AFC West: Tom Brady

W2W4: Broncos vs. Patriots

November, 1, 2014
11/01/14
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Two six-win teams that faced each other this past January in the AFC Championship Game. In short, this is as good as it gets in the NFL regular season.

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

With that, some things to keep an eye on:
  • Patience is always a virtue against a Bill Belichick team. Through the years Belichick has routinely worked to take away an offense's favorite things in the defensive game plan. Lots of coaches say they want to do that, but Belichick does it better with discipline and players who don’t give you the cheap mistake. If you like crossing routes, he makes you go to something else. You like to get the ball to a specific player on third down? His game plan forces you to go another way. He doesn’t often allow the first-option players to beat him. Other people usually have to break the percentages and make plays. The Broncos' offense has far more options than most and will test that theory. But Belichick has lived on the idea that offenses will eventually take an unnecessary risk or force a play to do what they like to do. The teams that beat him avoid those kinds of mistakes and get quality days from people all over the depth chart.
  • [+] EnlargeHillman
    Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos may need to lean on Ronnie Hillman & Co., as the team that has won the rushing battle has won six of the past eight meetings between the Broncos and Patriots.
    Hang on to the ball. Last November the Broncos took a 24-0 lead over the Patriots into the locker room at halftime. Brady pushed the Patriots through a touchdown drive on the first possession of the third quarter to make it 24-7 and then Montee Ball fumbled on the Broncos’ next possession with the Patriots recovering at the Denver 32-yard line. That was a game-changer. The Patriots scored again and the comeback was officially on. The Patriots are tied for second in the league in fumbles recovered (8) and given that the Broncos' running backs have shown they will put the ball on the deck occasionally, the Patriots' defenders will be ripping away at the ball. In the past three regular-season meetings against the Patriots, the Broncos have a turnover margin of minus-8. The Patriots lead the league in turnover margin at the moment at plus-11.
  • Don’t give Brady second chances. The Broncos have shown plenty of quality work on defense, but they have let opposing offenses off the hook at times this season. The Broncos have allowed teams to convert 20 third-down situations of third-and-5 or longer (four by penalty, 16 by pass). The Chargers converted a third-and-20, the 49ers converted a third-and-17, and the Chiefs converted a third-and-18, a third-and-13 and a third-and-11. The Broncos have overcome all that, but to give Brady that kind of luxury is asking for trouble.
  • Broncos may need a run game rerun. Last year, on a chilly, blustery night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the Broncos turned their offense over to the running backs. Knowshon Moreno had a career-best 224 yards, which fueled a 280-yard rushing night. The plan was sound and powered the Broncos to the huge first-half lead. If not for two second-half turnovers the Patriots turned into two second-half touchdowns the strategy would have worked. With the forecast calling for similarly blustery conditions this time around, the Broncos may need Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson and C.J. Anderson to be all they can be. Teams have found particular success running over the center against the Patriots (4.18 yards per carry) to go with just over five yards carry on runs over the left guard. The Broncos need center Manny Ramirez as well as guards Orlando Franklin and Louis Vasquez to have quality outings. In the last eight meetings between these two, playoffs included, the team that has rushed for the most yardage has won six times.
  • Beating blocks. When the Patriots haven’t liked their matchup against an opposing defense they have tried to cocoon Brady in a two-back, two-tight-end set and Brady has stepped up the tempo often delivering the ball in 1.8 or 1.9 seconds from snap to throw. That means the Broncos are going to have to beat blocks on the initial move to get to him. And if they can’t get there, they need to collapse the pocket and get their hands up into the passing lanes. If the Broncos allow Brady to get into a rhythm, it will be another long night in Foxborough.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For all of the time and verbiage expended on the discussion of quarterbacks in recent meetings between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, the bottom line has often been found, not in well-constructed spirals thrown from here to there, but at ground level.

Yes, since the start of the 2006 season, these two teams have played eight times, including twice in the playoffs, and the team that has pounded out more yardage in the run game has won six of the games.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsAqib Talib and the Broncos will need to rely on its top-ranked run defense to beat the Patriots.
"Doesn't surprise me," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "Not at all. I think people on offense know every defense wants to stop the run, make you do one thing because then you go after the quarterback. If people run the ball on you, then the quarterback stays clean and he gets do what he wants when he wants. And with Tom Brady that's never a good thing."

There was the Patriots' 257-yard rushing day in 2008, their 251-yard rushing day in 2012 -- both wins for New England -- to go with the quirks as well. The read-option Broncos of 2011 ran for 252 yards on the Patriots' defense, but lost when Patriots head coach Bill Belchick's plan stymied Tim Tebow into an 11-of-22 passing day with no touchdowns.

Or the 280 yards rushing the Broncos pounded out in last year's regular-season meeting when the Broncos launched themselves to a 24-0 halftime lead before losing 34-31 in overtime. But, in the end, the rushing numbers have been a quality crystal ball for how this rivalry between AFC power brokers has gone over the past 13 seasons even with Peyton Manning behind center for the Broncos since 2012 and Brady behind center for the Patriots in all but one of those games (the Patriots' win in '08 when Brady was recovering from season-ending knee surgery).

