Denver Broncos: DeMarcus Ware

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 -- $8.5 million -- is also guaranteed in the fifth day of the new league year, which will be March 14.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There could be times Sunday night when the Pro Bowl actually feels like August for a few Denver Broncos players.

When, much like a training camp practice, cornerback Aqib Talib could be locked up on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders or left tackle Ryan Clady could trying to slow down Von Miller in a third-and-long situation.

When the Pro Bowls rosters were completed Wednesday night, Talib and Clady were on a team selected by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin while the other six Broncos who are slated to play in the all-star game, including Sanders and Miller, will be a on team selected by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.

The team Irvin selected will be coached by the Dallas Cowboys’ staff and will also feature Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (ankle, toe) and tight end Julius Thomas (ankle) had been selected for the game, but elected not to play because of injuries. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are each scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on March 10.

Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.
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’ 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. – Sift through all the numbers surrounding Sunday’s AFC Divisional round game between the Denver Broncos (12-4) and the Indianapolis Colts (12-5) and the most important number to the Broncos just might be three.

As in three consecutive days this week that every player on the Broncos’ 53-man roster participated in the team's practices. It was the first time the Broncos had every player take part in consecutive days of practice since Oct. 2-3.

That showed the power of a playoff bye and why the Broncos, at this moment, are as healthy as they have been since Week 4.

"That what's you want," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "You want as many guys as possible to be healthy and ready to go."

Toss in the fact that whatever issues the Broncos have had this season, whether it be Manning’s health or some choppy losses, the bottom line the Broncos were dominant in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

They won their eight home games by an average of 14.6 points per game as they were 8-0 in Denver. Only the Miami Dolphins kept a game closer than seven points, with the Broncos winning 39-36 on Nov. 23.

The home crowd also gives the Broncos' defensive front a better chance at disrupting Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, something that will be needed since Luck has attempted at least 40 passes in his last four consecutive postseason starts.

In the end the Broncos' offseason defensive spending spree, the one that reeled in Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward to add to first-round cornerback Bradley Roby, should be the difference.

My prediction: Broncos 31, Colts 22.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Usually, to get ready for most Sundays, a team will largely look at what its opponent has done over the last month when a game plan is constructed. It accounts for the inevitable injuries; it’s the latest news, as it were.

But as the Denver Broncos have gone through their preparations for Sunday’s AFC Divisional round game against the Indianapolis Colts at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, the Denver coaches have turned back the clock to last year’s Wild Card weekend when the Colts roared back from a 38-10 deficit to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, 45-44.

“I think last year’s Kansas City game shows that they are never out of it,’’ said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “It’s the kind of opponent that you have to play 60 minutes worth of good football against so that’s what we’re doing right now. It’s something to get your attention. It was a heck of a performance.’’

The game has obviously been a major talking point around practice all week. Broncos head coach John Fox has already publicly referenced the Colts’ comeback against the Chiefs at least three times while Del Rio and several players quickly dropped it into conversations on Thursday.

It is an attention-grabber given the Chiefs had a 38-10 lead when running back Knile Davis scored on a 10-yard reception with 13 minutes, 39 seconds remaining in the third quarter. But the Colts scored touchdowns on five of their next six possessions following Davis’ touchdown catch.

And when Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck hit T.Y. Hilton for a 64-yard scoring pass with 4:21 to play in the game, it gave the Colts their first lead in the game, at 45-44, as Indianapolis closed it out the rest of the way. Luck finished the game 29-of-45 passing for 443 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

The Broncos, too, had their own experiences with Luck's in-game tenacity in the face of a big deficit. In this season’s opener against the Colts the Broncos led 24-0 in the second quarter, 24-7 at halftime, only to have the Colts score 17 second-half points to close to within 31-24 with 3:26 to play.

