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Ground game crucial for Broncos to earn Super Bowl trip

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A long, long time ago -- before the rulebook was opened to welcome pass-happy offenses in the NFL -- there was a long-held coaching belief that good teams "throw to score and run to win."

After quarterback Peyton Manning's left foot injury caused him to miss seven starts and because of more than a few dropped passes, the Denver Broncos haven’t thrown to score nearly as much this season as they have in the past. Their 19 touchdown catches in the regular season were its lowest total since 2005, when the Broncos had 18 touchdown receptions in a 13-3 finish.

This edition of the Broncos has run to win. And while it hasn’t always been pretty -- they had 90 carries for no gain or negative yardage this season to go with seven games with fewer than 70 yards rushing -- when they carve out some running room, they have won consistently.

"It’s been important to us," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. "When we’ve run the ball well and when we play well physically, we’ve had some good things happen for our team. It’s something that we can always, hopefully, try to get done. You have to prepare in all areas, but it’s been something that has been important to our football team."

So much so that the Broncos enter Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots 7-0 when they rush for at least 130 yards, 8-0 when they hit 110 yards. One of those games was the Broncos’ Nov. 29 overtime win over the Patriots, when Denver rushed for 179 yards, which included running back C.J. Anderson's 48-yard game-winning touchdown run in overtime.

That may not be the type of football many want to see in the throw-it-around era. But if you step back and look at the Broncos’ season, it is clear why they have to take that path.

"Peyton, he missed like seven weeks," Anderson said. "... I just think us running the ball helps us out, being more efficient. When he is in there and we are running the ball well, of course it takes pressure off any quarterback. If Tom [Brady] and them are running the ball well Sunday, it will definitely take pressure off of them, too. Me and [running back] Ronnie [Hillman], we just try to control what we can control with our touches."

Manning's foot injury impacted what the Broncos could do in the new offense early in the season. When Brock Osweiler filled in, he worked under center far more than the physically-compromised Manning had earlier in the season. The Broncos averaged 134.9 yards rushing in Osweiler's seven starts, with the only blip being a 34-yard rushing day in their biggest stumble of the season -- a Dec. 13 loss at home to the Raiders.

When Manning returned to the lineup in the third quarter of the regular-season finale, he was healthy enough to work under center and took 11 of 29 snaps under center against the Chargers and 31 of 69 in the divisional round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"When we find a way to do that, our team has played more consistent and has played better," Kubiak said. "Obviously, it can help the quarterback, too. Like I said, I think the most important thing for us is that it’s just something that has been a key to some of our success this year."

The Patriots have been up and down against the run, with five games when they have surrendered more than five yards per carry and five games when they’ve held opponents to fewer than three yards per carry. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the Nov. 29 game against the Broncos with a knee injury and linebacker Jamie Collins didn’t play. Both players will be back in the lineup Sunday in Denver.

"They’re big, physical guys," Broncos tight end Owen Daniels said. "[Hightower] is probably the bigger guy, but they’re physical, and Collins can run sideline to sideline … He creates problems. It’s what those guys do. We’ve played against a lot of good players this year … We have a lot of respect for them. We have to be able to be physical. This has to be our most physical game, I think, this year."

Hillman agreed.

"We have to run the ball for us to stay balanced and for us to be successful this week," he said. "That’s what we’re going to do. That’s just what we do, and everybody knows it. We just have to hit them in the mouth."