The Patriots have often pounded out game-changing running room against the Broncos' lighter defensive formations, in the nickel and dime, when New England spreads the field, forcing the Broncos to respond with additional defensive backs. The Broncos, with rookie cornerback Bradley Roby having added the athleticism and the willingness to tackle in the run game as the nickel corner to the already physical tandem on Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, tackle better on the outside than they have in recent seasons.

"I think at the end of the day there's no doubt that they've had some great battles, had great success over time, both of them," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "In Peyton's case (with) two different teams. Obviously with Tom (Brady), one team. But I think so much more -- it's a team game. That doesn't get a lot of publicity but at the end of the day it's going to be the Broncos versus the Patriots."

This past Sunday, even with Brady having thrown the ball 35 times in his five-touchdown blitz of the Chicago Bears, the Patriots still ran the ball 32 times -- for 122 yards -- including an 86-yard day from Jonas Gray. Gray is a player who has already spent time on the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad in his career and been cut by the Miami Dolphins.

The Broncos enter Sunday's game with the league's top run defense, with opponents having rushed for an average of 72.4 yards per game. Since the Kansas City Chiefs pounded out 133 yards in Week 2 to go with 129 yards by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3, the Broncos have surrendered 37, 31, 62 and 61 net rushing yards.

And 23 of the San Diego Chargers' 61 rushing yards last Thursday night came on the game's final play with the Chargers running out the final 18 seconds of the game from their own 31-yard line.

"It's the same mindset every week," said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. "We don't want people running the ball on us. We want to get to all of the things we can do with our packages in the pass rush. To do that we have to stop the run."

"We've had a good start, but each week we want to get that number lower and lower," Knighton said. "Two specific categories we look at in our D-line group and that's run defense and sacks. We put a lot of emphasis in that. We talk about it off the field, it's on our minds all the time. When you have corners like Aqib and Chris coming in and making tackles, safeties like our safeties, that means everybody on the field is committed. And the number shows how you swarm."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos have made no secret they want to be more physical on defense in the coming season.

They want to do a better job slowing down opposing receivers, they want to disrupt the timing of opposing offenses and they want to get opposing pass-catchers out of their routes.

And yet they’ll have to do all that with the NFL’s officials looking, under the “points of emphasis’’ edict from the league, to tighten things up even more on defenses when it comes to illegal contact on receivers and defensive holding.

[+] EnlargeTony Carter
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsPenalties were a problem for Tony Carter and Denver's defensive backs last season.
“It’s hard on defense these days, man,’’ cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “They want scoring, they want touchdowns, you just have to see how they’re going to call things and go from there.’’

It is certainly a potential issue for the Broncos because when you combine defensive holding and illegal contact penalties the Broncos were tied for the league lead last season – with the Kansas City Chiefs – for those two fouls combined. Harris, who plays both on the outside and in the slot in the Broncos defense had four of the team’s 13 defensive holding penalties while Duke Ihenacho had three and Tony Carter had two.

In all it does mean a Broncos defense that is looking to be more rugged will have to find the line about how far it can go.

“My biggest thing is to really understand how they’re trying to emphasize and call it and make sure we’re teaching our guys, so we can play within the rules,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “I don’t waste a whole lot of energy worrying about whether I like it or don’t like it. To me, it’s about helping our guys understand what they have to do to play well and spending your energy on that and teach and instruct. Hopefully, they get an understanding of how we can play within the rules and make sure we’re prepared to do that.’’

As part of the effort to show players and coaches what the officials will be looking at on that front, officials will visit each team in the preseason. Several of the league’s officials will be at the Broncos complex next week to break it all down during video sessions as well as on-field during several practices.

But the Broncos didn’t sign the likes of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward in the secondary because they’re interested in playing back on their heels. Denver is looking to make life far more difficult for opposing receivers, who were too often allowed to get free releases off the line of scrimmage and run free beyond the coverage.

Some of the issues were traced directly to injuries – five defensive starters were on injured reserve by season's end, including Harris Jr. and safety Rahim Moore in the secondary alone. But many personnel executives around the league simply believed the injuries showed the Broncos didn’t have championship level depth and lacked team speed at the defensive skill positions once the second- and third-teamers were forced into the lineup.

Overall the team was 27th in pass defense in the regular season, surrendered an alarming 61 pass plays of at least 20 yards – an enormous jump from 38 such plays surrendered in the 2012 season – and data from ESPN’s Stats & Information group shows the Broncos allowed 58 completions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air before being caught, tied for fourth most in the league.

The Broncos believe a healthy Von Miller to go with free-agent signee DeMarcus Ware in the pass rush will help significantly, given the best pass defense is often played by those defenses that are the most proficient at preventing the quarterback from throwing the ball.