The Colts were driving again, having made it to the Broncos’ 39-yard line when rookie cornerback Bradley Roby knocked a fourth-down pass away from Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne on what was Indianapolis' last play from scrimmage. Luck finished with 370 yards passing to go with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

“You never know because I still remember last game when we were up 24-0 and then the game ended 31-24,’’ said Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “They’ve got a great quarterback in Andrew Luck and they’ve got a lot of playmakers around, so I feel that we’re going to have to go out and try to score as many times as we can.”

“This is not a 30-minute game,’’ said defensive end DeMarcus Ware. “This is not one of those types of quarterbacks where you can sit back if you’re [ahead] 24-0, if you’re 14-0, it really doesn’t matter, he’s going to find some way to score points because that is what he does best. So you have to make sure you play a consistent game throughout the 60 minutes and never let your foot off the pedal.’’

Quick Take: Broncos vs. Colts

January, 4, 2015
Jan 4
» Divisional Round: Schedule » AFC: BAL-NE | IND-DEN » NFC: CAR-SEA | DAL-GB

Three things to know about the Denver Broncos' matchup against the Indianapolis Colts at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday in an AFC divisional round game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High:

1. Luck is on their side: When Indianapolis running back Ahmad Bradshaw fractured his fibula in November, it essentially cratered the Colts’ ability to have any sort of offensive balance; they rushed for 1 and 64 yards, respectively, in the final two games of the regular season. While quarterback Andrew Luck carried the majority of the Colts’ fortunes before Bradshaw’s injury, he carries them all now. His ability to run when he has to and find the correct receiver under duress -- i.e., his 36-yard touchdown throw to Donte Moncrief in the third quarter Sunday with the Bengals’ Carlos Dunlap wrapped around his leg -- mean a championship day from Luck can lift the Colts against any team. The Broncos have to create pressure and not allow Luck to run his way out of the trouble. When the Broncos beat the Colts 31-24 in the regular-season opener, Luck threw for 370 yards despite being sacked three times and intercepted twice. The Broncos' defensive front, especially edge players Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, will need to keep Luck hemmed in and get him off his primary read as often as possible.

2. See what you get: The Colts' defense, through plenty of injuries, has been one of the real riddles in the league this season. The group allowed just 135 yards to the Bengals one week and then surrendered 639 yards to the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week. In the season-opening win, the Broncos went after the Colts' linebackers and safeties, with tight end Julius Thomas finishing with 104 yards receiving and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Wes Welker was suspended for that game, so the Broncos lined up in a two-tight end set for just more than 50 percent of the snaps. The Colts likely will try to force the ball short in the passing game and clog the middle of the field as so many have tried against the Broncos with varying amounts of success in the season's second half. But Indianapolis puts a lot on the shoulders of cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis, so with some patience the Broncos should eventually find some man-to-man matchups down the field to their liking, especially if the Colts feel like they have to blitz to get to Peyton Manning.

3. Live the moment: The book on these Broncos from some of their peers in the league is a talented, championship-worthy team that can be rattled in the postseason if an opponent can force a mistake early. In short, many folks in the league believe the Broncos are wound too tight at times in a playoff setting and simply haven’t responded with their best effort on the biggest stage. They let home-field advantage slip away with a double-overtime playoff loss to the Ravens to close out the 2012 season and got blown out in the Super Bowl a year ago after too many early mistakes. The Colts will fit the profile of a potential upstart with a franchise quarterback in Luck, a win already on their résumé in this postseason and little pressure coming in. The Broncos will have to find the elusive balance between sweating the details and playing with that know-they-can-win edge against a team that likely will play as if it doesn't have anything to lose.

W2W4: Broncos vs. Raiders

December, 27, 2014
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos, who spent the week with 20 players listed on the injury report (or 37.7 percent of the roster), could certainly use a weekend without a game before they begin whatever becomes of their playoff run.

And to earn that coveted bye during the wild-card weekend, they will have to defeat the Oakland Raiders Sunday in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. With a win, the Broncos can also finish out the regular season 8-0 at home for just the sixth time since the schedule went to 16 games and the first time since 2005.

"There is a lot at stake, there usually is, you only get 16 of these things," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "And a division opponent, a home record, a lot of things ride on this game. We're looking to play well."

