterback Peyton Manning, Elway's hope to have a team that doesn't need Manning "to feel like he has to do everything" was on display.

“I think it’s one of those things when John Elway talks to us, we know he speaks from experience," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “I think he just let us know where things stand. It was good and bad, not just bad, but we got routed in New England and we shouldn’t get routed by anybody. [Sunday] we just wanted to get it all back together."

The Broncos defense held the Raiders to 192 yards, with 97 of those yards coming on the Raiders' final possession of the game. The Raiders’ three longest plays of the game came on that drive, and until that possession, the Broncos had allowed just one play for double-digit yardage – a 10-yard Derek Carr pass to James Jones in the first quarter.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezPeyton Manning had a relatively easy day in Oakland, which was the design for the Broncos.
Rookie cornerback Bradley Roby made his second interception of the year and T.J. Ward had an interception. The Broncos’ No. 1 run defense feasted on the Raiders’ struggling offense, especially after the Broncos took a 20-10 lead just before halftime.

The Raiders finished with 30 rushing yards on 15 carries. And with safety Quinton Carter ’s return, the Broncos were able to use a dime package (six defensive backs) on long-yardage situations that could muscle up when the Raiders tried to run the ball against it.

Ward moved down to play what was essentially a weakside linebacker spot, next to Brandon Marshall, and Carter played at safety deep. Roby played outside and Harris moved into the slot.

It’s how the Broncos want that grouping to look and how they want it to play.

“We had everybody step up," Miller said. “We didn’t play the way we wanted, the way we know we can last week. We wanted to get it going again; we want to play with no drop-off and that takes all the guys -- offense, defense and special teams."

On offense it was running back C.J. Anderson, who has been the No. 3 back at times this season. With Montee Ball still out and Ronnie Hillman having struggled a bit and looking a bit dinged early – he was jogging for the Broncos trainers behind the bench in the first half – Anderson seized opportunity with 163 total yards.

Will Montgomery started his first game at center for the Broncos and Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas finished with two touchdowns each in the it’s-always-somebody’s-turn passing attack. Sanders did not have a touchdown catch in the Broncos’ first five games; he now has had six in the last four games.

Julius Thomas now has as many touchdown catches (12) as he did all of last season and Demaryius Thomas had his sixth consecutive 100-yard receiving game.

“It takes everybody," Demaryius Thomas said. “We didn’t win last week because we didn’t get enough from everybody; we didn’t do enough to win that game. That’s what we know. We need everybody all the time; it could be anybody’s day."
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is a question that will linger with the Denver Broncos, hover over them, surround them, as they go about their business for the remainder of this regular season.

A curious football riddle as to why they do so much right against other teams but turn into something else when they cross the threshold into Gillette Stadium. One mistake here turns into two mistakes, three mistakes, even four and beyond.

Add Sunday night’s cave-in to the list, as the Broncos lost, again, to the New England Patriots, coach Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the thousands of leather-throated souls who chanted “Bra-dy’s bet-ter" into the night. The final score was 43-21, but you didn’t need CSI to follow the clues as to where the Broncos’ train left the rails.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning's QBR of 54.3 was, by far, his worst in eight games in 2014.
“[I] thought they were better than us," Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. “I thought we were pretty dead average on offense. I thought I was very below average, didn’t play well … I’ve got to play better."

“We didn’t play our best," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. “Far from our best -- maybe our worst."

In the end, it was a 24-point second quarter by the Patriots that was the difference. Whereas against most teams, in most places, the Broncos dig in after a mistake, pick themselves up and move on, they find only frustration in Foxborough, the place where they fall and don't get up.

Last year, a 21-point third quarter was the biggest reason a 24-0 lead eventually got away in overtime. On that day, Montee Ball fumbled early in the third quarter and started things rolling the wrong way.

On Sunday, a Manning interception opened the box. On a first-and-10 from the Broncos’ 35-yard line, just after the Patriots had made a field goal, Belichick did what he has done so often with success against Manning: He played a coverage wrinkle rather than commit too many extra players to the pass rush.

He dropped outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich into the passing lane, and when Manning tried to slip the ball to Demaryius Thomas, Ninkovich was there. Ninkovich returned the interception to the Broncos’ 5-yard line, the Patriots turned the turnover into a touchdown one play later, and what had been a 7-6 lead for Denver was suddenly a 13-7 deficit.

But 13-7? That’s not a big deal. It’s a BB off a battleship for a team that scores touchdowns in piles. The Broncos, however, didn’t stop it right there. They continued to make it worse.

“Bad play, bad play, thought that was a critical play," Manning said. “It gave them a lot of momentum, and for whatever reason, we didn’t recover as well as we would have liked."

On the next possession, punter Britton Colquitt dropped an on-target snap as the Broncos were set to pin the Patriots deep in their own territory. He scooped it up in time to get the ball away, but the Broncos didn’t cover like Colquitt had gotten the ball away.

Julian Edelman returned the punt 84 yards for a touchdown, and Patriots were suddenly up 20-7.

“We didn’t let him get lit up back there by the gunners," Patriots special-teamer Matthew Slater said. “The guys did a good job blocking, and Julian did what Julian does."

Again, the Broncos failed to escape without more damage. On the next possession, the Broncos drove to the Patriots’ 23-yard line and had Brandon McManus set up for a 41-yard field goal -- with the wind, no less. But McManus hit the right upright.

Minutes later, after forcing a Patriots punt, the Broncos allowed Manning to be sacked -- on a three-man rush, no less -- on a fourth-and-6 to hand the ball back to Brady and the Patriots. The Patriots took that possession 57 yards in nine plays, including converting a second-and-21 for a first down and scoring on a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line for the 27-7 lead.