Del Rio, however, said he believes the Broncos' defensive coaches have a good idea on what the boundaries are going to look like in pass coverage in the coming season. Asked Saturday if he felt like he had a good understanding of what would constitute illegal contact or defensive holding, Del Rio said, “I do, based on what I heard when they came through [earlier in the offseason]. [The officials will] be in next week, and we’ll get a better feel for it as they work with us in practice. It’s always beneficial for us.’’

Del Rio added: “You know there are things that are going to be emphasized. Depending on how that goes—if the emphasis results in a five hour game, then they probably would de-emphasize it. Again, I don’t think I need to worry about that kind of thing. It typically takes care of itself. We just make sure, as coaches, that we instruct the best we can so guys are well-prepared.’’

But it’s an issue that’s going to come up, and come up quickly, with quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Colin Kaepernick, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady all on the Broncos’ schedule in the season’s first eight games.

NFLN survey/Super Bowl QB: Broncos

January, 29, 2014
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NEW YORK -- Champ Bailey has seen plenty of quarterbacks work at crunch time, with the clock grinding, timeouts gone.

“And the guys with the same expression, the look in their eyes, that they know what to do, they’re comfortable doing it, they’ve been there before and won before,’’ Bailey said. “Those are the guys you want with the ball in their hands with your team and the guys, as a defense, you know are always a threat to beat you. Peyton [Manning] is one of those guys.’’

Manning has led the Broncos to the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl and when ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters asked over 320 players: “Two-minute warning and the Super Bowl is on the line. Whom do you want at quarterback?’’ Manning was one of the top choices.

But he wasn’t the top choice. League-wide the quarterback the Broncos beat to go to the Super Bowl -- New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady -- was the top pick. Forty percent of the players surveyed picked Brady, who has won three Super Bowls in his career and been to five.

Manning received 26.9 percent of the votes league-wide and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was third with 32 percent.

Among the 10 Broncos who were surveyed, Manning was the overwhelming choice. Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, Manning leads all quarterbacks with 50 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.

Hall of Famer Dan Marino is second, since the merger, with 47. In a season when the Broncos have piled on the points, the Broncos have needed just one such drive, for a game-winning field goal in Dallas in Week 5.

“I always say when you have a guy like Peyton at quarterback, you always have hope,’’ Bailey said. “You’re always going to be in the mix and that’s all you can ask for as a player.’’

“The guys who make the plays when it counts are the ones that understand everybody in that huddle is looking to them,’’ said Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, also a pretty fair game-on-the-line quarterback on his way to the Hall of Fame. “A quarterback in that situation has to believe he can get it done, be prepared to get it done and done the work in those situations to be able to get it done. When you’ve got that kind of guy, you’re going to have a chance to win a world championship.’’

NFLN survey/Super Bowl QB: Raiders

January, 29, 2014
1/29/14
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No, the Tuck Rule was not a factor. Nor was Spygate. No matter, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady built up an impressive enough body of work to be voted the quarterback most players surveyed in our ESPN.com NFL Nation poll wanted under center at the two-minute warning with the Super Bowl on the line.

Of the more than 320 players polled anonymously, Brady received 128 votes to outdistance the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, who had 86 votes. Rounding out the top five -- Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers (32), New Orleans' Drew Brees (21) and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (20).

Fourteen quarterbacks received votes.

And while it may be tough for Raiders fans to celebrate Brady even 12 years after the Tuck Rule Game, he actually received the most votes in the Raiders locker room with three. Rodgers received two while Brees, Manning and Andrew Luck all received one.

Matt McGloin, though, also received two votes in the Oakland locker room as the poll was taken when the undrafted rookie was the Raiders' starter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, yes and no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look at it, but they’ve been through a lot to get this far, we’ve been through a lot to get this far," Bailey said. “And a month is forever, and that was a month ago, almost two months. We’re on to this one, and you don’t need any more than that."

And then there were two -- two teams that know most of what there is to know about each other, two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who add to their legacies with every pass, all with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, who have faced each other in each of the past three seasons and in the divisional round of the 2011 season, took it to overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos let a 24-0 halftime lead get away, and the Patriots won 34-31 after a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass.

ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Legwold: Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick yet again. Do you think, in all your time around Belichick, that he tries to bring something new to the table every time he faces Manning? Or does he assume Manning has done the homework and put his efforts into getting people in the right position?

Reiss: I'd say there's always a new wrinkle or two, Jeff. Belichick has said in the past that Manning is too smart to just do the same thing over and over again -- both within a game and from matchup to matchup. Part of that discussion is also the state of the Patriots' personnel entering the matchup. A player like rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, for example, might give Belichick the flexibility to introduce something unique based on his breakthrough since the Nov. 24 meeting between the teams.

The weather forecast looks promising for Manning. No icy cold forecast. How do you think he approaches this game compared to the Nov. 24 contest? Do you think he will be less reluctant to hand the ball off?