With that, some things to keep an eye on:

Close the gaps: After allowing a season-high 207 yards rushing to the Bengals this past Monday night, including an 85-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Hill, the Raiders figure to pound away a bit in the run game just to see where things stand with the Broncos. Before Monday, the Broncos had not surrendered a run play longer than 27 yards this season. The Raiders have leaned on Latavius Murray more of late -- the Raiders have had two games this season when a back has had more than 18 carries and Murray has them both over the last three games. The Raiders have struggled mightily to run the ball at times this season -- they've averaged just 2.4 yards per carry on runs over the right guard, 3.3 yards per carry over the left guard -- but Murray has had a 90-yard touchdown run against the Chiefs and runs of at least 23 yards in four of his last five starts.

Rattle the rookie: Raiders quarterback Derek Carr learned at least some lessons from his brother David's body-bruising experiences as an NFL rookie quarterback. In David Carr's rookie season in 2002, he was sacked a league-record 76 times and some personnel executives in the league believed he never really recovered from that. Derek Carr has been sacked 21 times this season and has noticeably progressed since the last time the Broncos saw him on Nov. 9. Derek Carr was 30-of-47 passing for 192 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Broncos' win in Oakland. Since that games, however, Carr has thrown just two interceptions in six games combined -- both against the St. Louis Rams Nov. 30. Carr has beaten the Chiefs, 49ers and Bills since the loss to the Broncos. He's shown composure in the pocket, the ability to feel, then move away from pressure. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Friday he believes the Broncos have done good work in recent weeks against opposing quarterbacks, but Denver did not have a sack in their last two games -- a win in San Diego and a loss Monday in Cincinnati. Also, Von Miller has not had a sack in the last two games while DeMarcus Ware has not had a sack in the last three games.

Find themselves on offense: The Broncos have shown they can bust out the no-huddle, up-tempo look on offense as they did in a three-touchdown third quarter against the Bengals. And they've shown they can line up, dominate and leave bruises as they did in a 45-carry, 214-yard rushing day in the win at Kansas City to close out November. What they could really use on the doorstep to the playoffs is to show they can transition from one to the other in a game without losing their mojo. It's a lot to ask to be all things to all people, but it's a certainty as they move into the postseason opposing defenses are going to bank on the idea the Broncos aren't nearly as efficient going to Plan B in a game when Plan A doesn't work.

Protect the middle: After the Broncos shuffled their offensive front, they did a better job of closing down the middle of the formation and keeping defenses from getting a free rusher up into quarterback Peyton Manning's face. That is the most effective pressure against Manning as it limits his ability to stride into the throw, a must in his post-spinal fusion throwing motion, which is slightly more lower-body driven than he was earlier in his career. Manning needs that space to work in front of him and when the Broncos keep it clean, he is at his dominating best. When they don't, as they often didn't against the Bengals, bad things happen. Raiders rookie linebacker Khalil Mack has the look of a future Defensive Player of the Year and the Raiders did force the issue early in the Nov. 9 game, intercepting Manning twice and knocking down four passes before halftime.
video » Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster


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.


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. -- As DeMarcus Ware essentially dragged himself, willed himself really, through the 2013 season, his elbow hurt, his thigh hurt and sometimes his pride hurt.

"I just didn’t feel like myself," Ware said. "I tried to play, had some good moments, but the season didn’t go like I like seasons to go. I knew I had better in me."

So when the Dallas Cowboys released Ware last March, the profile was declining player coming off injury-filled season. But that is not what the Denver Broncos saw.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Jack DempseyDenver has limited pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware's workload this year, and he has responded with one of the best seasons of his career.
The Broncos looked down the road, projected a healed, managed, Ware into their defense, where the quality of the snap count would trump quantity. As executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has put it; "We thought once he got healthy, and if we could put him in the situations where he could be his best, he had a lot of football left in him, a lot of football."

As the Broncos head down the stretch toward the postseason with Monday night’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the team has monitored how much football Ware plays and gotten his best because of it.