The rest was window dressing. The Broncos were left with the uncomfortable idea they were not up to the challenge when fighting in their own weight class.

“It was definitely embarrassing," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “We were not at our best. If we want to get where we want to get -- and that’s the Super Bowl -- we've got to get much better and bounce back."

One has been a league power broker, one wants to be.

And when the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals get together Sunday afternoon in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Broncos (2-1) will try to knock some of the rough edges off while the Cardinals (3-0), one of just two teams to arrive to Week 5 undefeated, will try to show they are ready to be at the front of the line.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the game.

Legwold: At 3-0, how do the Cardinals see themselves? Upstart in NFC? Or team that believes it should have made the playoffs last year and is ready to take the next step to be in this postseason mix this time around?

Weinfuss: If there's one thing the Cardinals don't see themselves as, it's an upstart team. That much was instilled in them by Bruce Arians last season. Especially after upsetting Seattle at home last December, this team believed it should've been in the playoffs. And with how they played in the second half of the season, it's hard to argue with them. But the Cardinals who returned this year learned a lot from last season's first half, most notably how important it is to win those early games. What they're doing now isn't a surprise to those who pay attention to this team, and a lot of it is a direct result of Arians' demeanor. His straight-shooting personality -- curse 'em out on the field but hug 'em off of it -- has rubbed off on everyone in the locker room. It has led to this team to believe it could win for the first time since Kurt Warner was here.

Speaking of learning from last year, what was the main thing the Broncos took away from last season's loss in the Super Bowl, and how have they used it in 2014?

Legwold: The main thing GM John Elway took away was he wanted far better personnel on defense and some more receivers who could battle their way through physical play from defensive backs. The result was an offseason spending spree that reeled in DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward on defense to go with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos also used a first-round pick in the draft on cornerback Bradley Roby and a second-rounder on wide receiver Cody Latimer. So, the 35-point loss certainly forced a roster makeover and for the holdovers it did provide plenty of incentive as they went through the offseason workouts. There is a feeling, after the overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs followed by the Super Bowl blowout, of trying to finally close the deal this time around.

In terms of roster makeover, with all that has happened to the Cardinals' defense with the injuries, etc., how have they pushed themselves into the league's top five?

Weinfuss: Nobody expected Arizona to be among the league's top five defenses this year after losing the likes of Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington before the season and then Darnell Dockett during training camp and John Abraham in the first few weeks of the year. But credit must be given to the Cardinals' front office. The brain trust has done a good job of finding veterans who still have gas in the tank, such as linebacker Larry Foote and defensive lineman Tommy Kelly. But the biggest reason for the defense's success is defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. His single-gap scheme revitalized this defense last year and all he has been doing is adding wrinkles here and there to adjust to his personnel. For example, Arizona is running a lot of nickel and dime packages because it gets rookie safety Deone Bucannon on the field. For as good of an offensive mind as Arians is, Bowles is his equal on the defensive side.

Have the additions to the Broncos' defense been paying off? Or is it too early to see a difference? Do you think they'll be the difference between another ring and a consolation prize?

Legwold: The new arrivals have all had impact in the season's early going. Ware leads the team in sacks (2.5), Talib has been every bit the No. 1 corner they hoped he would be and Ward is one of two players on defense who have played every snap in the first three games, having been used in a variety of roles. The Broncos have seen enough from Roby. They've tossed him into the deep end of the pool as the rookie and he has matched up with some of the league's front-line receivers. All of that said, however, the Broncos still haven't consistently shown the kind of play they'll need to hoist a trophy, particularly on third down. As linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who both had ACL injuries last season, continue to work back to full speed, the Broncos should continue to improve. Also, linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was the team's leading tackler last season and who suffered a fracture on the top of his tibia in training camp, will play in his first game of the season Sunday. It will mean the Cardinals will be the first team to face the revamped defense with all of the starters in place.

Sticking to defense, Manning heads into this game with 499 career touchdown passes. Between the two of them, Cardinals' assistant head coach/offense Tom Moore and head coach Bruce Arians have seen many of those up close as former Colts assistants. To that end, with that kind of up-close-and-personal knowledge, how do you think the Cardinals will defend Manning and the Broncos' offense?

Weinfuss: One thing the defense has stayed consistent on this week is that they don't want to tip their hand to Manning before the snap. With that being said, I think they'll blitz him constantly -- all three of his sacks this season have come off the blitz, which, I can imagine, was good news to Bowles. But they won't blitz Manning like they'll blitz other quarterbacks because he's so good at adapting so quickly. Arizona plans on giving Manning the same look every snap. But guys who have played Manning know he'll wait until the very last second to make a decision because the defense will have to show their blitz by then, but the Cardinals will try to hold their disguise as long as possible.

With Manning coming up on such a historic mark, has it been a distraction for this team in the sense of more non-football attention has descended upon them? Are they ready for Manning to pass Brett Favre so they can just get back to focusing on football?

Legwold: One thing about this team is the swirl around them doesn't get to them very often. Last season they had Miller's suspension in training camp, John Fox's open-heart surgery during the bye week and five defensive starters on injured reserve by the time they were preparing to play in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl loss may have been the first, and worst, time for the Broncos not to play to the level of a game's standing last season. Before the title-game blowout, they had handled everything that had come their way without losing their edge. This time around players here simply assume Manning will hit 500 and then go on and break the record through the natural course of things. The record is nice, but they want another shot at the title and, for the most part, they see whatever happens along the way as issues that must be dealt with to get that chance.

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