Legwold: It will be a postcard day Sunday with the temperature expected to be 58 degrees with 0 percent chance of rain and light winds. So any decisions the two teams make on offense will have to do with what's in front of them on defense only. Manning will be inclined to hand the ball off if he sees the Patriots in some of those lighter personnel groupings deployed to handle Denver's three-wide-receiver look. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a run option built into most things Manning can change into at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos certainly like how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are trending in the run game. They have split carries down the stretch, and both run with tackle-shedding power.

Gase, with coaching DNA that includes his time with Mike Martz, is an aggressive sort. With the next-generation numbers the Broncos' offense has put up this season, it's easy to forget they still averaged 28.8 carries per game and topped 30 carries per matchup nine times this season. If they get a look from the New England defense that calls for a run, the Broncos will be inclined to pound away.

Where is Tom Brady's game and the offense right now after some rough moments early in the season? Has Brady benefited from a run-heavy approach down the stretch and into the postseason?

Reiss: The biggest benefit for Brady with the run-heavy approach has been how it opens play-action opportunities. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch in the divisional round is one of the best examples. Also, part of the reason the Patriots have gone so run-heavy is that it's the area where they have their most assets. They are limited when it comes to pass-catchers who create consistent separation at tight end and receiver. As for Brady's game, there have been no signs of decline in arm strength, accuracy or decision-making. The main reasons for the struggles early in the year, from my view, were more about the changes around him. That's not to say Brady didn't make his mistakes, but it's sort of interesting to look back on some of the media-based discussion around Weeks 6 to 8 about how maybe Father Time had caught up to him.

Now that we're a full season in, how would you sum up the Wes Welker signing? Just as the Broncos hoped for? Better? Worse?

Legwold: Welker finished the regular season with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His presence in the slot, along with Julius Thomas at tight end, is part of the reason the offense had a historic season. With the Broncos lining up in a three-wide-receiver set the majority of the season -- and every snap of the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers -- they force defenses into some difficult choices. Thomas is often in the slot on one side of the formation, and Welker is in the slot on the other side. When Thomas missed two games earlier this season with a knee injury, both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 1) elected to double-team Welker. He missed three games after suffering his second concussion in a four-week span Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans but played last week against the Chargers without issue.

Welker did have some spells this season when he had a cluster of dropped passes -- three against the Patriots on a frigid night to go with drops against Washington and San Diego in the regular season. Overall, though, he was exactly what the Broncos hoped he would be in their offense. He meshed with Manning quickly and was a big part of the plan right from his nine-catch performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.

The Patriots did not face Thomas in the Nov. 24 meeting. Do you think they will try to match up Collins on Thomas this time around?

Reiss: That seems like the natural matchup, especially after seeing Collins splitting out wide on Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday night and playing very well. Collins is unique in that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is fast enough to be competitive down the field in coverage (e.g., fourth-quarter interception versus the Colts) but powerful enough to play in the box and deliver a blow in the running game and as a pass-rusher. The Patriots' top draft pick in 2013, selected 52nd overall out of Southern Mississippi, he is an intriguing player whom Patriots fans really got their first extended look at Saturday as he played every snap against the Colts. He had been groomed behind the scenes up to that point, playing just 25 percent of the defensive snaps on the season in more of a reserve role.

Thomas may not have played in the first game between the teams, but Von Miller did. How does Miller's season-ending knee injury affect the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Of all the players who were signed in the weeks after the initial leaguewide binge in free agency, the Broncos' signing of Shaun Phillips was easily one of the best. Denver signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million deal during the draft weekend in April, well over a month after free agency had opened, a deal that didn't have a signing bonus but did have some incentives based on sack totals.

Phillips was initially how the Broncos planned to deal with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency. When Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in those games to lead the way. He finished the regular season with 10 sacks to lead the team. In Sunday's win, with Miller on injured reserve, Phillips had two sacks against the Chargers. He is the single-most important player in the Broncos' pass rush in Miller's absence. Denver may have to take more risks without Miller on the field, and that's always a tough choice against someone like Brady, who can easily find the holes in coverage. But if Phillips can consistently create pressure -- with both sacks on three-man rushes against San Diego -- it allows the Broncos to move things around a little more and cover more of the bases.

Did Belichick make a conscious effort to get big backs like LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley in the lineup when he knew he would get smaller defensive personnel against the team's passing attack?

Reiss: That's fair to say, as the Patriots pride themselves on creating those matchups during the game, with coordinator Josh McDaniels finding his groove in recent weeks. They refer to themselves as a "game plan" offense because they tailor their plan weekly based on what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. They'll shuttle in different personnel groupings early -- multiple receivers, two backs, two tight ends, etc. -- to get information on how the opponent is matching up and then focus on the one they like best. This week, what's fascinating to me is that I think they probably see vulnerability in the Broncos' secondary, but I wonder how they feel about their own personnel in being able to exploit it. So that could keep them grounded.