Fourteen games into the season, with what the Broncos hope are the biggest games still to be played, Ware has played 669 snaps on defense or 70.3 percent of the defensive plays. There are times on early downs, sometimes even on pass-rush downs, when Ware is on the sideline.

Quanterus Smith, who has played 279 snaps, or 29.3 percent of the defense’s plays thus far, is usually the one working in Ware’s defensive end spot as the Broncos pick their spots for their member of the 100-sack club.

The result has been that Ware, at 32 and in his 10th season, feels, and has played, as good as ever.

"I feel like this right here is probably at this time in my career the best I’ve ever felt," Ware said. "I don’t feel like there are any dings on my body where it’s prohibiting me from doing certain things. Every player gets out here and they’re sore or they’re tired -- that comes with football. But once you rehabilitate yourself and recoup during the week and feel 100 percent before each game, I’ve felt that way this year and it feels great."

The result has been 10 sacks to go with just the third interception of his career. The Broncos also hope it allows Ware to power his way down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Last season he had one sack over the Cowboys' last six games, and in 2012, when he finished with 11.5 sacks, he had 1.5 sacks over the last six games. Ware has one sack in the Broncos’ current four-game win streak -- it was against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"We use a lot of people," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "We want people to be in the best situations for us for what we need to get done ... We’re always going to have (Ware) in the best situations."

For Ware it’s all about playing in his first postseason game since the 2009 season, and all about trying to reach the title game for the first time in his career. Following the game in Cincinnati, the Broncos will close out the regular season in Denver against the Oakland Raiders, with Denver still clinging to a chance at home-field advantage in the AFC if the Broncos win both remaining regular-season games and the New England Patriots lose one of their last two games.

"Every game I feel like is a must-win game," Ware said. "You’ve got to think about it that way, because you want to go into the postseason on a high and motivated. You can look at a lot of teams around the league -- some of them are trying to get in, some of them are trying to get a berth or wild card or whatever it is. Every game you’ve got to play like it’s your last one."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the end, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio sees it as simple math.

"In my mind you have two preferable ways to get the ball back for our offense," Del Rio said. "One is a turnover and we like turnovers. And the other is a three-and-out, and I like three-and-outs too. Those are my preferences, those are what I want to see, that's how we can get the ball back as many times as we can for Peyton [Manning] and our offense."

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller
Kevin Terrell/AP ImagesDeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and the Broncos' defense have consistently forced opponents into second- and third-and-long situations.
And when it comes to turnovers this season, the Broncos have improved of late with a league-high eight takeaways over the last three games, but they are decidedly middle-of-the-road overall when it comes to their body of work in that department. Sixteen teams currently have more takeaways the Broncos do (21).

But three-and-outs? That's another matter entirely.

"I feel like we've had a lot," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "I mean we always want more, but it feels like we've had a lot."

The Broncos can trust their feelings there. After 14 games the Broncos (11-3) have forced a three-and-out for a punt on 30.4 percent of possessions by opposing offenses. That total leads the league, as does the 52 three-and-outs to a punt the Broncos' defense has forced overall.

The docket includes 10 three-and-outs against the Arizona Cardinals (11-3), nine against the Oakland Raiders (2-12) and five in the Broncos' Nov. 30 win over the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6).

"You always want to get off the field," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "It helps now that we're running the ball more on offense, because we're a little fresher when we get back out there. Maybe it hurts guys like Von [Miller] and DeMarcus [Ware] who, if we were on the field more, they'd probably be fighting for the sack lead ... But everybody on this defense wants to just win so for me, for everybody, let's get a three-and-out and get off the field."

The Broncos have certainly had their moments this season when they've let opposing offenses wriggle out third-and-long situations -- the Chiefs alone converted seven third downs in third-and-8 or longer in September -- but overall a run defense that is No. 2 in the league has consistently pushed offenses into second-and-long and third-and-long situations.

And, with some additional depth on defense as compared to last season, the Broncos have been able to move from their base defense on early downs, with Knighton and Sylvester Williams at defensive tackle to go with Derek Wolfe and Ware at defensive end, and then consistently hold the line when they go to some of their five-, six- and seven-defensive back looks.

In this past Sunday's win over the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos allowed one first-down rushing attempt for more than 5 yards in the game as eight of the Chargers' 12 first-down run plays in the game went for 3 or fewer yards.

Against the Buffalo Bills the week before, the Bills found a crease or two early in the game with first-down run plays of 7, 12 and 11 yards in the first quarter, but overall six of the 10 first-down rushing attempts in the game for the Bills went for 2 or fewer yards and after the first quarter the Bills only had one first down run of more than 2 yards.

"Those are the situations you want to keep putting offenses in," Harris said. "It's that one-dimensional thing. You stop the run, you make them throw and then we have the pass-rushers with Von and DeMarcus who are going to be waiting for their chances."

In all, the Broncos defense has allowed opposing offenses to gain an average of 4.75 yards per play, the lowest total in the league, just ahead of defensive heavyweights like Seattle (4.76 yards per play allowed), Detroit (4.89) and Buffalo (4.91). Those four teams are the only ones in the league allowing fewer than 5 yards per play on average.

"You're not going to do it, not going to force three-and-outs, limit what people do against you, if you're not pretty good on defense and we're pretty good on defense," Del Rio said. "But the time for looking at all those things comes later. Right now it's what's in front of you, how are you going to stop the next team. That's what I'm looking at. But that's not to say I'm not glad to hear all those things because I am glad to hear all those things. Now, we just need to be a little bit better each week."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – With the fan voting closed for the Pro Bowl as of Wednesday, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and linebacker Von Miller were among the leading vote-getters at their respective positions.

Manning finished second overall in the fan voting, to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with 1,013,739 votes. Rodgers had 1,015,004 vote. Manning and Rodgers were the only two players to receive more than one million votes.

Ware was second in voting at defensive end, behind J.J. Watt, with 380,659 votes and Miller led outside linebackers with 291,065 votes.

Players selected for the Pro Bowl will be announced Tuesday. The results from the fan voting as well as ballots from players and coaches in the league will be used to select the players. The Broncos players voted Monday and, by rule, could not vote for players on their own team.

Notable absences for the Broncos in the fan voting were cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who personnel executives around the league would rank among the best at his position, as well as linebacker Brandon Marshall. Harris Jr. did not finish among the top 10 at cornerback in the fan voting, while the Broncos other starting cornerback, Aqib Talib, did finish among the top 10 in the fan voting. Should Harris Jr. not make the game he will almost certainly, at least in NFL personnel circles, be considered one of the biggest snubs in the game.

Marshall, who leads the Broncos in tackles, was not among the top 10 in voting at linebacker. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said in recent weeks Marshall was playing at a “Pro Bowl level.’’

On offense the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas was third among wide receivers in fan voting, while Emmanuel Sanders was seventh. Tight end Julius Thomas was second among the top vote-getters at the position. Left tackle Ryan Clady was also among the top 10 in the fan voting at tackle while Louis Vasquez, who is currently starting at right tackle, was among the top vote-getters at guard, along with Orlando Franklin.

Special teams captain David Bruton Jr. was among the top five vote-getters for non-kickers on special teams as well.

Bills vs. Broncos preview

December, 5, 2014
When: 4:05 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver TV: CBS

Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris pretty much spoke for any and all folks who still find themselves in the playoff conversation this week.

Asked what the Broncos (9-3) need to do over the last four games of the regular season, Harris said: "I've been saying, we need to treat every game like a playoff game because everybody we play is going to be looking at us like that. So, we need to be our best, play our best, because anybody we play is going to be doing that. You don't want to look back and think you let a game slip away."

The "fourth quarter" of the regular season, as Broncos coach John Fox calls it, starts with the Buffalo Bills' visit to Denver. The Bills (7-5) have designs on a playoff spot as well, and bring along a familiar face to Broncos fans in quarterback Kyle Orton.