The Patriots have been running the ball very well. How is the Broncos' run defense?

Legwold: In a year when the Broncos have been forced, by injuries and Miller's suspension, to mix and match on defense, their run defense has likely been more consistent in comparison to some of the other issues they've had. When defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve Nov. 27 with a hip injury, they did wobble a bit, surrendering 159 yards rushing to the Chiefs and 177 yards rushing to the Chargers in two of the three games that immediately followed.

They have regained their balance a bit since, moving Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot in the base defense, and rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams has played better each week. Overall, the biggest issue for the Broncos will be how they defend the run if the Patriots get them in nickel or dime personnel on defense and then run the ball at the smaller looks. The Broncos' safeties will have to tackle and tackle well to make it work.

Belichick has always tried to make "other" people beat him and take away an offense's front-line players. How do you think he would rank the Broncos' threats in the passing game, and where do you think the one-on-one matchups will be?

Reiss: One insightful point that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi made in his weekly chat was the idea of defending the Broncos from the inside-out. Manning is still an accurate marksman, one of the greatest of all time, but I'm guessing that even he would agree that some of the downfield and outside-the-numbers throws he used to make don't come as easily to him. So it makes sense that the Patriots would focus more resources on the inside part of the field, where it would seem we would most likely see Welker and Thomas. With this in mind, I could envision the Patriots matching up cornerback Aqib Talib with Demaryius Thomas on the outside and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with Eric Decker and taking their chances that those one-on-one matchups will be competitive. Trusting those cornerbacks in those one-on-one matchups would allow the defense to focus extra attention/personnel to the inside part of the field.

Any X factors or special-teams contributors we should keep on the radar?

Legwold: The Broncos have usually been lockdown tight on special teams -- opening the season with two touchdown returns and two blocked punts, one of those returned for a score, in the first four weeks of the season. Those normally reliable units, however, have wobbled plenty down the stretch. The Chiefs' Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return, and the Texans' Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return. Toss in the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career in Oakland to go with Trindon Holliday's occasional adventures catching the ball, and it's been an unpredictable stretch. But Holliday is always a threat to uncork a return because of his breathtaking speed. The Broncos used wide receiver Decker as the primary punt returner against the Chargers last week, and he had a 47-yarder. So the Broncos have the potential to pop one at any time, especially in Denver, where Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in last January's playoff loss to the Ravens.

 
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Denver Broncos didn't see what they wanted to see from cornerback Champ Bailey on Dec. 1 in Kansas City -- when he looked to be laboring, when he looked to be wrestling with his routinely unshakable confidence, when he just didn't look like, well, Champ Bailey -- the team did what may have never been done to Bailey before.

They pulled him from a game.

"At the time, it was the right thing," Bailey said. "I just didn't feel like I wanted to feel, I couldn't do the things I wanted to do the way I wanted to do them."

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsWith Chris Harris Jr. out, the Broncos may need Champ Bailey to play a greater role than he has.
The Broncos held Bailey out of the next two games and then played him in the nickel package in the final two games of the regular season as well as this past Sunday's divisional-round win over the San Diego Chargers. But this week it's Tom Brady, the New England Patriots and a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Bailey has waited 15 seasons to go to the Super Bowl and the 12-time Pro Bowl selection has made no secret he's ready for more.

"I feel like I'm going to do whatever they ask me to do," Bailey said. "That is the way I've played it since I came back from the injury, I don't want to force anything. But I feel like I'm ready for whatever is thrown at me."

Overall Bailey has played in six games this season, including this past Sunday's game, after injuring his left foot against the Seattle Seahawks in the preseason. Most weeks he would patiently recite he was getting closer to a return, that he was working toward returning to the fray.

But with Chris Harris Jr. now on injured reserve -- he tore his ACL in the third quarter Sunday -- the Broncos find themselves without a key player in their secondary against one of the best quarterbacks in league history.

Asked Wednesday if he felt healthy enough, good enough to be back in every-down mode if the Broncos needed him to be, Bailey said, without hesitation, "absolutely."

"I'm ready for whatever they want me to do," Bailey said. "That is the way I prepare, I've never not prepared like that."

But it is a difficult choice, at least in some ways, for the Broncos. Of the four games in which Denver held opponents to fewer than 300 total yards this season, Bailey played primarily as the slot cornerback in three. This past Sunday, the Chargers had just one yard passing at halftime and had just 73 total yards by the end of the third quarter.

The Broncos could simply elect to leave Bailey in the slot and mix-and-match in Harris Jr.'s outside cornerback spot with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the other outside spot. Or they could start Bailey in an outside spot in the base defense and then move him inside, into the slot, when the Broncos go to the nickel, much like they have done with Harris Jr. in the lineup.

Or they could even simply put Bailey on Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who works out of the slot slightly less than half of his offensive snaps. Bailey was not in the lineup in the Patriots' overtime win on Nov. 24.