Orton started 33 games for the Broncos before Denver's coaching staff benched him after the team's 1-4 start in 2011, replacing him with Tim Tebow. Orton won the most recent game he started against the Broncos -- a 7-3 Chiefs win to close out that '11 season after Denver had released him.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Sunday's matchup.

Legwold: Mike, the Bills have had an ownership change this season, a home game in Detroit because of the enormous winter storm, and their share of injuries. How have they kept their balance, and do they feel like they are an ascending team?

Rodak: It definitely has been a season unlike any other for the Bills, especially when you consider their change at quarterback. From this perspective, players and coaches have shown poise throughout all of the bumps in the road. Buffalo's 38-3 win over the Jets at Ford Field two weeks ago was a good example of that: Despite the upheaval of its normal week of preparation, the team turned in its best all-around game of the season. Players have credited a long training camp (they stayed in dorms for nearly five weeks), an extra preseason trip to Canton, Ohio, and two days of joint practices with the Steelers on the road with helping the team bond. So when some of these outside factors have invaded, the team has responded well.

Jeff, I get the sense that Bills fans have some hope in this game after watching the Dolphins go into Denver a few weeks ago and nearly take down the Broncos. Between that game and Denver's loss to the Rams a week earlier, what made the Broncos so vulnerable?

Legwold: Denver's 22-7 loss to the Rams in St. Louis is certainly one that got most people's attention. So much so that this past Sunday, the Chiefs tried to run the same play the Rams used for a 63-yard scoring pass. It didn't work for the Chiefs, a small indication the Broncos learned at least some of their lessons from a bad outing in St. Louis. For the most part, the same formula gets the Broncos in trouble at times. They allow pressure on quarterback Peyton Manning in the middle of the field, they don't run the ball effectively enough to slow down opposing pass-rushers with play-action, and they don't defend the run well enough out of some of their specialty packages on defense. The hangover from the Rams loss lasted until almost halftime of the following week's game against the Dolphins, when the Broncos trailed Miami 21-10 with less than two minutes to go in the first half. But Manning and the Broncos put together an 80-yard touchdown drive before halftime, dominated the second half against the Dolphins, and overpowered the Chiefs this past Sunday. They've used a far more balanced look on offense -- 80 run plays over the past two games -- and it has settled things down on both sides of the ball.

Staying with the quarterbacks: Orton arrives to face his former employer with a team in the playoff mix. How has he played for the Bills?

Rodak: Orton has teetered between adequate and inadequate -- never truly great and never a disaster. His QBR since taking over the starting job is 44.1, which is ahead of only a handful of other quarterbacks, some of whom have lost their jobs. He's been worse over the past month than he was in his first month as the starter, losing some of his accuracy that made him an instant upgrade over EJ Manuel. Orton completed 67.4 percent of his passes and averaged eight yards per attempt over his first four starts. His completion percentage has dropped to 61.3 over his past four starts, while he's been averaging 5.81 yards per attempt. Yet it's still arguably better than what the Bills were getting from Manuel over the first four games -- a 58 percent completion rate and 6.4 yards per attempt -- so Orton remains the starter. As far as returning to Denver, Orton brushed off the notion of Sunday's game having any extra meaning when we asked him about it Wednesday. Of course, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also did that before the Bills' game in Detroit this year, and he ended up getting carried off the field, per his wishes. So you never know.

The strength of the Bills' defense is their line and its ability to create pressure, yet Manning is notorious for getting the ball out quickly. How well have opposing defenses been able to get pressure on Manning this season?

Legwold: The short answer is not very well overall. Manning, even with all of Denver's offensive line struggles, is still the least-sacked starter in the league (13 times). The Jets, 49ers and Rams are the only teams to have sacked him at least twice in a game. Those defenses that have some success usually have to do it with four rushers with the ability to drop seven players into coverage. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has had more success than most against Manning, routinely chooses coverage over pressure as he rushes three or four defenders at Manning much of the time. The pressure in the middle is the key since Manning tends to identify any potential pressure from the outside in his pre-snap work, and gets the ball out. Those teams that take away his ability to climb the pocket and step into his throws do far better against him. The Broncos, at least until the past two games, have surrendered more than their share of unblocked rushers in the A gaps. But as they have pounded out 201 and 214 yards rushing in the past two games, they slowed down the Dolphins' and Chiefs' fronts. The Raiders, Rams and Chiefs did bat down some of Manning's passes by making a conscious effort to get their hands up into the throwing lanes when they couldn't get to Manning.

In that vein, the Bills lead the league in sacks, and Marcell Dareus was a player the Broncos took a long look at in 2011 when they selected Von Miller. How aggressive do you think the Bills will be in coming after Manning?

Rodak: I wouldn't expect them to blitz much. First of all, that's not their forte; they've done an excellent job generating pressure just from their four-man line, which includes three Pro Bowlers and can be considered the best in the NFL. Because of their strength up front, they've blitzed on just 19.8 percent of plays, the third-lowest rate in the league. Second of all, I don't think blitzing Manning is the wisest idea, given his ability to diagnose defenses and get the ball out quickly. Manning averages 2.22 seconds before he passes, the quickest rate in the NFL. The better strategy from the Bills may be to drop more players into coverage. There aren't many weaknesses on this defense, but their secondary and linebackers have shown some vulnerability when their front four isn't as effective. Having the numbers advantage against the Broncos' receivers should help.

Opposing defenses have tried (and succeeded) in taking Sammy Watkins out of the Bills' most recent games, whether it's been by "rolling" coverage or putting a top cover man on the rookie. How well-equipped are the Broncos to do that?

Legwold: When all hands are in the lineup, the Broncos have two matchup cornerbacks in Aqib Talib and Harris. That gives them more flexibility than most in how they disperse their resources in coverage. Champ Bailey said last month that Harris is playing "the best of anybody at his position in the league," and the Broncos use Harris all over the formation since he has been the nickel cornerback early in his career, so he can play the outside spots or in the slot on either side of the formation with equal comfort. Rookie Bradley Roby has also played well enough. He should get at least some consideration for defensive rookie of the year. The Broncos do play more man coverage than most teams in the league, so there is always potential for a big play if a receiver can win the matchup down the field before Miller and DeMarcus Ware disrupt things up front. Miller and Ware are a key part of the coverage equation as well. Overall, the Broncos have surrendered just 11 pass plays of more than 25 yards, and no team has had more than two pass plays of more than 25 yards in any game against them this season. There are opportunities for offenses, it's just that when receivers have found some room to get open, Miller and Ware have closed the deal before the quarterback can deliver the ball.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In a league that puts its franchise quarterbacks on the tallest of pedestals as indispensable, coveted, oh-so-rare pieces of the championship equation, most pass-rushers have a slightly different view as they try to tackle the glamour guys.

DeMarcus Ware is in his 10th season chasing quarterbacks ans is part of the 100-sack club (127 and counting, with 10 this season). Ware said a skittish quarterback has a certain, well, odor.

Talking about a near-sack or two in the Broncos' victory over the Kansas City Chiefs this past Sunday night, Ware said Thursday: “At least I felt the quarterback, smelled him a little bit."

Asked what a nervous quarterback smelled like, Ware offered:

“Like smelly socks, jersey that’s been sitting in his locker for a long time, little skittish, you see ghosts coming from him a little bit when you get close to him. But a quarterback is a quarterback."

And asked if that meant even Manning, a future Hall of Famer who seems to set a record every time he throws a pass, smells like smelly socks as well, Ware said, with a smile, “Sometimes he does; I’m not going to lie."

Ware’s 10 sacks in 12 games mean he has reached double digits for the eighth time in his career, but he also believes he should have added to the one sack he was credited for in Sunday’s win. Ware said he should have earned some credit -- a half-sack perhaps -- on a sack awarded to linebacker Brandon Marshall and another that was awarded to safety Quinton Carter.