"Champ didn't play, Harris is out, so there are definitely some differences in personnel," said Edelman on Wednesday. "... They're going to spin the dial, it's the AFC Championship."

Bailey has always coveted his first Super Bowl trip and has mentioned it with each passing Pro Bowl selection. This is the closest he's been since the 2005 season when the Broncos defeated Brady and the Patriots in Denver. During that divisional-round game, Bailey had a 99-yard interception return for an "almost touchdown." But of the following performance Bailey has repeatedly said it "still [ticks] me off, because we had it all right there and we came out and didn't play with the urgency to match that situation." The Broncos lost the AFC Championship Game at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"That was eight years, it's not like it was two years ago," Bailey said. "It's definitely behind me. ... But I'm definitely glad I'm still here."

Still here, ready, and waiting, he says, for more.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There were times Wednesday when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was at his pizza-hawking, SNL-hosting, cut-that-meat best. Manning was taking his usual Wednesday lap with the media, in preparation of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, when he strayed off the one-game-at-a-time straight and narrow at times.

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

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

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

Asked why he chose Omaha, he said;

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

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

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

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

“We’re excited about the opportunity, we’ve worked hard to get to this point," Manning said. “Coach (John) Fox mentioned how many obstacles the Patriots have overcome to be in this game. We’ve overcome a number of obstacles as well to get here ... It’s commendable to the team that we fought through those obstacles and we put ourselves in this position and are playing a great football team -- AFC Championship, it’s certainly exciting."
Terry Bradshaw and Ken StablerGetty ImagesTerry Bradshaw, left, and Ken Stabler were frequent opponents in the AFC title game.
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- When Peyton Manning and Tom Brady meet Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, it will be the third time the two future Hall of Famers will meet with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

It will also be only the fourth such occasion in which two quarterbacks face off in a conference title game for the third time since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970.

Yes, the Oakland Raiders are involved in this unique state of affairs -- even if they have not had a winning season or a playoff berth since the 2002 season.

From 1974 through 1976, the Raiders’ Ken Stabler and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw faced off in AFC title games, with the Steelers winning the first two en route to their first two Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl IX and Super Bowl X against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. Stabler and the Raiders finally pulled through to get to Super Bowl XI, when they beat the Vikings.

The other times a pair of QBs have met in three conference championship games since 1970?

The Denver Broncos’ John Elway sweeping the Cleveland Browns’ Bernie Kosar in 1986, 1987 and 1989 and the Dallas Cowboys’ Troy Aikman and the San Francisco 49ers’ Steve Young in 1992, 1993 and 1994, with Aikman winning the first two.

Brady and Manning are tied at a victory apiece against each other in such high-stakes games, with Brady winning in the 2003 season and Manning’s Indianapolis Colts returning the favor three seasons later.

A brief look, then, at the three times Stabler and Bradshaw met in the AFC title game:

Dec. 29, 1974, Oakland Coliseum
Steelers 24, Raiders 13

The Raiders seemed to peak in their divisional playoff matchup, beating the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins in the Sea of Hands game. Still, the Raiders did take a 10-3 lead into the fourth quarter.

But Pittsburgh’s rushing attack simply wore Oakland down late (Franco Harris ran for 111 yards and Rocky Bleier added 98 yards) as the Steelers scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull away.

Stabler completed 19 of 36 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown, a 38-yard score to Cliff Branch, but he was also picked off three times, twice by Jack Ham and once by J.T. Thomas, while Bradshaw was just 8-for-17 for 95 yards with a TD and an interception, by Nemiah Wilson.

Jan. 4, 1976, Three Rivers Stadium
Steelers 16, Raiders, 10

Oakland never led and the Raiders were slipping and sliding the entire game as, they contended, the artificial turf field was watered down and, thus, frozen only outside of the hashmarks, which negatively affected the Raiders more than the Steelers. The thinking being that the Raiders more than the Steelers utilized the vertical passing game down the sidelines with the speedy Branch, who was, with the ice on the field, not so speedy.

Not that it mattered much, but Stabler again outdueled Bradshaw in the personal stats, throwing for 246 yards on 18 of 42 passing with a TD, a 14-yard strike to Mike Siani, but two INTs, both by Mike Wagner. Bradshaw was 15-of-25 for 215 yards with a TD and three picks, two by Jack Tatum and one by Monte Johnson.

“When we lost to the Steelers in ’75, I just couldn’t believe it,” Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano told NFL Network. “I actually started getting a little spooked.”

And why not? After all, between 1968 and 1975, the Raiders had played in six AFL/AFC title games and lost all six -- to the team that would eventually go on to win the Super Bowl.

Dec. 26, 1976, Oakland Coliseum
Raiders 24, Steelers 7

The two-time defending champion Steelers were without running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, both of whom had been injured the week before in Pittsburgh’s playoff victory at the Baltimore Colts.