“I was too low, maybe I was too fast -- maybe they didn’t see (No.) 94,’’ Ware said. “They didn’t see him by the quarterback when they had the ball. But I do have the pictures. So, I’m still going to turn them in and see if they change their minds. … On one of them, me and Brandon Marshall hit at the same time and … I twisted him and I know I’m on top of the quarterback, I know I got him, but no, they still gave it to Brandon. And then [Carter] came in on a blitz, and he hit him first, I hit him second, I took him down, still, gave it to Q."

It means Ware might add a little more post-play activity if he believes it would help his cause.

“I think I’m going to do that, the guy who gets up and celebrates [is] usually the guy they give the sack to," Ware said. “So, I’m going to start celebrating again … if I just tap him, I’m going to celebrate."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Before each game, Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware tapes his wrists and hands so tightly, and at such an angle, he has said, “I’m not sure I could even catch a ball if it dropped into my hands."

As Ware comes down the stretch toward what would be his first chance to play in a postseason game since 2009, he has answered questions about his health, how much he has left in the career tank and, now, the answer to the interception question. Ware reeled an Alex Smith pass deflected by defensive tackle Terrance Knighton in the third quarter of Sunday’s victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. It was Ware's third career interception.

“I lost the ball in the lights, and I’m like, 'Is it close enough for me to catch it?'" Ware said. “When it fell in my hands, I actually panicked. I turned around, it was like a 360 and I was like, 'Where is everybody?' And then I look and I seen like the red jerseys and I said, ‘Oh, I need to go this way,’ because all of [the Chiefs] were right there in front of me. That was a big play ... and I finally figured out where I was going."

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Reed HoffmannBroncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware made his first interception since 2006 on Sunday against the Chiefs.
It was just one play, but it was yet another example that Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway’s mantra in free agency has worked out just fine. Elway, just after the Broncos signed both quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012 and Ware this past March, said, “I like to get Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders."

Manning has continued to pile up touchdown passes and wins, and Ware needs two more sacks to have his best season statistically since his 19.5 sacks in 2011. The Broncos took some financial risk in signing Ware, who was coming off a six-sack season in 2013 in which he missed the first three games of his career because of injuries. The Dallas Cowboys considered him a declining player.

While the contracts given to Aqib Taib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders had significantly less salary-cap risk after the first seasons if things didn’t work out, Ware was the oldest player -- the only 30-something -- in the Broncos' initial spending binge this past March. And his three-year, $30 million deal had $16.5 million guaranteed as soon as Ware signed the deal and another $3.5 million that’s guaranteed on fifth day of the new league year next March.

But now, 12 games into Ware’s first season in Denver, it certainly looks like everybody got what they hoped to get.

“DeMarcus? DeMarcus has shown he’s still got it; everybody can see that," Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “A lot of people were saying stuff about DeMarcus about his game. But his game is still at the top, and I think he’s just going to get better and better as we, you know, chase quarterbacks more and more."

Ware has 10 sacks, tied for eighth in the NFL. It's his eighth season with at least 10 sacks. And his presence has prevented offenses from piling too many blockers on Miller’s side of the formation as well. Miller has 12 sacks, tied for fourth in the league.

Ware signed with Denver in the hopes that the Broncos could lead him to the playoffs, that games in December and January would push him to the one in February.

In nine seasons with the Cowboys, Ware played in four playoff games, with appearances to close out the 2006, 2007 and 2009 seasons.

“I’ve been in December seasons where you are already in at 8-8," Ware said. “But now, being 9-3 and looking for some kind of playoff berth and make it to the end, where everybody wants to make it and that’s the Super Bowl. But you’ve got to take it one game at a time and just ... attack it each week."

Ware leads the Broncos with 14 tackles for loss and is second in sacks behind Miller, and his 34 tackles are already more than he had all of last season (24). In Sunday’s win over the Chiefs, Ware had a sack and two tackles for loss to go with the interception.

Asked Thursday whether it was his best game since he signed with the Broncos, Ware also gave the answer the Broncos want to hear as well.

“I think the best is yet to come."