“Woulda, shoulda, coulda,” Stabler said in that same NFL Network special on the 1976 Raiders team. ”Take the guys that you’ve got and go win. The games that we lost [to the Steelers], we didn’t have any excuses. I mean, they beat us. They beat the devil out of us. Dance with the girl that you brought.”

Said Villapiano: “I wanted Franco and I wanted Rocky. I wanted everybody. I wanted the coach [Chuck Noll] to suit up. I wanted to get them all.

“All of a sudden Mr. Big Shot Frenchy Fuqua was not good enough for them anymore. He was good enough when Jack Tatum nailed him and the ball bounced over to Franco [for the Immaculate Reception four years earlier]. But now he wasn’t good enough. They had their people, and we stuck it to them.”

Indeed, Oakland never trailed and its defense limited Pittsburgh to a mere 72 yards rushing while the Raiders pounded out 157 yards on the ground. Ironically, Bradshaw threw for 176 yards on 14 of 35 passing, though he was picked off by Willie Hall.

Stabler, meanwhile, passed for just 88 yards on 10 of 16 attempts, but threw a pair of TDs, a 4-yarder to Warren Bankston and a 5-yarder to Pete Banaszak, and was not intercepted.

The Raiders also sacked Bradshaw three times.

“I wish that game could have gone on for 17 quarters,” said Villapiano, who had a sack. “The Steelers got what they deserved; they got a nice butt-kicking that afternoon.”

Quick Take: Patriots at Broncos

January, 12, 2014
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DENVER -- Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at 3:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Once more with feeling: Commence hyping, but it's Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady again, with a Super Bowl trip on the line. And no matter how much Manning tries to deflect in the coming days -- and he will try with all of his conversation-directing might -- most folks will want to make Sunday's affair another high-profile chapter in the Manning-Brady saga that has played out over the course of two Hall-of-Fame careers. It will be the 15th time the two have faced each other and the fifth time in the postseason. And while Brady has a decided advantage -- 10-4 -- they are 1-1 against each other in previous AFC Championship Games. It will also be a meeting of the only two quarterbacks in league history to have thrown at least 50 touchdown passes in a season.

2. Don't sleep on the ground (attacks): While the pregame hoopla will center on the two quarterbacks, the two offenses' running games may really decide the issue. The Patriots, especially over the past month of the regular season, have shown their run-game chops and they simply overwhelmed the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round Saturday night. The Broncos then pounded out 133 yards against the Chargers on Sunday. Denver rushed for 280 yards against New England in Foxborough, Mass., in the Patriots' 34-31 Nov. 24 overtime win. Whichever defense holds up against that burly approach just may earn a Super Bowl trip.

3. Cover up: When Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. left Sunday's game early in the second half with knee and ankle injuries, what had been a dominant defensive performance for the Broncos got a little dicier down the stretch. Harris is their do-it-all guy in coverage and plays in all of the team's defensive packages. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers went after Harris's replacement -- Quentin Jammer -- plenty after the change, and had success. The Broncos will have to consider what they do if Harris does not play against the Patriots. They could stick with Jammer or try rookie Kayvon Webster on the outside against Brady. Or they could move Champ Bailey back outside. Bailey has played in the nickel, as the slot cornerback, since his return to the lineup in mid-December.

NFLN survey/feared player: Broncos

January, 9, 2014
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There are two words that most NFL people are usually highly averse to during a football conversation.

Folks don’t often like the word "surprised," as in, "Were you surprised by [insert whatever was an issue in the previous game here]?"

And folks don’t like the word "feared." So when a selection of the Broncos were asked about the league’s most feared player, virtually all of them -- nine of 10 to be exact -- took it to mean a playmaker who was difficult to deal with down to down, not somebody who intimidated them.

So while Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh got the nod as the league’s most feared player in the NFL Nation Confidential, Suh got just one of the votes from 10 Broncos who responded to the question.

The winners among the Broncos were 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, with an emphasis on his playmaking and the ability to affect games, and Suh’s teammate in Detroit, wide receiver Calvin Johnson. A lot of people agreed with the Broncos leaguewide, given Johnson finished just behind Suh in the survey and Willis was fourth.

Two of the Broncos went with quarterbacks as their most feared players because, as one of the players put it, "They take everything from you," with Peyton Manning getting one vote and Tom Brady getting one vote.
HOUSTON -- With a 30-13 lead against the Houston Texans, 5 minutes,16 seconds left in the game, the ball on the Denver Broncos' 44 yard line and 50 passing touchdowns for the season, head coach John Fox said three words into the headset.

"Coach Fox said 'go play ball,' that's what he told [offensive coordinator] Adam [Gase] and that's what Adam told me," said quarterback Peyton Manning.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
John Leyba/The Denver PostPeyton Manning celebrates his record 51st touchdown against the Texans.
And with that Manning and the Broncos offense went about the business of chasing down history. Running back Knowshon Moreno, who finished with 76 yards rushing in the game for his first 1,000-yard season, gained four yards on the first play of the drive.

Manning threw two incompletions, one that included a pass interference penalty on Houston Texans' safety Eddie Pleasant that moved the ball to the Houston 25-yard line. And, on first-and-10, with tight end Julius Thomas lined up wide right as the only receiver, Manning had the 1-on-1 matchup he wanted with the Texans cornerbacks matching up wide left with the Broncos wide receivers.

Thomas simply ran by linebacker Darryl Sharpton and Manning lofted the 51st touchdown pass of the season into Thomas' hands. Thomas, with the exuberance of youth perhaps, dropped the football to celebrate, letting a remember-when item simply roll into the grass.

"It wouldn't have surprised me if Julius wouldn't have went handed it to some babe in the stands trying to get her phone number in exchange for the ball," Manning said with a smile. "That would be right up Julius' alley, that is pretty in line with his thinking sometimes. Great catch, great route by him."

Manning tied the previous record, set by Tom Brady in 2007, with a 20-yard scoring pass to Eric Decker just 2:39 before the record-setter. Manning called Decker's catch on the left sideline of the endzone "awesome, one of the best ones of the year in my opinion."

Manning also said Gase has "been awesome all year" as the team's play-caller. He also paid homage to Hall of Famer Dan Marino as well as Brady following the game and said he believed his record may be short-lived in today's NFL.

On Marino, Manning said; "I still think Dan Marino's record in '84 is extremely special. Certainly the game has changed since then and for him to throw 48 touchdowns in '84 is still one of the most remarkable ones. It lasted so long and he was one of my favorite quarterbacks growing up so to break his record was really special. And Tom in 2007 was nothing short of phenomenal."

On the record Manning said; "It may be only temporary. I personally think all season records are going down, especially if they go to 18 games and there won't be an asterisk. Brady will probably break it again next year if not the year after, so we'll enjoy it … Hopefully the Hall of Fame will send the ball back when somebody throws for more."

And on setting the record on a day when the Broncos also clinched the AFC West title as well as a first-round bye, Manning said; "Losing record and you break an individual record and you're just throwing a lot and getting some yards and you don't have a chance to make the postseason, that doesn't mean a whole lot."

Fun With Numbers: Denver Broncos

December, 19, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With two games remaining in the regular season the Denver Broncos would certainly like to have a division title and the AFC’s top seed when all is said and done in December.

But there is the matter of history as well. Over these next two weeks, the Broncos offense and quarterback Peyton Manning are nudging toward a pile of records that could be broken if the Broncos have to play it honest all the way through the regular-season finale in Oakland.

So, after some numbers crunching and tip of the holiday hat to the fine folks at ESPN Stats and Information, here are some numbers of note as the Broncos prepare for a trip to Houston:
  • Should the Broncos win the AFC West title -- they would if they win their final two games or any combination of one more win to go with a Chiefs loss -- it will be the first time in the franchise’s history the team has won three consecutive division titles. If that happens San Diego will have finished second in two of those years -- 2011 and 2012 -- while the Chiefs would be second this year.
  • The Broncos need 55 points to break the league’s single-season scoring record. With 535 points currently in hand, they are already the highest scoring team in league history after 14 games. They are also already the highest scoring team in the franchise’s history. If they didn’t score another point their total would be the eighth highest single-season total in NFL history. If they score 26 points over their final two games they would rise to the No. 2 spot. The 2007 New England Patriots set the record with 589 points. With 65 points over their final two games, the Broncos would also become the league’s first 600-point team.
  • The Broncos aren’t considered one of the league pound-it-out teams on offense, but they are still tied with Cincinnati for sixth in rushing attempts this season 414. Their 16 rushing touchdowns also tie them for second in the league, with San Francisco.
  • After 14 games the Broncos are one of seven teams that have been penalized at least 117 times this season, including penalties that were declined. Five of those seven teams also reside west of the Mississippi, one albeit by just a few miles. But the leaders in the yellow flag parade so far this season are Seattle (125), Oakland (125), Tampa Bay (125), Houston (120), St. Louis (117), Denver (117) and Buffalo (117). For the Broncos they have been flagged the most for offensive holding -- 20 times, five by right tackle Orlando Franklin, four by left tackle Chris Clark -- and 13 times for defensive holding.
  • With 47 touchdown passes in 14 games Manning needs three more to tie the single-season record of 50, set by Tom Brady in 2007. After 14 games in 2007, Brady had 45 touchdown passes and threw three against Miami in Week 16 and two more against the New York Giants in the regular-season finale. The Patriots threw the ball 75 times in those two games combined.
  • In his career against the Texans, Manning is 16-3 with 44 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
  • The Broncos, coming off a loss last Thursday night to the Chargers haven’t lost two games in a row since Weeks 2 and 3 last season, losses to Atlanta and Houston. Since that Sept. 23, 2012, loss to Houston, the Texans are 12-15 with a current 12-game losing streak. The Broncos are 23-4 in regular-season games since that loss to the Texans last season and have won their four games following those losses by an average of 18.3 points.

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